Navajo Nation cites 'culture of distrust' with Gold King Mine spill

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, followed by Donald Benn, the head of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, hiked to the Gold King Mine site in August. Photo from Facebook

Distrust of the Environmental Protection Agency surfaced quickly after the Gold King Mine spill last month, an official from the Navajo Nation said on Wednesday.

The tribe wasn't notified about the spill at the abandoned mine in Colorado until 24 hours after it occurred on August 5, Donald Benn of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency said on Capitol Hill at the first hearing into the disaster. But even then the word didn't come from the Obama administration.

"It was actually the state of New Mexico that approached us and told us about all the information," Benn told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

By that time, some 3 million gallons of toxic waste were already flowing downstream to the reservation. Yet Benn said the federal government tried to downplay the effects of the spill.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Science Committee Hearing - Holding EPA Accountable for Polluting Western Waters

"EPA told us that the water was clear," Benn testified.

Tribal leaders, however, wanted their own assessment. So Benn, President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez went to Colorado the weekend after the spill to inspect the conditions firsthand.

"When we got up there obviously it wasn't," Benn said of the water.

A video posted by Begaye on Facebook at the time indeed showed that orange-colored waste continued to flow into the water system days after the spill. Lead, arsenic, mercury and other dangerous chemicals entered the Animas River in Colorado and the San Juan River in New Mexico, prompting a shutdown that affected farmers and ranchers on the reservation.

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

According to Benn's written testimony, the EPA didn't even want the tribe to visit the site of the spill that weekend. Staff would only take the Navajo leaders so far but they eventually hiked their way to the mine and documented the extent of the damage.

"We were actually one of the first ones up there," Benn told the committee.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Colorado on August 12 but did not go to the mine site. She also went to the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation and met with tribal leaders after accepting responsibility for the disaster.

Yet Benn said a "culture of distrust" continues to permeate the response to the spill as he accused the EPA of a "conflict of interest" for investigating an incident caused by its own contractor. The Office of Inspector General is conducting a review and the Interior Department also launched a review at EPA's request.

The site of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. Photo from Facebook

"We have approached officials about trying to figure out if we can actually have somebody appointed other than the EPA to do the investigation," Benn said.

The tribe is also pushing the EPA to designate the Gold King Mine and the Upper Animas Mining District in Colorado as a Superfund site. That would bring more funding and resources to an area with more than 300 abandoned mines.

“It is well past time for the United States Environmental Protection Agency to step in and remediate the site in a meaningful manner to protect downstream communities,” Begaye said in a press release.

Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant administrator at the EPA, represented the agency at the hearing but did not respond directly to the tribe's assessment of the situation. Of the water in the Animas and the San Juan, he said 'the data has shown that it's been restored to pre-incident conditions."

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

Stanislaus, however, acknowledged discussions for a potential Superfund designation. So far, he said the EPA has spent $8 million in response and remediation costs, a figure that's expected to rise after the city of Durango and private businesses send in claims to the federal government.

"I can tell you that orange plume no longer exists in Durango," Mayor Dean Brookie told the committee. "It lasted about a day and a half before it moved to our friends downstream, the Navajo Nation."

Brookie said the city will be sending an "invoice" for its costs to the EPA next week.

The tribe has not calculated the costs on its reservation. Farmers have lost acres of crops that they would have used to feed their families and ranchers in some communities still don't have access to water for their livestock.

Navajo Nation farmer Cheryl Yazzie meets environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who toured the reservation on September 7, 2015, to learn more about the Gold King Mine spill. Photo from Facebook

The tribe actively discouraged its members not to send in claim forms to the EPA out of fear that they could be used to discount any future damage awards.

Hueston Hennigan, a firm with experience in environmental damage cases, is helping the tribe as it pursues any claims against the federal government.

Yesterday's hearing was just the first into the Gold King Mine spill. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will address the incident in separate hearings on September 16. The House Natural Resources Committee and the House Oversight Committee are conducting a joint hearing the following day.

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)

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