The Navajo Nation has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the EPA has failed to adequately remediate the disaster a year after the dispersal of 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animus river watershed near Silverton, Colorado. The chemicals flowed from the Animas, along some 200 miles of the San Juan River in New Mexico, which runs through the Navajo Nation and continues into Utah.
"After one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected or their way of life restored," the complaint filed by the Navajo Nation in US District Court for the District of New Mexico alleges. "Despite repeatedly conceding responsibility for the action that caused millions of dollars of harm to the Nation and the Navajo people, the U.S. EPA has yet to provide any meaningful recovery. Efforts to be made whole over the past year have been met with resistance, delays, and second-guessing. Unfortunately this is consistent with a long history of neglect and disregard for the well-being of the Navajo," the lawsuit says. The lawsuit alleges that the EPA, its contractors and the mining companies, who are also named in the lawsuit, ignored the buildup of contaminants over many years, failed to follow "reasonable and necessary precautions" to avoid the spill when they began the mine cleanup operation in August 2015.
"The river has always been a source of life, of purification, and of healing," said Ethel Branch, the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, who noted that the Navajo people harvest minerals from the banks of the river for use in their religious ceremonies. "Now it's been transformed into something that's a threat. It's been pretty traumatic in changing the role of the river in the lives of the people who rely on it."
In the immediate aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, one water sample showed that the level of lead in the Animas River was 12,000 times higher than normal. The river was also contaminated with high levels of arsenic, beryllium, cadmium and mercury. Branch said the spill has created a stigma of fear around the organic and heirloom crops grown by the Navajo in the San Juan watershed and that health concerns have made it more difficult for Navajo farmers to sell their produce. "We're not going to know the health impacts of the exposure to the water for five to 10 years -- maybe more," Branch said. "And it's not just direct exposure, the community is also concerned about eating food that's been watered with contaminated water, or eating livestock that has consumed the water."