The Navajo Nation has filed a $160 million lawsuit against the US government for damages and ongoing injuries caused by a mine spill that released toxic waste near the tribe’s territory.
The lawsuit is aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has taken responsibility for the spill. It seeks $159 million in damages, as well as an additional sum of around $3.2 million to cover expenses already submitted to the EPA which have yet to be reimbursed.
The disaster occurred in early August 2015 when an EPA clean-up crew that was supposed to pump out and decontaminate sludge in the mine destabilized a dam of loose rock, which resulted in the spilling of three million gallons of mine waste water and tailings, including heavy metals like cadmium and lead, and toxic elements including arsenic, beryllium, zinc, copper, and iron into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
Sure enough – that very thing happened on September 7, 2016:
Federal regulators have designated the Gold King Mine, the source of a major waste spill in Colorado last year, a Superfund site.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday listed Colorado’s Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes the Gold King Mine, on its list of contaminated areas potentially due for federally-funded clean-up efforts.
A few weeks after the disaster, the agency released internal documents that reveal that the EPA was well aware of the risks associated with the Gold King Mine:
The report reads: “This condition has likely caused impounding of water behind the collapse…In addition, other collapses within the workings may have occurred creating additional water impounding conditions. Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals.”
The lawsuit, announced in a Monday press release, claims that the Gold King Mine spill negatively impacted communities along the San Juan River in Navajo Nation territory.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said in the release that the spill transformed the river from a “life-giver and protector” to a “threat” to the Navajo people, crops and animals.
“In particular, it has impaired our ability to maintain the cultural, ceremonial and spiritual practices that undergird the Navajo way of life. Through this claim and our corresponding lawsuit, we are demanding that the U.S. government finally provide the Navajo Nation relief,” Branch said in the release.
The request for additional damages would cover long-term ecological and groundwater monitoring, assessments on agricultural and livestock, an on-site laboratory, alternative water supply reservoirs, additional water treatment, cultural preservation, and development of a natural resource damages assessment plan.
The tribe’s filing also explains the significance of the San Juan River for Navajos.
The letter, which is signed by Branch and attorney John C. Hueston, also states:
Due to the spill, the Navajo Nation will have to expend additional resources to ensure the safety and well-being of the Navajo people though medical monitoring, mental health counseling, ecological monitoring and other programs necessary to identify and address the near and long-term impacts on the environment and Navajo people.
Harm to the river has a profound impact on the Navajo Nation and its people, disrupting the principle of hozho, which encompasses beauty, order, and balance in the Navajo universe.
In addition, the letter claims the agency failed to notify the reservation’s residents of the spill for “nearly two days,” and accuses it of ignoring the “years-long buildup of contaminants in the Gold King Mine, despite being on notice of the risk of a blowout.”
And, it refers to video footage during the blowout at the mine near Silverton, Colorado, in which a worker reportedly said “What do we do now?” It goes on to accuse the EPA of having “insufficient emergency protocols in place” and being “entirely unprepared to deal with the colossal damage it had unleashed.”
The mine spill ultimately tainted waters in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. The Navajo Nation is present in two of those states – southwestern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. The territory, which spans 27,425 square miles, also occupies portions of northeastern Arizona, reports RT.
Given the EPA’s disturbing record of causing disasters like this, perhaps a more fitting name would be “Environmental Poisoning Agency.”
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