Published January 15, 2017
UPPER FRUITLAND, NEW MEXICO – Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said on Friday afternoon that the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to not pay claims made by farmers along the San Juan River and Animas River, who were affected by the Aug. 2015 Gold King Mine spill, is both childish and shameful.
In a press release issued Friday, under the Federal Torts Claims Act, the EPA said it was conducting official business at the mine site when the spill occurred.
“Because the agency was conducting a site investigation at the Gold King Mine under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, the agency’s work is considered a ‘discretionary function’ under this law,” the EPA statement read. “Therefore, the circumstances surrounding the Gold King Mine incident unfortunately do not meet the conditions necessary to pay claims.”
Begaye said the tribe filed a $160 million lawsuit against the EPA because Administrator Gina McCarthy said under oath the EPA caused the spill and would hold themselves accountable.
“They (EPA) said they would compensate everybody justly,” Begaye said, who was attending the Northern Edge Casino’s fifth anniversary in Upper Fruitland on Friday. “To this day that has not happened. We knew that this was going to be a fight.”
The tribal president said it was unfortunate for EPA to go back on their word after admitting the spill was their fault.
The EPA said anyone who was affected by the spill who have filed claims, and whose claims were denied, could still challenge in U.S. District Court within six months after the denial.
The EPA said it would continue providing financial support and continue treating the water.
“The EPA has taken responsibility for the Gold King Mine incident and will continue to research to improve our understanding of how contaminants move through complex river systems.” the EPA said.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the USEPA would rule against the farmers,” Navajo Nation Speaker of the Council LoRenzo Bates said Friday.
The Speaker said the EPA needed to do what was right irregardless of the FTCA and added that the EPA was ignoring their obligation. Bates said farmers from Upper Fruitland to Cudei continue to be impacted by the EPA’s negligence.
“I look at it from this perspective,” he said. “If there was a fender bender that occurred and you admitted that it was your fault, your insurance company would go out of their way to settle, to make it right. In this case the EPA is basically saying ‘We’re sorry it happened but that’s the way it is.’ That’s not the way it should be.”
Bates said that about 6,000 acres of pristine farm land along the San Juan River was affected by the spill.
Begaye said it was unfortunate that for two years since the spill, the farmers have not been compensated.
The spill dumped over 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the river systems. Since the accident, Navajo farmers have splintered on whether to continue using the river to farm its crops and water their livestock.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Navajo Times. Used with permission. All rights reserved.