Navajo Nation seeks EPA region designation

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez and President Russell Begaye are asking President Obama to designate the nation as its own Environmental Protection Agency region.

FARMINGTON — Two tribal leaders are asking President Barack Obama to designate the Navajo Nation as its own region under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The request was made in a letter Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez signed Tuesday and submitted to Obama through EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy's office in Washington, D.C.

The three-page letter outlines reasons why the designation should be granted, including how much time it took the EPA to notify the tribe about the Gold King Mine spill and how the agency continues to address abandoned uranium mines on tribal land.

It also explains the challenges involved in implementing environmental laws on the Navajo Nation, which is more than 27,000 square miles and includes portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Presently, the EPA Region 9 office in San Francisco has jurisdiction over the tribal land.

EPA Region 9 spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said in an email today the regional office entered into a memorandum of understanding in 1991 with Regions 6 and 8 regarding jurisdiction.

Begaye and Nez wrote that the office has struggled with implementing environmental laws due to the distance and challenges that would be better addressed if an office was in or near the reservation.

They also expressed continued disappointment in the time it took for the EPA to notify the tribe about the Aug. 5 mine spill.

The confluence of the San Juan River is pictured Aug. 8 in Farmington after the Gold King Mine spill. At left is the contaminated Animas River, and at right is the San Juan River.

As for addressing abandoned uranium mines, there continues to be a struggle with community outreach, communication and coordination, the leaders wrote.

“Although we commend U.S. EPA Region 9 for its active engagement with the Navajo Nation government in environmental matters, we believe that a Navajo Region would greatly improve implementation and enforcement of federal environmental law across the Navajo Nation,” they wrote.

Perez-Sullivan said Region 9 has worked directly with the tribe since 1991 to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of environmental laws.

"EPA values our government-to-government relationship with the Navajo Nation and is reviewing the president's request," she said.

She added that, since 1984, the agency has awarded more than $93 million to the Navajo Nation EPA to develop and implement environmental programs, and has provided more than $100 million for drinking water and wastewater improvements.

In other developments, the tribe was awarded $465,000 from the EPA this week for water quality monitoring in the San Juan River, according to an EPA press release. The tribe will use the funds to conduct additional monitoring of the river, including sediment sampling and a fish tissue contaminant study, the release states.

Following the mine spill, the agency has distributed $2 million in grants to states and tribes to develop a better understanding of water quality conditions in the Animas-San Juan Basin, according to the release.

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