EPA reaching out to the Navajo Nation for further discussion

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency top administrator is asking the Navajo Nation for specific information about continuing support of livestock water for farmers and ranchers impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.

Jared Blumenfeld, EPA regional administrator for Region 9, made the request in a letter Thursday to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

Blumenfeld wrote the agency has not received direction from the tribe about what further research or analysis might be needed as the tribe plans its next steps.

"I suggest that we bring our teams together after Labor Day for a focused dialogue to bring clarity to your additional information needs and to chart a course forward," he wrote.

He wrote the EPA worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide water for livestock until Aug. 28.

Earlier this week, BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling confirmed the BIA's Navajo Region began demobilizing water locations but was keeping water stations in Shiprock and Hogback.

Blumenfeld stated his understanding is that the two locations will continue to be maintained until Sept. 30, and the EPA will continue to supply hay to ranchers and farmers until Wednesday.

Begaye said in an email Friday to The Daily Times that his administration is asking President Barack Obama to declare the San Juan River a disaster area, thereby releasing funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist farmers and ranchers.

"Currently, the U.S. EPA is withdrawing from the region even though significant unmet needs still exist. EPA is removing all water tanks from the Navajo Nation as the tanks become empty," Begaye wrote.

The U.S. EPA has accepted responsibility for the spill, which released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater last month. The wastewater plume flowed into a tributary of the Animas River and then into the San Juan River, which runs through the northern portion of the Navajo Nation.

On Aug. 7, tribal officials restricted the use of San Juan River water for irrigation, livestock and recreational purposes.

Begaye stated that water restrictions remain for livestock usage.

"Some irrigation systems remain closed due to lack of assurance that sediments coming from the Gold King Mine will not migrate into the irrigation canals and ultimately onto farmland. It would be devastating if this were to occur," he wrote.

Blumenfeld wrote that as the EPA's response continued, it conducted comprehensive surface water and sediment sampling on both rivers to determine if the water quality had returned to pre-event conditions, and the results show the water quality of the San Juan River has returned to pre-release conditions.

He concluded his letter with remarks about the tribe's concerns about the delivery of 13 water tanks that held water for livestock. Tribal officials were concerned about what they said was contamination in the tanks and residue on the tanks' drain valves.

Blumenfeld wrote that the agency appreciates the feedback from Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch confirming the water within the tanks met the tribe's water quality standards.

Begaye did not respond to questions regarding Branch's correspondence with the EPA.

Late Friday, the president issued a statement that expressed disappointment in FEMA's denial of a request to appoint a federal disaster recovery coordinator to assist in the tribe's recovery efforts.

Begaye made the request for a coordinator in an Aug. 30 letter to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate, who explained his reason for the denial in a letter Friday.

Fugate wrote the purpose of a coordinator is to facilitate disaster recovery efforts in incidents declared under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and significant non-Stafford Act incidents.

He explained that the EPA is the lead federal agency responding to and addressing the consequences of the spill, which has not been declared a disaster under the Stafford Act. He added the EPA has been in coordination with federal, state and tribal officials.

"Since the EPA has established a mechanism to coordinate across the federal government and with the Navajo Nation and affected local and state governments regarding this multijurisdictional incident, I am not appointing a FDRC for this incident," Fugate wrote.

The president's office announced in a press release Friday that environmental activist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich and Begaye will tour areas impacted by the spill on Tuesday.

"I am deeply concerned with the actions of the U.S. EPA and I stand by the Navajo Nation. Over 20 million gallons of contaminated water have poured out and are continuing to pour out from the Gold King Mine. This needs to stop, and the U.S. government needs to clean up the mess they caused," Brockovich said in the release.

Begaye said in the release that the spill has devastated the tribe's culture and economy, and help is needed to address the crisis.

The land surrounding the San Juan River is recognized for its agriculture, with many farms growing corn, melons, squash and alfalfa.

"We appreciate Ms. Brockovich's willingness to visit our nation to witness the damage first hand and help raise awareness about the plight of our people," Begaye said.

Brockovich is best known for helping residents of Hinkley, Calif., file a class-action lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. for contaminating the town's groundwater. The case resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement for residents in 1996.

Her work on that case was featured in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts.

Additional details about Brockovich's visit will be released later, the release states.

During Wednesday's special session of the Navajo Nation Council, Delegate Dwight Witherspoon introduced an emergency measure to provide $1 million in supplemental funding for long-term impact studies of the spill. The funding would come from the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance and would be allocated to the tribe's Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Division of Natural Resources.

The bill was not ready when the council adopted its agenda Wednesday, and it was not added to the agenda.

It remains for consideration before the council and can be added to an agenda by a super-majority approval, according to the Office of the Speaker.

Early Friday, the Navajo Nation Emergency Operations Center in Tsé Bonito received 10 pallets of bottled water from the organization Healthy Active Natives.

Roberta John, the public relations representative at the operations center, said Healthy Active Natives collected the bottled water from participants during a walk and run event Aug. 29 in Tempe, Ariz.

In addition, six pallets of bottled water were delivered by Digital Air Strike of Phoenix to the Shiprock Chapter on Friday, and the operations center received a donation of more than 20 tons of hay from the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

Ernest Keedo, a volunteer with the operations center, said the hay is slated for delivery to Hogback next week.

John said the tribe appreciates each donation, and the operations center encourages individuals to arrange donations with the center.

Monetary donations can be submitted to Navajo United Way Inc. and are being taken at any Wells Fargo bank location through the Navajo Nation Operation Yellow Water Relief Fund under an account ending in 3176.

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.