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Adverse effects of Gold King Mine spill still impacting Navajo nation

Seven months ago the United States Environmental Protection Agency triggered a massive release of toxic contaminants from the Gold King Mine into the San Juan River, poisoning hundreds of miles of river that flows through the Navajo Nation. The Obama Administration has done little to address the harms caused to the Navajo people.

The importance of the San Juan River to the Navajo cannot be understated.  It is a source of economic prosperity for our people but it is also one of the four sacred rivers for the Navajo.

{mosads}The images of our river turning yellow are burned into our collective memory.  For weeks we could not access the river, drink from it, use it for our cattle, or rely on it to feed our crops.  An unprecedented 880,000 pounds of metals were released into the waterways.  And toxic metals still flow into the Navajo Nation from the mines in the Upper Animas.  Seven months after this devastating tragedy, our river remains toxic, and the Navajo people’s pleas continue to be ignored.

The EPA has not paid the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo people a single dollar to address the harms caused by the poisoning of the San Juan River.  When the Navajo Nation submitted its expenses to the EPA, pleading for recovery, the agency responded with criticism, skepticism, and an insulting offer to pay a miniscule percentage of the costs.

Costs from the spill are mounting.  Contamination of the San Juan River takes a profound economic, cultural, and spiritual toll on our people whose daily lives are intricately bound up with the River.  The Navajo people already face a daunting unemployment rate of 42%.  Farming and ranching are critical means of survival and supporting a family.  Yet our subsistence farmers and ranchers watched their crops die and relocated their livestock away from the River at great expense.  These families lost crucial income and are still suffering.  The loss of a growing season’s worth of corn pollen has interrupted ceremonial practices that bind Navajo families together and keep our traditional way of life intact.

The effects of this disaster will ripple through our communities for years.  We have already seen an increase in the number of suicides in the Nation since the toxic spill. The heavy metals released during the Gold King Mine Spill remain at the bottom of our River; they have not been removed.  There is a constant fear and threat of exposure to our wildlife, our livestock, and our children.  While longer-term health and environmental impacts from the spill are unknown, we know that dangerous metals like the lead and arsenic released in the spill persist in the environment for years.

EPA Administrator McCarthy promised Congress the EPA would work with the Navajo to quickly compensate victims of the spill and accept responsibility for its conduct.  That has not happened.  The EPA has repeatedly pledged to the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people that it will work with us to ensure fair and effective compensation.  Yet every request we’ve made has been met with resistance, delay, and counter-demands. The White House has also been silent, with the president seemingly ignoring calls to assist our people.

Report after report has concluded that the EPA made critical errors in its work at the Gold King Mine, triggering an otherwise avoidable blowout.  There is no doubt the EPA is among the responsible parties.  The EPA should immediately repair the damage it caused, ensure such damage does not happen again, and it should pledge to compensate for both known and unknown harms.  It is the only way the Navajo people can hope to recover from this disaster.

Our hearts go out to the sufferers of the Flint water crisis. We understand what it’s like to face an uncertain future caused by those we expect to protect us.  Congress must consider a similar relief fund for the Navajo who have suffered greatly.  Our people deserve compensation now.  Our people deserve to know that the EPA will address the toxic sludge that is in the River.  And our people deserve to know that the dangerous conditions in the mines will be addressed once and for all. The time has long passed for the EPA to make whole the Navajo Nation and all others so devastatingly impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.


Begaye is President of the Navajo Nation.

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