Udall highlights work to address mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — In remarks to the Navajo Nation Council today, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., highlighted his effort to hold accountable the federal agency responsible for the Gold King Mine spill.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., center, speaks during the summer session of the Navajo Nation Council on Wednesday in Window Rock, Ariz.

"In the West, our rivers are lifelines," Udall said in a 20-minute address that dealt with the Aug. 5 mine spill, which released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The senator said he saw the spill’s impact on the water and local communities when he visited the area last summer.

As a result, he introduced the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act, which would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to compensate individuals who were impacted by the spill. The measure also would require the agency to work with the states and the tribe to fund and implement long-term water quality monitoring.

Although the EPA made $2 million available for long-term monitoring, that amount is not enough, he said adding the agency is taking too much time to process reimbursements.

"People impacted by the accident must be made whole. It has almost been a year, and it is way too long," Udall said.

He said his seat on the Senate Committee on Appropriations gives him "a strong position to fight for recovery and monitoring."

Udall also is leading a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include compensation for uranium workers who worked in northwest New Mexico after 1971.

Udall also discussed a budget increase for the Indian Health Service, the Senate's adoption of amendments to the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act, and the expansion of broadband Internet service on tribal lands.

"No matter where you live, you should have access to reliable Internet service. It's a key to economic development," he said.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act on July 6, which proposes tougher penalties for stealing and illegally trafficking Native American cultural items. Udall called the theft of such items "unconscionable" and said he joins Heinrich in promoting their protection.

In addition, he introduced a resolution in Congress that condemns the theft of Native American cultural items and calls on the federal government to work with tribes and religious leaders to stop the theft of patrimony and promote the return of stolen items.

The senator voiced his support for designating the Bears Ears region in Utah a national monument.

"We should not delay protection of this important cultural landscape," he said.

Udall said his family has stood side by side with the Navajo people in fighting environmental injustices, and he remains committed to addressing those concerns.

Delegate Davis Filfred, who represents the Aneth, Mexican Water, Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos and Tólikan chapters, applauded Udall’s support for protecting Bears Ears.

Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr. called for additional federal resources for tribal police officers. Begay, who serves on the Law and Order Committee, said when comparing the size of the Navajo Nation to small states, the states have more resources available when it comes to law enforcement. He said tribal police officers are "stretched out," and response times can be more than an hour.

Continuing the focus on public safety, Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty called on the senator to support amendments to the Indian Tribal Justice Act. The act proposes that the Office of Tribal Justice System Support make grants available to tribes for crime victim compensation programs and provide services for victims of crime.

"Native nations have been shortchanged in terms of resources for victims," Crotty said.

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