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President of Navajo Nation calls on EPA to testify at field hearing

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 Navajo Nation OPVP / Facebook

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is holding a field hearing later this month to look into the Gold King Mine disaster but a key official is refusing to appear.

Administrator Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency has apologized for the August 2015 spill that caused an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic waste to enter the waters of three reservations. She also has testified at five hearings on Capitol Hill -- including one before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last September -- to discuss her agency's response to the spill.

But President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation wants McCarthy to come face-to-face with his people in Arizona. He said it is unacceptable for her to refuse to testify at the upcoming hearing.

"As the administrator of the EPA, it is McCarthy’s responsibility to appear at this important hearing to personally provide information about the EPA’s reckless actions and explain how and when this federal agency intends to compensate our families," Begaye said in a press release on Thursday.

Begaye said he supports the committee's effort to compel McCarthy to appear. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) brought up the issue at a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

"Suppose this had happened in a non-Indian area. The [EPA] representatives would have been up in arms -- [it would have been] a national scandal," McCain said. "Instead, not only has the issue not been resolved but the EPA ... doesn't even want to send a representative to a hearing that needs to be held on behalf of these Navajo families whose lands and livelihood and lives have been devastated."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing. The discussion of a subpoena to the Environmental Protection Agency occurs in Track 1, Opening Statements.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, supported McCain's request for a subpoena. He said he would ask his colleagues to do the same.

"She is the one in charge at the EPA," Barrasso said of McCarthy. "The Senate has confirmed her nomination with the understanding that the EPA would be responsive to Congress, and this is not being responsive.”

The committee has on occasion threatened to issue subpoenas to the executive branch. They are typically considered during business meetings.

The committee otherwise has rarely exercised its subpoena powers. The last ones came more than a decade ago, during the Jack Abramoff scandal, but those were issued to third parties and not to government officials.

The EPA has accepted responsibility for the disaster and is proposing to put the area in Colorado that includes the Gold King Mine on the Superfund National Priorities List. Comments on the Bonita Peak Mining District proposal are being accepted until June 6.

A designation won't directly affect the Navajo Nation because the waters that were polluted by the spill are located on the New Mexico portion of the tribe's reservation. The listing only covers mining sites in Colorado.

The committee's field hearing will take place Friday, April 22, at city council chambers in Phoenix.

Committee Notice:
Field Oversight Hearing on “Examining EPA’s Unacceptable Response to Indian Tribes" (April 22, 2016)

Federal Register Notice:
National Priorities List (April 7, 2016)

Prior Committee Hearing Notices:
Oversight Hearing on the Department of the Interior’s Role in the EPA’s Animas Spill (December 9, 2015)
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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