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Native Sun News: Tribes respond to toxic spill at abandoned mine

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The Navajo Nation declared a state of emergency and set up the Yellow Water Relief Fund for victims of Gold King Mine’s 3-million gallon toxic waste spill Aug. 5 that polluted the Animas and San Juan rivers. Navajo leaders are shown here inspecting the Animas River in Colorado, near the site of the disaster, shortly after the spill. Photo from Facebook

Navajo and Ute tribes respond to toxic spill
Set up Operation Tó Łitso, or Yellow Water
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. –– Tribal government officials and grassroots organizers carried on their emergency response efforts 10 days from a 3-million-gallon “blowout” of toxic mine waste that polluted the Animas River on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation and the San Juan River in the Navajo Nation.

“Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is delivering two trucks of bottled water to the chapter houses of Halchita, Aneth, and Montezuma,” the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President announced to the already water-strapped Indian reservation on Aug. 14.

By executive order, they set up Operation Tó Łitso, or Yellow Water, activating an Emergency Operations Center at the Navajo Transportation Complex in Tse Bonito, New Mexico.

Navajo authorities declared a state of emergency on Aug. 6, advising the largest U.S. Indian reservation population to stay away from the San Juan River, keep livestock out of it, and avoid using its water for irrigation.

President Russell BeGaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, and Speaker of the Navajo Council LoRenzo Bates met at their offices with U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Aug. 13 about the 3-million-gallon Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill into the Animas tributary of Cement Creek upstream from Durango, Colorado.

The Southern Ute Tribe, located on the Colorado side of the New Mexico state border, lifted the prohibition on recreational use of the Animas River, based on surface water testing of the tributary to the San Juan.

However, it cautioned tribal members and residents of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation to be aware of a health advisory from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, due to the level of contamination in most Colorado rivers, as a result of past mining activities and the geology of the state.

“Irrigation ditches that draw from the river currently are being flushed, and agricultural users should continue to exercise patience until this process is complete,” the tribe said.

EPA called the incident a “blowout.” McCarthy announced that the EPA takes responsibility for the spill of acid mine water from the inactive underground site, because its personnel were assessing ongoing leaks from Gold King and conducting cleanup activities when the incident occurred.

The agency distributed damage-claim forms to individuals in the watershed that was spoiled by a plume of yellow and orange residue from the mine, called “yellow boy” in the industry.

However, both tribes in the way of harm cautioned members that they might be signing away their rights if they make claims, due to a waiver of future damage actions included in the paperwork.

The form asks applicants to “certify that the amount of claim covers only damages and injuries caused by the incident above and agree to accept said amount in full satisfaction and final settlement of this claim.”

Navajo President Begaye warned, “This disaster will last for decades. This is unacceptable. The damages to our people will be long term and the Navajo Nation will not settle for pennies."

‘I have consistently stated that the Navajo people deserve to be compensated for every penny lost. I will not allow fine print to let U.S. EPA off the hook,” he said. “The Navajo people deserve better from the federal government."

For its part, the Southern Ute Tribal Council announced, “Although we understand the immediate hardships that members are facing, at this early stage we recommend tribal members proceed carefully. The long-term damages and harm caused by the Gold King Mine spill may not be known.”

Grassroots organizers of Tó Bei Nihi Bidziil (Water Is Our Power) held a teach-in Aug. 12 at St. Michaels, Arizona, to explain the risk of signing the damage claim and fee waiver.

“DO NOT BE TRICKED BY THIS FORM: DO NOT FILL IT OUT!” said an announcement by the Diné (Navajo) organizers, led by Leona Morgan, among others.

They launched a draft resolution for all 110 tribal chapters, or precincts, to ask the tribal government to call for an end to EPA’s circulation of the damage claim.

“We ask that our leaders be steadfast and hold all responsible parties accountable, not just EPA,” they added.

The New Mexico and Colorado Congressional delegations came up with a petition of their own to U.S. President Barack Obama. “This is truly a national disaster that requires the attention, coordinated efforts, and resources of multiple federal agencies,” they said in an Aug. 12 letter.

“Communities in all of the affected states, the Navajo Nation, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe are justifiably concerned about both the short and long term effects,” they said.

In addition to requests for short-term emergency relief, the lawmakers demanded the Administration take a harder look at the longstanding, widespread river pollution emanating from a plethora of mines in Colorado.

They called for review of “any ongoing projects in the area that are similar in nature to those at the Gold King Mine; and take a look at the creation of a water treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.”

Tens of thousands of inactive mines like Gold King around the country lack remediation and are well-known contributors to chronic water pollution woes. Signatories to the Obama letter are New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, Sen. Martin Heinrich, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton.

Heinrich also told the Albuquerque Journal he will sponsor legislation to reform the federal General Mining Act of 1872. The act was approved to promote the development and settlement of publicly-owned lands in the western United States, according to the non-profit Earthworks.

“These mines have poisoned more than 16,000 miles of Western streams,” it says, adding, “When a mine goes bankrupt, taxpayers sometimes get stuck with the costs of cleaning up the mess.”

The public has had to pay more than $275 million for three mines alone in Colorado, South Dakota and Montana that closed in the 1990s.

Rep. Lujan also has agreed to sponsor legislation drafted by a coalition of indigenous and other activist groups that would require cleanup of old mines before new mines are permitted.

Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch said the Upper Animas Mine District is a 140-square mile area north of Durango with 300 mines, all of them abandoned after being mined from the late 1800s to 1991.

She said the Navajo Nation will pursue legal action and that residents affected by the contamination should document their damages.

“The EPA is taking this very seriously and it’s working to control this, first and foremost,” responded David Yogie, one of two community-involvement representatives from EPA Region 9, dispatched to the Navajo Nation.

He said two EPA contractors have sampled the water along the San Juan River with representatives from the Navajo EPA Surface Mining Program: Their geographical focus was from Shiprock to Mexican Hat.

Four additional contractors were dispatched to support sampling at the community level, with 21 employees and contractors from Denver responding to the spill.

In a meeting at the Monument Valley Visitors Center, former tribal President Dr. Peterson Zah recalled the resiliency of the Navajo people, from the Long Walk to ongoing uranium mining contamination, to the disaster of the San Juan River.

“Many years from now, the Navajo people will still be here on our tribal lands,” Zah said in Navajo. “They keep trying to get rid of us, but we’re still here surviving.”

Turning to Yogie, Zah said that like other elders in the audience, “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.

“Maybe you should include that in the first part of your presentation at your next meeting.”

(Contact Talli Nauman NSN Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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