Lawsuit seeks $75 million in damages from 2015 incident

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

FARMINGTON — Approximately 300 members of the Navajo Nation who farm, ranch or reside along the San Juan River are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and eight private entities for damages caused by the Gold King Mine spill.

The civil complaint states that plaintiffs in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado were forced to stop using water from the San Juan River for crop irrigation, livestock watering and household purposes due to contamination from mine waste released on Aug. 5, 2015.

Group members claim crop harvests were lost due to the lack of irrigation and that livestock were unable to graze or drink water from the river. In addition, several ranchers sold livestock at a reduced price due to a decline in the animals' quality.

The 114-page complaint was filed Aug. 3 in U.S. District Court of New Mexico. It seeks approximately $75 million in damages.

Along with the federal agency, the complaint lists as defendants Environmental Restoration LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc., Sunnyside Gold Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Weston Solutions Inc., Salem Minerals Inc. and San Juan Corp., which the document describes as either EPA contractors or mine owners.

In a statement Friday, the EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation.

A federal judge ordered on Aug. 7 that the case be consolidated with four other legal cases filed since the spill.

Kate Ferlic, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a press release today that farmers and ranchers used various resources to try to save their crops and livestock, but to no avail.

"They trucked in water, they hand-carried gallons of water down long dirt roads, some even tried to use their tap water. The spill was a very real crisis for the Navajo people," Ferlic said.

She added that while each of the 295 plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the EPA, the agency still has not acted on those requests.

Aug. 5 marked the third anniversary of the spill, which was triggered when EPA contractors breached the mine near Silverton, Colorado. The action released more than 3 million gallons of toxic-laden wastewater into a tributary for the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. The tainted water then traveled through 215 miles of the northern portion of the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and tribal council Speaker LoRenzo Bates weighed in on the litigation in the press release.

Begaye said the spill was a disaster for the tribe and tribal members.

"The San Juan River has enormous cultural and spiritual significance for our nation in addition to its practical and economic importance. It is our lifeblood. Most of the farmers and ranchers have lived and farmed on these lands for generations," the president said.

Bates said the spill resulted in farmers being unable to irrigate crops, causing a loss of the harvest, which is the sole source of income for many people.

While some farmers could save their crops by using other sources of water, a stigma developed about water contamination and crops grown in the area, resulting in people not purchasing produce from farmers, he added.

"Our people endured clear and significant losses, and I look forward to the court doing them justice by ordering the EPA and the other responsible parties to pay up for those losses," Bates said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://www.daily-times.com/story/news/local/navajo-nation/2018/08/10/navajo-farmers-ranchers-sue-epa-and-contractors-gold-king-mine-spill/961536002/