Navajo Nation names firm for mine spill lawsuit

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch has selected a southern California-based law firm to represent the tribe in a future lawsuit stemming from the Gold King Mine spill.

Hueston Hennigan LLP will represent the tribe "in its claims relating to the release of hazardous substances" from the mine, according to a Monday press release from the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accepted responsibility for the spill, which released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River last month. The plume of heavy-metal laden wastewater then flowed into the San Juan River, which runs through the northern portion of the Navajo Nation and converges with the Colorado River at Lake Powell in southeastern Utah.

Shortly after the Aug. 5 spill, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye announced that the tribe plans to sue the EPA. As of Monday afternoon, a lawsuit had not been filed, said Lisa Richardson, a spokeswoman for the law firm.

The spill prompted tribal officials to restrict the use of river water for irrigation, livestock and recreational purposes.

"The impact has been devastating to our culture and economy, as well as to the peace of mind of our people," Branch said in the release.

The litigation team will be led by attorney John Hueston, who represented the Navajo Nation and others in a lawsuit that secured a $5.15 billion settlement from Tronox Inc. last year.

Hueston said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that the intention is to engage in negotiations with the EPA and other parties, including the mine's owners.

If negotiations fail, a lawsuit will be filed, he said.

Hueston added that among the objectives is to secure federal assistance for the tribe's EPA to complete more comprehensive testing and to develop a sedimentation plan beyond what the U.S. EPA has established.

"It will take time to get to the bottom of all the harm that's been caused because of the release," Hueston said.

The U.S. EPA released more results on water quality and sediment data for the Animas and San Juan rivers on Monday.

The EPA reported in a press release that the latest results are trending toward pre-event conditions, a statement that has accompanied all recent data dumps.

On Friday, members of Gadii'ahi-Tokoi Chapter passed a resolution in favor of opening the gates on the Hogback Irrigation canal, according to chapter personnel.

The Hogback Irrigation canal delivers river water to Gadii'ahi-Tokoi as well as to Tsé Daa K'aan and Shiprock chapters.

In Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter, farmers from the chapter voted not to open the irrigation system during a meeting on Sunday, according to chapter personnel.

Also during the weekend, Shiprock Chapter held two meetings to update and discuss the situation with members.

Shiprock Chapter farm board member Joe Ben Jr. said the chapter membership reaffirmed passage of an Aug. 21 resolution to oppose resuming the operation of the irrigation system.

He added there is concern with legislation posted on the Navajo Nation Council's website last week that supports the release of the river water to irrigate crops and water livestock.

The bill directs the tribe's Division of Natural Resources and the Navajo Nation EPA to assist in reopening the Fruitland, Hogback and Cudei Irrigation systems.

Ben said chapter members are concerned with the bill because the Hogback Irrigation system was not suppose to be included, based on a discussion the council's Resources and Development Committee had during an Aug. 25 meeting.

He said he will attempt to present Shiprock's resolution to the Resources and Development Committee at their meeting Tuesday in Tsé Bonito.

Also Tuesday, officials from federal, local and state departments and agencies will answer questions about the mine spill from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the multi-use building at McGee Park.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.