Navajo Nation seeks help to assess spill damage

Noel Lyn Smith
Silverton resident Melanie Bergolc walks along the banks of Cement Creek in Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 10, a few days after the Gold King Mine spewed toxic wastewater into the Animas River.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provide technical assistance to complete a preliminary damage assessment on the effects of the Gold King Mine spill.

Begaye made the request on Thursday in a letter to Elizabeth Zimmerman, associate administrator with FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery.

The assessment is used to determine the impact and magnitude of damages from an event, according to FEMA's website. It is also used to determine whether supplemental federal assistance is necessary.

In Begaye’s letter, which his office released Friday, the president outlined the process the tribe used to declare a state of emergency after the Aug. 5 mine spill released more than 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Begaye explained residents use the San Juan River to irrigate crops and provide water to livestock, among other uses.

“Farming and ranching are the backbone of our culture and economy, and are both heavily dependent on the San Juan River,” Begaye wrote.

He stated the tribe has “significant concerns” about the health effects of the spill, especially since heavy metals, like lead and arsenic, were released.

“Although U.S. EPA has stated that surface water has returned to its previous condition, we are concerned that many of the contaminates have merely settled to the bed of the river, and will be re-suspended in our San Juan River water later, such as during storm events,” the president wrote.

Begaye also stressed the importance of corn in traditional ceremonies and mentioned that produce grown in fields along the river brings families together.

"The impairment of the river and the adverse impacts to our farmers and ranchers, and our community as a whole, will mark a moment of community trauma that will be endured for years to come," he wrote.

In addition, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch asked the U.S. EPA on Friday to assure full and fair satisfaction of all claims against the agency in relation to the spill.
In a press release from the president’s office, Branch said the EPA has claimed responsibility for the spill, but the process the agency established to resolve claims appears to jeopardize the rights of the Navajo people.

“This puts our people in a precarious position because they need immediate recovery from known damages,” Branch said.

In her letter, she requests three actions from the EPA.

The first asks to implement an interim claims process that would allow tribal members to seek ongoing compensation for damages during the two-year limitations period under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Secondly, she requests that claims be “promptly” processed and paid on a rolling basis. Her last request centers on the U.S. Department of Justice clarifying that accepting money under the Federal Tort Claims Act does not constitute a release of claims for damages that are not yet known by the person submitting the claim.

"This puts our people in a precarious position because they need immediate recovery for known damages. ...Thus, many are eager to make their claims to secure immediate funds to address pressing financial stress. However, they do not want to assert claims if they risk forgoing future, more comprehensive recovery," the attorney general wrote.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.​