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Republicans upset with lack of criminal charges in Gold King Mine disaster






From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examined conditions on the San Juan River in August 2015, following the Gold King Mine spill. Photo by Navajo Nation OPVO

Key Republican lawmakers are lashing out at the Obama administration after federal prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges in connection with the Gold King Mine disaster.

An August 2015 spill at the abandoned mine in Colorado sent at estimated 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the waters of three reservations. But the incident is being treated as an accident despite evidence of criminal wrongdoing, according to the lawmakers.

"This is unacceptable," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a member and former chairman of the panel, said in a letter on Monday.

The letter, which was sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch of the Department of Justice and Administrator Gina McCarthy of the Environmental Protection Agency, demands a briefing to explain why no charges are being filed. Key Republicans in the House made a similar request last week.

"By not taking up the case, the Department of Justice looks like it is going easy on its colleagues in EPA," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, wrote in an October 12 letter that was joined by two colleagues.

The EPA has taken responsibility for the spill although McCarthy has repeatedly denied any notion of deliberate wrongdoing. But in hopes of addressing the controversy, the agency launched a series of evaluations and investigations into the disaster, which had a major impact on agriculture and livestock on the Navajo Nation, one of the three tribes affected.

While those reviews were underway, the EPA in late July took the unusual step of disclosing the existence of a "criminal investigation." That gave some hope to Republican lawmakers, who have criticized the Obama administration for not being more forthcoming with tribes about the extent of the disaster.

But the lawmakers were disappointed when EPA staff informed them that no charges will be filed.

"This week, we learned that after having found evidence of criminal wrongdoing, including violations of the Clean Water Act and the False Claims Act," Barrasso and McCain, who is running for re-election said in their letter.

The Navajo Nation has sued the EPA for damages caused by the spill Farmers and ranchers lost crops and livestock because they weren't able to access water from the San Juan River due to high levels of dangerous chemicals in the system.

"President Obama, where are you?" Navajo President Russell Begaye said of the river on banks of the river in August. "We want you -- as the president of the entire nation -- to step up and say, 'Navajo Nation, I'm sorry.'"

In addition to the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, both in Colorado, were affected by the disaster.

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