August 25, 2016

Navajo Nation Sues EPA for Neglect in Toxic Spill

Eliza Racine

After waiting a year for compensation, the Navajo Nation sued the EPA last week for the Gold King Mine Spill of August 2015 when three million gallons of toxic waste contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Contracted workers from the EPA were trying to drain the toxic water from a dam when it ruptured from built up pressure and leaked into the rivers from Colorado to Utah and New Mexico. The chemicals turned the water yellow and made it unsafe for drinking or farming.

“For nearly two days, the USEPA did not call, alert or notify the Nation that this toxic sludge had been released and was headed into their waters and land,” the Navajo Nation said in their 48-page complaint. Even when they were alerted of the spill, they were not told details as to when it would arrive and how long it would last. This was especially concerning to more secluded communities which are farther away from outside resources like Mexican Water, Utah and waited weeks until EPA crews came out to assess damage in the area.

The color faded and the EPA reported the river was restoring itself and was safe for use two weeks after the spill began. However, Navajo President Russell Begaye warned residents against using the water with concerns of toxins remaining in the sediment until the Nation conducted their own analysis of the river, indicating distrust in the EPA. Tanks of non-potable water were taken to farmers as an alternative to sustain their crops and livestock, yet by then approximately 2,000 Navajo farmers along the river had their crops dry up after they stopped using irrigation pumps.

Two months after the incident, the Department of Interior found in their 132-page report that the spill resulted from improperly rushed and insufficient engineering which didn’t even consider possible consequences if something went wrong. Therefore, the spill could have been prevented in the first place.

Despite the EPA taking full responsibility, there have still been no significant efforts for proper clean-ups, compensation for lost crops or health protection for the Navajo. The Nation still worries about long term health effects, including eating produce or livestock that has come into contact with the contaminated water. The health concerns also prevented farmers from effectively selling their produce, resulting in loss in profits.

The aftermath of the Gold King Mine Spill parallels to concerns of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which faces stalled construction on the Standing Rock Sioux’s land. From the EPA to the Army Corps of Engineers, these organizations show almost no real concern to the potential damage affecting these people and their environment. If construction isn’t stopped now, history will repeat itself as another tribe’s livelihood faces disaster.