The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to protect the environment, our water, our air and our land.  But on August 5, an EPA team doing excavation work released 3 million gallons of toxic sludge from the inactive Gold King Mine, contaminating the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico, Navajo Nation, and Utah. What followed was a month of finger pointing, failure to take responsibility in a timely manner, and an agency turning its back on the Navajo people.  

The EPA had fair warning that the Gold King Mine and other mines in the area posed a threat.  In fact, in 2005 they performed a National Priorities List assessment where the study confirmed, for the second time, that the mine should qualify as a Superfund site. However the EPA, and other responsible parties, neglected to act, disregarding the facts with respect to the level of harm posed to downstream communities like the Navajo Nation. 

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Not only could they have prevented this from happening, once the spill occurred, it took the EPA almost two full days to notify Navajo Nation officials about the spill.  The only reason we were aware to divert our irrigation systems the day after the spill was because the state of New Mexico’s Technical, Construction and Operations Branch let us know the day after the initial breach. Our culture and our livelihoods depend on these waterways, and EPA officials have told us that we will be dealing with the effects of the spill “for decades” due to the huge amounts of heavy metal contamination and its long-term health effects.  

It took the EPA six full days to take responsibility for the spill.  Other responsible parties have not taken any responsibility.  Time and again, the EPA has failed to accurately assess the gravity of the situation – originally, they said that there was a one million gallon release of toxic sludge, when in reality, there was a three million gallon release of chemicals into the Animas and San Juan rivers.  Even now, the spill continues to flow at a rate of 610 gallons per minute, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey.  

While the Navajo Nation has historically maintained a good working relationship with the EPA, their lack of adequate response to the spill has built a strong culture of distrust.  They’ve sought to silence our legitimate concerns, and have now, only a month after this environmental catastrophe, withdrawn assistance.  They now claim that the river is safe to open back up to all uses, including irrigation, livestock, and drinking water, but the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s (NNEPA) independent analysis shows unsafe levels of pollutants in the Nation’s Water Quality Standards for livestock use. Other contaminants such as lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, and beryllium, all known to be toxic to humans, animals and plants, remain present in the ongoing chemical spill.  Many of our people do not feel comfortable or safe using the water for even opened uses, such as irrigation, so two of our three irrigation canals along the River largely remain closed. 

The spill has taken a huge economic toll on the Navajo Nation.  Our farmers and our ranchers need the continued delivery of clean water to water their crops and livestock, and hay to feed their now penned livestock and to replace the lost alfalfa crops they planned to use to carry their stock through the winter. Because of this spill, livelihoods have been disrupted, and growing cycles and field rotations have been interrupted. Meanwhile, our farmers are left to recoup their losses. 

We’ve lost trust in the EPA, whose response has been marked by a lack of transparency.  There’s a real conflict of interest with them remaining in charge of the investigation and emergency response.  Just like we wouldn’t let a corporate company like BP independently investigate themselves after a big oil spill and determine appropriate reparations, we need an independent body to assess the level of damage and determine the best course of action.  We have asked for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but have been rejected and referred back to the EPA.  

EPA must establish a relief fund to provide economic relief to our farmers and ranchers.  We need robust government assistance to create auxiliary water supplies while the NNEPA continues testing the river for contaminants.  We need funding so that we are able to conduct our own water and soil sediment monitoring.  Finally, it is critical that we get assistance to fully clean up the San Juan River and return it to its original state.   

We want to protect our Navajo citizens, our natural resources and our Navajo way of life for future generations.  The EPA and all responsible parties should take responsibility for their actions (or inactions), make us whole, and clean up the mess that they inflicted on our sacred land. 

Begaye is the president of the Navajo Nation.