Congress Must Act To Help The Navajo Nation

The Gold King Mine spill has faded from national headlines, but the poison remains.
Roy Etcitty looks out over the San Juan River while reflecting on what the river means to him August 15, 2015. Etcitty,
Roy Etcitty looks out over the San Juan River while reflecting on what the river means to him August 15, 2015. Etcitty, who grew up on the San Juan River, is one of the many farmers that has been affected by the contamination of the San Juan River.

More than a year after one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Navajo Nation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other parties for their extreme negligence in causing more than 800 million gallons of toxic water to contaminate a river vital to the Navajo livelihood and way of life. The toxic, yellow hue caused by the Gold King Mine spill has faded from our sacred river, the San Juan, and the spill has faded from national headlines. But the poison remains. A  threat to our health and well-being is still looming, and our people—the Diné—are still suffering.  

The San Juan is more than just a river to the Diné—it is our life-giver and protector.  It gives us water, grows our food, and sustains our animals.  It provides the essential crops and ingredients for our prayers and gatherings. It connects us through time to our ancestors, whose lives were also sustained by the sacred River that flows through our homeland, the Dinehtah. Tó éí ííńá át’é: “water is life.” But the spill transformed our River into a threat to our lives, our health, our economic security, and the lives of our animals.

The spill transformed our River into a threat to our lives, our health, our economic security, and the lives of our animals.

Hitting us at the worst time, during the middle of our growing season, our crops were decimated. Many Navajo families were left with nothing to eat and nothing to sell. They watched as their crops withered and died. They had to pen their livestock up and truck in water and hay. The Navajo Nation had to expend its limited resources to respond to the calamity, providing emergency services to its people at great expense. In a community already plagued with poverty and a 42 percent unemployment rate, the toll has been, and continues to be, disastrous.

The USEPA’s actions, and those of others, were inexcusable. After years of ignoring the known risks posed by the Gold King Mine, they charged headlong into the mine with heavy machinery. They ignored established procedures for preventing a blowout. They had no emergency plans in place. Emblematic of the spill, video footage of the blowout revealed an on-scene worker shouting, “What do we do now?” The USEPA was entirely unprepared at that time to deal with the damage it had released. After the blowout, the USEPA did not alert us of the advancing toxic plume until almost two days later. 

Through the lawsuit our attorneys at Hueston Hennigan recently filed, we’re demanding  that the USEPA and other responsible parties repair the damage they have done, and ensure that another spill does not occur in the future. The USEPA itself acknowledges that most of the contaminants from the spill are still upstream of the Nation, waiting to be carried downstream. We must protect our people and our sacred River from this threat. What happens to our land and water, happens to us as a people. 

In a community already plagued with poverty and a 42 percent unemployment rate, the toll has been, and continues to be, disastrous.

We continue to await the long overdue results of the Office of Inspector General’s investigation into the spill. In the meantime, we applaud the Senate’s efforts in passing the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery measure on September 15. It promises to hold the USEPA accountable for the costs that the Navajo Nation and other tribes and states have incurred in responding to the spill. This measure is a good first step to ensuring rapid and just reimbursement to the Nation.  We urge the House of Representatives to follow suit.

But this is not enough. All responsible parties—from the USEPA and its contractors to the mining companies who contributed to the contaminant buildup—must be held accountable. Congress must pass legislation that clears the way for the Navajo Nation and all harmed Navajo people to obtain full recovery. There are good bills that have been introduced in Congress by both Republicans and Democrats. We urge all Americans to call their Representatives and Senators and implore them to take action on the Gold King Mine spill.

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