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Leader of EPA visits Navajo Nation after mine spill in Colorado

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy meets with Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, far right, President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Attorney General Ethel Branch in Shiprock, New Mexico, on August 12, 2015. Photo from Navajo Nation Council / Facebook

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency didn't go to the site of a major mine spill in the Southwest on Wednesday but she did travel to the Navajo Nation to hear first-hand from tribal leaders who have been upset with the Obama administration's response to the disaster.

During her visit to Colorado, Administrator Gina McCarthy once again accepted responsibility for the August 5 incident at the Gold King Mine that caused at least three million gallons of waste to enter the water system. She investigated conditions at the Animas River but said she didn't have time to go to the actual site in San Juan County where the disaster originated.

"As you know, it's a significant distance away," McCarthy said during a press conference in Durango, about 55 miles from the Gold King Mine. "But I did visit the river. And I took a look at it myself. I wanted to get a sense of the river. And I think that the good news is it seems to be restoring itself."

Navajo Nation leaders, though, are not sharing McCarthy's optimism about conditions on the Animas, which leads downstream to the San Juan River on the reservation. They are referring to the spill as the "Yellow Water" catastrophe, invoking a term used in connection with the toxic legacy of uranium mining.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy discusses the Gold King Mine spill during a press conference in Durango, Colorado

“Łeezh łitso, or yellow dirt, is the Navajo word for uranium, the cause of another contamination of Navajo water wells and sources decades ago, from which Navajo residents are still suffering repercussions," Vice President Nez said.

Not content with the administration's response, tribal leaders launched Operation Tó Łitso, or Operation Yellow Water, to coordinate activities across the reservation. They are also soliciting funds to start addressing some of the impacts on their citizens, many of whom rely on the river for agricultural, ranching and other purposes.

Since the spill occurred last week, the waste has traveled through the New Mexico and Utah portions of the reservation. It has the potential to affect the Arizona side once the waste reaches Lake Powell, a major tourism and recreation area further down the river.

In light of that threat, the state of Utah declared an emergency on Wednesday, joining the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe, Colorado and New Mexico in making similar declarations and mobilizing resources to address health, safety and other concerns.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez visited the abandoned Gold King Mine in Colorado, the site of a major waste spill. Photo from Facebook

McCarthy and other EPA officials have promised to work closely with all the tribes and states as they move forward with recovery efforts. The agency has released data from Animas River tests and is analyzing conditions further downstream.

But while McCarthy has apologized for the incident, a former president of the Navajo Nation wasn't happy with the way the tribe has been treated by the agency. Peterson Zah attended at meeting at the Oljato Chapter House on the Utah-Arizona border earlier this week to to discuss the spill.

“What I was looking for was an apology. We didn’t even get one. I wanted to hear from the U.S. government that they were sorry,” Zah said after listening to lower-level EPA representatives at the chapter house.

After her stop in Colorado, McCarthy traveled to Shiprock, on the New Mexico portion of the reservation, and met with President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates. All three leaders have been angered by the response to the spill and Begaye has promised to pursue litigation against the EPA to address the economic, social and spiritual costs of the disaster.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy investigates conditions on the Animas River in Colorado on August 12, 2015. Photo from EPA

Unlike McCarthy, Begaye and Nez traveled to the Gold King Mine after receiving what they said was conflicting information from the EPA. They traveled to the site on Sunday and posted Navajo and English language videos, along with a large number of photos, to help their citizens understand the situation.

Like the Navajo Nation, the states of Colorado and New Mexico are also considering lawsuits although officials say it is too early to determine the extent of the damage. In the meantime, Navajo leaders are warning their members to carefully review EPA damage forms that could result in a waiver of all future claims against the federal government.

"There is no question that Diné citizens deserve to be compensated to the fullest extent, and that the federal EPA be held accountable for their negligence," Speaker Bates said in a statement yesterday.

Related Stories:
President of Navajo Nation upset with EPA's response to spill (8/12)
Navajo Leader: 'This is an assault on who we are as Dine people' (8/11)
Navajo Nation to sue EPA over release of mine waste into waters (8/10)

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