Navajo Nation Sues EPA for Its Handling of Mine Spill

Published October 3, 2016

New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall (D) and Martin Heinrich (D) have come out in support of a lawsuit filed by the Navajo Nation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the role it played in the Gold King Mine spill, which occurred along a Colorado river in 2015.

The August 5, 2015, Gold King toxic-waste spill occurred when EPA and its contractors accidently released three million gallons of wastewater behind a plug in the Gold King Mine. The water carried heavy metals, such as cadmium and lead, and other potentially toxic elements, including arsenic and beryllium, into a tributary of the Animas River, affecting waterways in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation.

Although EPA took responsibility for the spill and promised to clean up the toxins and reimburse the states and the Navajo for the harms done, of the $29 million EPA has spent responding to the Gold King spill to date, the Navajo Nation has received just $1 million.

“The Navajo people have been on the receiving end of devastating environmental disasters brought on by the federal government and private industry for far too long,” stated Udall in a press release. “The spill was an accident, but the EPA made several serious mistakes, and the Navajo Nation has every right to pursue its claims for damages in court. This was not a natural disaster, and the communities that were harmed by the toxic spill deserve compensation.”

Sen. John McCain (R), who represents Arizona, where much of the Navajo reservation is located, also supports the lawsuit. In a statement released by his office, McCain said, “The Navajo Nation has every reason to sue the EPA for its role in devastating hundreds of Navajo farms following the Gold King Mine disaster.”

‘No One Held Accountable’

“To this day, no one has been held accountable,” Navajo tribal President Kelsey Begaye said in a press release. “No one has anted up for causing this financial, cultural, and spiritual catastrophe to the Navajo people.”

The Navajo lawsuit is seeking to hold EPA accountable for its role in causing the Gold King Mine disaster, which harmed Navajo farmers, water quality, and recreation on Navajo lands.

According to the law firm Hueston Hennigan, the Navajo Nation’s legal counsel, the lawsuit targets EPA, its contractors, and mining companies and seeks to obtain financial compensation for the various damages they allegedly caused.

“The Navajo Nation, the people in the area affected by the spill, and the Gold King Mine’s owners are all victims of government incompetence and negligence,” said Paul Driessen, a senior policy analyst for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow. “[The Navajo Nation] should be commended for bringing this lawsuit and deserves to be fully compensated for all damages and inconveniences arising from the water contamination that has impacted its lands, drinking and livestock water, farming operations, economy, and lives since the blowout.

“Both common law and legislative and regulatory law would hold private sector parties fully responsible for any and all damages arising from their incompetence and negligence [in a similar situation],” said Driessen. “Government actors, and those operating under their guidance and direction, should not be exempt and should be held accountable under the same standards that would apply to private citizens and companies for all the trouble and damages they’ve caused.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.