Lawmakers seek action by Obama on request

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON — Lawmakers from New Mexico and Arizona are asking President Barack Obama to review and respond to the Navajo Nation’s request to declare an emergency on tribal land in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and U.S. Reps. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., issued a joint letter Thursday asking Obama to “take prompt action” on the request made by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Repubilcans, issued a similar letter on Thursday.

Begaye applauded the letters in statements issued by the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President on Thursday and Friday.

The tribal president made a request for technical assistance to complete a preliminary damage assessment in an Oct. 1 letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Begaye’s letter states the Aug. 5 spill caused damage to the quality of the San Juan River, threatening the irrigation of crops and watering of livestock as well as impacting the region’s economy and its traditional ceremonies.

A tribal government may submit a request to the president to issue an emergency declaration under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

The request must be based on a finding that the situation is of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the affected local government, making federal assistance necessary.

In the joint letter from New Mexico, the delegation's members wrote that 13 chapters were impacted and “serious concerns remain about the long-term public health and economic challenges.”

“Recovering from this incident will require a full and coordinated approach. …Native communities deserve full and complete protection of their water, land and livelihoods,” the letter states.

The input from the New Mexico delegation comes a day after U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., submitted a similar letter to Obama asking him to “swiftly review and respond” to Begaye’s request.

McCain's and Flake’s Wednesday letter reminds Obama that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors breached the entrance to the Gold King Mine, located near Silverton, Colo., causing the spill.

The spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River. The plume of heavy-metal contaminated wastewater then flowed into the San Juan River, which runs through the northern portion of the Navajo Nation.

In the senators' letter, they noted that water quality monitoring and soil sampling completed after the spill by the U.S. EPA and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency indicated the presence of pollutants.

These pollutants — including arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium — were at levels that exceeded the tribe’s water quality standards for irrigation, livestock and human consumption, the letter states.

“The ensuing public health, public safety and environmental impact resulted in a crisis that has drawn emergency response resources from the entire Navajo Nation,” McCain and Flake wrote.

According to the Thursday release from Begaye's office, Obama has not commented on the “devastating impact” of the spill and the White House has not responded to “numerous requests” for federal support to address the event.

“We need greater support from the Obama Administration to address the crisis and protect the livelihood of our farmers,” Begaye said in the Friday release. "We hope that President Obama will listen to the bipartisan calls from members of the Arizona and New Mexico delegations to act quickly on our Emergency Declaration request."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.