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Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick Supports Navajo Nation Gold King Mine Spill Lawsuit

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Photo: Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick)

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Photo: Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick)

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) on Tuesday expressed her support for the Navajo Nation’s lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency and several corporations over the disastrous 2015 Gold King Mine spill in which millions of gallons of toxic wastewater leaked into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado.

“I am proud to represent the Navajo Nation in Congress, and I stand firmly with them in this lawsuit against the EPA,” Kirkpatrick said in a statement. “The Gold King Mine spill was catastrophic for the Navajo people. Not only was it an environmental and economic disaster, it was a failure by the EPA on several fronts. First, the agency failed to respond swiftly and transparently. It failed to immediately engage the tribal government. And it failed to fully address the disaster’s short- and long-term burdens on the tribe.”

The New York Times reports the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the EPA, mining companies Gold King Mines Corporation, Sunnyside Gold Corporation, the US and Canadian subsidiaries of Kinross, contractors Environmental Restoration and Harrison Western and 10 unnamed individuals. The EPA has claimed responsibility for the accidental spill of toxic acid mine waste, in which 3 million gallons of water contaminated with lead, arsenic, mercury cadmium, iron, zinc, copper and beryllium were released into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, near Silverton last August. The accident turned the Animus River, described as the “cultural soul” of southwestern Colorado, a frightening shade of orange. It also poisoned the San Juan River. Recorded lead levels were 12,000 times higher than normal in the Animas River in the aftermath of the spill.

Contractors hired by the EPA accidentally broke the mine’s seal, releasing the toxic sludge into the waterway, from which it flowed through parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Although the EPA has spent $29 million on cleanup and compensation, the Navajo Nation alleges that the agency has failed to properly deal with the disaster or adequately compensate thousands of farmers who depend upon the Animas River as a source of crop irrigation and livestock sustenance. The poverty-stricken nation suffered further hardship as corn, melons, hay and wheat that sustain many Navajo were lost, with further spiritual psychological damage caused by the poisoning of sacred waterways that are the givers and nourishers of life.

“After one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected or their way of life restored,” the lawsuit alleges.

“We cannot just sit back and let the EPA do what they’ve been doing, just doling us pennies,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the New York Times. “This river is the main river that gives life to the whole region, not just those who live around the river, but the entire nation. This is our lifeblood. It is sacred to us.”

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch told CNN the spill has created a stigma of fear around the organic and heirloom crops grown by tribal farmers in the region, with the resulting health concerns making it harder for them to sell their produce. Branch also noted that the Navajo collect minerals from the banks of the river for use in religious ceremonies.

“Now it’s been transformed into something that’s a threat,” she said. “It’s been pretty traumatic in changing the role of the river in the lives of the people who rely on it.”

“We’re not going to know the health impacts of the exposure to the water for five to 10 years, maybe more,” added Branch. “And it’s not just direct exposure, the community is also concerned about eating food that’s been watered with contaminated water, or eating livestock that has consumed the water.”

Kirkpatrick concurred with Begaye and Branch. “Water is life for the Navajo people — families and communities that depend on the San Juan River lost crops and livestock and faced the burden of water sampling and monitoring to protect the public health,” her statement said. “The federal government has historic obligations and responsibilities to protect tribal land and natural resources. And until the EPA is held responsible for expenses and cleanup of this disaster as well as the long-term harm it caused, that obligation remains unmet.”

Meanwhile, despite an EPA-installed treatment plant that removes 95 percent of contaminants, toxic water continues to leak from the mine at a rate of around 570 gallons per minute. However, the EPA claims the water near the mine has been almost entirely restored to pre-spill conditions, and residents have been told it is safe to resume agricultural and recreational activities along the Animas and San Juan rivers. Still, the EPA warns people living near the affected waterways to “avoid discolored sediment” and for parents to supervise children playing near the river “to ensure they don’t ingest river water or sediment.”

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