President Begaye delivers State of the Nation

Noel Lyn Smith
Seymour Smith rings a bell on Monday to start the fall session of the Navajo Nation Council at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation's response to the Gold King Mine spill was among the topics President Russell Begaye spoke about in Monday's State of the Nation address to the tribal council.

The Aug. 5 spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

“The San Juan River is critical to the Navajo farmers and ranchers that depend upon the river to sustain themselves. I grew up in Shiprock, and my family were farmers and ranchers, so I understand how deeply the spill has impacted the lives of our people along the San Juan River,” Begaye said in his report to tribal lawmakers at the start of the fall session in the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

He added tribal officials are continuing to communicate with the federal government about the spill, including testifying at federal hearings about the spill's impact on tribal members.

Begaye mentioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has claimed responsibility for the spill, has reimbursed the Bureau of Indian Affairs for its response to the spill.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, shown here giving his State of the Nation address on Monday at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., will be presented a bill that calls for securing a loan to purchase three new tribal aircraft.

In a report to the council, Sharon Pinto, regional director of the BIA’s Navajo Regional Office, said the BIA has been in communication with the EPA, but no reimbursement has been made yet.

The BIA spent $1.2 million to provide communities affected by the spill water, as well as hay and salt blocks for livestock, she said.

In addition, the agency is continuing to test river water and sediment at various sites.

“It was huge, and it’ll continue to remain a large impact to their livelihood,” Pinto said of the spill.

In his speech, Begaye also highlighted his administration’s efforts to help Navajo veterans.

The president said the executive branch is prioritizing services for veterans so the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs does not operate alone.

He added his administration is focused on passing the Navajo Nation Veterans Act, which addresses housing for veterans and offers health care services by establishing a regional service center on the Navajo Nation through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the president’s written report, he mentioned the tribe will assume control of three fire stations in San Juan County, and a partnership is under development with Diné College to establish a tribal police officer training program in early 2016.

Among the comments from the council, Delegate Mel R. Begay asked for an update on the response to the area affected by the Assayii Lake Fire, which consumed 14,712 acres in the Ch’ooshgai Mountains last year.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates listens on Monday as President Russell Begaye gives his State of the Nation address at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

Naschitti Chapter residents who had structures consumed by the fire are continuing to ask when they can rebuild, Begay said. He added that future legislation will center on addressing residents' needs.

The president reported that 10 acres have been reseeded and work continues to rehabilitate the area.

Delegate Tom Chee told the president that residents in Shiprock Chapter are concerned about a fence the Ute Mountain Ute tribe is building along the chapter’s northern boundary.

“I’m not sure if that line is being properly run,” Chee said.

Begaye mentioned his administration has been in office for five months and continues to focus on a number of issues and concerns.

With that in mind, Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez spoke about the three division directors seeking confirmation this week.

The council will consider bills to confirm Donald Benn as executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Bidtah Becker as executive director of the Division of Natural Resources and Terrelene G. Massey as executive director of the Division of Social Services.

Delegate Dwight Witherspoon expressed concerns that vacancies remain for the executive director positions for the Division of Economic Development, Division of Community Development and Department of Health and for the controller.

Members of the Tohatchi Veterans Organization Color Guard stand ready on Monday before the start of the Navajo Nation Council fall session at the Council Chambers in Window Rock, Ariz.

“Five months is enough time to hire,” Witherspoon said.

In response, the president said his office is reviewing qualified applicants. He said offers have been made, but individuals have declined them due to low pay.

As for the controller, Begaye said tribal law mandates the individual be a certified public accountant.

He added seven Navajos applied for the position and offers were made to three, but each one declined.

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