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Tribal officials announce the Navajo Nation has filed a lawsuit against the EPA and several other defendants in response to the environmental disaster


SHIPROCK — While standing on the bank of the San Juan River, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye announced in a press conference today that the tribe is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its response to the Gold King Mine spill.

The Navajo Nation Department of Justice filed its civil complaint today in U.S. District Court of New Mexico.

In addition to the EPA, the complaint also names as defendants Environmental Restoration LLC, Harrison Western Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Sunnyside Gold Corp., Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and John Does 1-10.

The tribe seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, cost recovery, attorney’s fees and damages, as well as "full, fair and long overdue compensation for the injuries" caused by the spill, according to the 48-page complaint.

EPA Region 9 spokeswoman Margot Perez-Sullivan said in an email today the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Also in an email, Louie Diaz, spokesman for Kinross, said the company was not involved in the mine spill and "will vigorously defend itself from any litigation."

Officials with Environmental Restoration LLC, Gold King Mines Corp. and Sunnyside Gold Corp. could not be reached for comment. An employee at Harrison Western Corp. in Lakewood, Colo., said the company president was not available for comment.

The Navajo Nation's lawsuit comes a year after an EPA crew accidentally triggered a blowout while addressing wastewater seepage at the mine site near Silverton, Colo.

The spill caused more than 3 million gallons of toxic-laden wastewater to flow into a tributary of the Animas River, which meets the San Juan River in Farmington.

The San Juan flows through the Northern Agency, and chapters along the river rely on the water for agricultural and livestock purposes. Days after the spill, the tribe placed restrictions on using river water.

Since the spill, the tribe has repeatedly requested compensation from the EPA, Begaye said during today's press conference at Shiprock's Nizhoni Park.

The president said the tribe had to fight for even the small amount of compensation it has received. He also said it seems like that funding was only distributed after the tribe discussed taking legal action against the federal agency.

"EPA, we're holding your feet to the fire. We will not let you get away with this, we will be here," Begaye said.

Since the spill, the EPA has reimbursed the Navajo Nation about $1.1 million, according to the agency.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said the defendants named in the tribe's lawsuit were aware of issues at the mine site and ignored warning signs for years.

"They failed to prepare for known risks of a mine blowout and put their interests ahead of others," she said at the press event.

The toxic release "damaged" the tribe's environment, people and economy; disrupted agricultural, economic and recreational activities; and altered cultural, traditional and spiritual practices, Branch said.

The tribe's lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions that have unfolded in the spill's aftermath.

In May, the state of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the EPA and two mine owners.

New Mexico also filed a separate lawsuit against the state of Colorado in U.S. Supreme Court in June. In that complaint, the state alleges Colorado’s policies and practices led to the spill. The lawsuit also calls for Colorado to claim partial responsibility for the environmental disaster.

Bertha Etsitty was among several farmers who attended today's Tuesday's press conference. Etsitty, who farms land in the Mesa Farm area, said the mine spill affected her family’s income because there were no crops to harvest and sell last year.

"It was so sad. I couldn’t believe what was happening to my field. It hurt me. I cried standing in the field," Etsitty said, of seeing crops dry from the lack of water.

Federal lawmakers also weighed in today on the tribe's decision to sue.

In a prepared statement, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., voiced support for the tribe's actions.

"The spill was an accident, but the EPA made several serious mistakes, and the Navajo Nation has every right to pursue its claims for damages in court," Udall said. "This was not a natural disaster, and the communities that were harmed by the toxic spill deserve compensation."

In a separate statement, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., expressed concerns about delays in compensation.

"The pace of reimbursement to those impacted by this terrible incident is unacceptable. The EPA must fully compensate victims of the spill for their losses and provide a better process for filing claims," Heinrich said.

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

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