Emergency bill seeks funding for long-term study of mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — An emergency measure that requests funding for long-term impact studies of the Gold King Mine spill has been introduced to the Navajo Nation Council.

Delegate Dwight Witherspoon introduced the bill during the council's special session Wednesday.

It requests $1 million in supplemental funding from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance for the tribe's Department of Health, Environmental Protection Agency and Division of Natural Resources to use for studying and monitoring the mine spill's impact on the portion of the San Juan River that flows through the Navajo Nation.

The spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers last month.

Assessments completed by the tribe would focus on areas such as the environment, agriculture, wildlife and people, Witherspoon said during the special session.

The bill was not ready when the council adopted its agenda late Wednesday morning, and it had not been added as of Wednesday evening.

Several farmers and ranchers attended a meeting Wednesday that focused on legal options for those impacted by the spill. The meeting was led by a group of attorneys at the Farmington Civic Center.

Attorney Justin Jones said the group was assembled in order to handle individual claims or lawsuits, and he and his fellow lawyers shared information about those processes, as well as information about their legal experience in handling such litigation.

In addition to Jones, the legal team includes attorneys from Frank Azar and Associates, the Hannon Law Firm, and the Law Office of David R. Jordan.

Jones explained that any cases filed by the team would be separate from the Navajo Nation government's pending litigation against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"What we told them was that the Navajo Nation is doing what it is doing, but as we have seen, they're not representing individual farmers. They're representing the interests of the Navajo Nation pertaining to this," he said.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. EPA released additional data results for surface water and sediment samples collected from the Animas and San Juan rivers.

The EPA reported in a press release that surface water samples were collected from the Animas River on Aug. 16, 17, 20, 21, 23 and 24, and sediment samples were collected on Aug. 28 from locations along both rivers.

The data was reviewed and compared to screening levels for exposure during recreational use. The latest results show metal concentrations are being maintained at pre-event conditions, the release states.

Early Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., met with county, federal and tribal officials in Shiprock to discuss the mine spill and to prepare for an upcoming congressional hearing.

"I wanted to fully understand what they've been doing," Udall said in an interview after an event in Farmington.

The senator said he was concerned about the impact the mine spill had on farmers.

"When you don't have irrigation water, and its mid-season, it's devastating for your crop," he said, adding officials need to find out how and why the spill occurred so there is no repeat.

A press release from the Office of the Speaker states Udall met for an hour with Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, council Delegates Tom Chee and Amber Crotty, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie and Gadii'ahi-Tokoi Farm Board Official Gilbert Harrison.

Discussion ranged from expediting the reimbursement process for Navajo farmers to assuring the public that crops produced by the farmers are safe for consumption, according to the release.

Reporter Dan Schwartz contributed to this report.

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.