Navajo Nation welcomes Erin Brockovich in aftermath of disaster

Erin Brockovich will be speaking at three high schools on the Navajo Nation on September 8, 2015. Photo from Erin Brockovich

The Navajo Nation will host a big name on Tuesday as the tribe continues to focus on the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted the water system on the reservation.

Consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich is speaking at three high schools in three states in the wake of the August 5 spill that sent 3 million gallons of toxic waste downstream to the reservation. Tribal leaders hope her visit will help maintain pressure on the Obama administration to address the fallout from the catastrophe.

“The Navajo Nation has been culturally and economically devastated by the impact of the Gold King Mine spill and we need help to address this crisis,” President Russell Begaye said in a press release. “We appreciate Ms. Brockovich’s willingness to visit our nation to witness the damage first hand and help raise awareness about the plight of our people.”

Brockovich is most well known for securing a $333 million settlement from a utility company that polluted the water system in California. She's also championed other environmental justice causes and her expertise could help the tribe as it considers a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.

The San Juan River remains under partial restrictions on the Navajo Nation. Photo from Facebook

"The continuing situation resulting from the Gold King Mine spill is unacceptable," Brockovich said. "The EPA's actions and response reflect an organization that is drastically underfunded, understaffed and in need of overhaul. I stand with the Navajo Nation and call upon the U.S. government to do what is right and clean up this mess."

The EPA has accepted responsibility for the spill that prompted the tribe to close the San Juan River to farmers and livestock for more than three weeks. Begaye has since lifted a restriction that applied to agricultural use after the tribe's Environmental Protection Agency determined that the water could be used safely for crops.

However, not all of the communities that rely on the river have regained access to irrigation canals. And a restriction affecting livestock remains in place, more than a month after the disaster.

The poor conditions prompted the tribe to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a disaster recovery coordinator but the request was denied on Friday.

The site of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. Photo from Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye / Facebook

“President Obama and FEMA need to be more proactive and declare this as a disaster area,” Vice President Jonathan Nez said.

Although the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah declared disasters and emergencies, President Barack Obama has not taken executive action to address the spill. Under amendments to the Stafford Act that were enacted in 2013, he could issue a declaration solely for the tribe, which formally declared a disaster on August 8.

“The spiritual and emotional toll is very important," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said last week in a meeting with the tribe "The agencies, instead of being bureaucratic, need to be understanding."

Udall and other members of Congress also have been pressuring the Obama administration. Four hearings on Capitol Hill have been scheduled and Begaye and tribal officials will be testifying.

From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examine conditions on the San Juan River last week. Photo from Facebook

The first hearing takes place this Wednesday, September 9, before the House Science Committee. Donald Benn, the executive director of the Navjao Nation Environmental Protection Agency is on the witness list.

On Wednesday September 16, both the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold hearings. The witness lists haven't been posted online.

The following day, the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Oversight Committee are conducting a joint hearing on September 17. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who went to the Navajo Nation last month after the spill, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell have been invited to testify.

As for tomorrow, Brockovich will speak at Shiprock High School Chieftain Pit, in Shiprock, New Mexico at 12pm MST; at White Horse High School Auditorium, in Montezuma Creek, Utah at 3pm MST; and at Monument Valley High School Auditorium in Kayenta, Arizona, at 5:30pm. The speeches will be webcast on UStream.

Committee Notices:
Holding EPA Accountable for Polluting Western Waters (September 9, 2015)
Oversight Hearing on "EPA's Gold King Mine Disaster: Examining the Harmful Impacts to Indian Country" (September 16, 2015)
Oversight of the Cause, Response, and Impacts of EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster (September 16, 2015)
Joint Oversight Hearing on “EPA’s Animas Spill" (September 17, 2015)

Related Stories
Navajo Nation hires firm to pursue Gold King Mine spill lawsuit (9/1)
Multiple Capitol Hill hearings set into disaster at Gold King Mine (8/31)
Navajo Nation to reopen irrigation canal after Gold King mine spill (8/28)
EPA releases internal report into Gold King Mine spill disaster (8/27)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hold hearing on EPA mine spill (8/26)
Native Sun News: Tribes respond to toxic spill at abandoned mine (8/25)
Navajo Nation remains cautious after spill impacts water system (8/21)
Navajo Nation farmers losing crops amid mine spill concerns (8/18)
Leader of EPA visits Navajo Nation after mine spill in Colorado (8/13)
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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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