EPA leader faces fire for dealings with tribes after mine disaster

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testifies at Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing into the Gold King Mine disaster on September 16, 2015. Photo from Facebook

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency again accepted responsibility for the Gold King Mine disaster at two Capitol Hill hearings on Wednesday as tribal leaders continued to fault the Obama administration's response to the the incident.

Administrator Gina McCarthy insisted that she contacted the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Tribe within two days of the August 5 spill at the abandoned mine in Colorado. But committee members and leaders of both tribes disputed her account, with a Southern Ute leader going so far as to say his chairman didn't receive a phone call from the Cabinet official until this Monday.

"The people who are supposed to be notified do not believe that they were quickly and routinely shared the data on water quality monitoring, nor do they agree that the response and emergency notification was adequate, nor do they agree that it should have taken two days to notify," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) told McCarthy during a particularly testy exchange before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee yesterday afternoon.

"In other words, you've done nothing," McCain added.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Oversight Hearing on EPA's Gold King Mine Disaster: Examining the Harmful Impacts to Indian Country

The Southern Ute Tribe was the first government to take official action in response to the spill, council member James "Mike" Olguin confirmed. A disaster was declared on August 8 due to contamination on the Animas River, which runs through the reservation.

Olguin also confirmed that the tribe -- not the EPA -- was the first to notify the state of New Mexico on August 6, a day after the spill. By that time, the Southern Utes were already reaching out to Indian Country, knowing that the toxic waste would hit the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation and other reservations even further down the Colorado River.

McCarthy readily admitted that the EPA could have moved more quickly to notify the downstream communities. But she was unable to explain why the Navajo Nation wasn't told about the spill for two days, noting that the agency's Office of Inspector General and the Interior Department are investigating the incident.

She also claimed she spoke with someone from the Southern Ute Tribe on "August 12" but did not identify that person. According to Olguin, the call with Chairman Clement Frost on Monday only lasted three to four minutes.

Last month, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye found oily residue in a water tank delivered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo from Facebook

"I'm not suggesting that this wasn't a disaster because it clearly was from everybody's perspective," McCarthy told the committee. "But the notifications did go in time for us to beat the plume before those intakes would have cause damage or brought it into drinking supplies."

McCarthy visited the Navajo Nation on August 12 and spoke with President Russell Begaye as recently as last Friday. Yet there were glaring discrepancies in what she told the committee and what has occurred on the reservation after the crisis.

As one example, McCarthy said the EPA was continuing to provide hay to ranchers on the reservation who have been unable to feed their livestock due to restrictions on the San Juan River. But Begaye said the hay was in fact being cut off, something McCarthy didn't know about they talked by phone last Friday

"Se was unaware that the U.S. EPA had stopped providing resources to the Navajo Nation," Begaye testified. "As EPA Administrator, how did she not know that this was happening?"

Gilbert Harrison, a farmer on the Navajo Nation, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that he lost 50 percent of his crops because the San Juan River has been contaminated by toxic waste from the Gold King Mine. September 16, 2015. Photo from Facebook

"This just adds to the culture of distrust they have created," Begaye told the committee.

McCarthy also said the EPA, in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was continuing to provide water for farmers and ranchers. But there were problems there too, with Begaye recalling how he inspected one tank and discovered oily residue in it. He said an EPA representative denied that the tanks were used for anything other than water.

"The Navajo Nation does not trust the U.S. EPA and we expect them to be held fully accountable for what they have done to my people," Begaye testified.

The hearing was the second of the day for McCarthy. Earlier, she faced equally skeptical members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee but tribal leaders did not testify at that proceeding.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Oversight of the Cause, Response, and Impacts of EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster

McCarthy also appeared at a joint hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee and the House Oversight Committee this morning. The spill has provided an opportunity for Republicans to accuse the EPA of overreach and for Democrats to call for more funding for address cleanup of abandoned mines across the country.

"The actions of this agency and agency personnel in triggering or contributing to the spill and in dealing with its aftermath in Indian Country are a case study of agency incompetence," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said yesterday.

The Navajo Nation and some Democrats are pushing the EPA to list 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, including the Gold King Mine.

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

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