Tribe files federal tort claim for mine spill

The Navajo Nation is asking for more than $160 million for damages and ongoing injuries resulting from the Gold King Mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith
The Animas River flows near its confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington on Aug. 8, 2015, shortly after the Gold King Mine spill released millions of gallons of wastewater into the water.
  • The tribe wants $3.2 million to cover expenses yet to be reimbursed, and $159 million for additional damages.
  • The additional damages would cover long-term monitoring, an on-site lab and alternative water supply reservoirs.
  • Navajo Nation Attorney General says the mine spill affected the tribe's "cultural, ceremonial and spiritual practices."

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation has filed a more than $160 million claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act for damages and ongoing injuries incurred from the Gold King Mine spill.

The filing was announced today in a press release from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, which stated the tribe instructed its lawyers from Hueston Hennigan LLP to submit the request.

Communities along the San Juan River on the Navajo reservation suffered in the wake of the August 2015 spill, which released millions of gallons of heavy metals-laden toxic waste from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said in the release that the spill transformed the river from a "life-giver and protector" to a "threat" to the Navajo people, crops and animals.

"In particular, it has impaired our ability to maintain the cultural, ceremonial and spiritual practices that undergird the Navajo way of life. Through this claim and our corresponding lawsuit, we are demanding that the U.S. government finally provide the Navajo Nation relief," Branch said in the release.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 9 office said the federal agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch talks during a press conference on Aug. 16 at Nizhoni Park in Shiprock about the tribe's lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In August, the tribe sued the EPA and several others for causing the environmental disaster. The EPA has claimed responsibility for the spill.

A seven-page letter from the tribe to Kenneth Redden, a claims officer at the EPA's Office of General Counsel in Washington, D.C., outlines the Navajo Nation's claims.

The tribe is asking for about $3.2 million to cover expenses already submitted to the EPA that have yet to be reimbursed. The additional $159 million would cover additional damages.

"Due to the spill, the Navajo Nation will have to expend additional resources to ensure the safety and well-being of the Navajo people though medical monitoring, mental health counseling, ecological monitoring and other programs necessary to identify and address the near and long-term impacts on the environment and Navajo people," states the letter, which is signed by Branch and attorney John C. Hueston.

Navajo Nation sues EPA for Gold King Mine spill

The request for additional damages would cover long-term ecological and groundwater monitoring, assessments on agricultural and livestock, an on-site laboratory, alternative water supply reservoirs, additional water treatment, cultural preservation and development of a natural resource damages assessment plan.

The tribe's filing also explains the significance of the San Juan River for Navajos.

"Harm to the river has a profound impact on the Navajo Nation and its people, disrupting the principle of hozho, which encompasses beauty, order and balance in the Navajo universe," the letter states.

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