Navajo Nation sues EPA over toxic gold mine spill which turned river yellow

Waste water from the Gold King Mine collects in a holding pool in San Juan County, Colorado, on August 7, 2015. © EPA
Leaders from the sovereign Navajo Nation have filed a lawsuit against their next-door neighbors, the Americans, and their Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for playing a part in the spilling of 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River in Colorado and New Mexico.

The “reckless” environmental disaster last year contaminated the major river with nasty acid and metals leading to long-term effects for wildlife and communities around the area.

The incident, which is also known as the “Gold King Mine Spill,” occurred when contracted workers from the EPA attempted to drain some of the toxic water from the mine, but instead a huge blowout sent arsenic, lead and mercury into the river, turning it yellow and pouring over 888,000 pounds of toxic metals into the water.

The contaminated water flowed downstream, through New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation for some 200 miles, ruining water supplies for communities and killing off fish and wildlife.

While the spill is still under criminal investigation, a federal report from April found that the EPA was at fault and the agency had drilled in the area to install drainage pipes below the Gold King Mine due to small amounts of contaminated water flowing into the Animas River.

READ MORE: EPA caused the Colorado gold mine spill, government investigators report

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said community members, including farmers, have still not been compensated for incurring high losses of revenue as a result of the disaster.

In the lawsuit, the EPA has been accused of failing to adequately re-mediate the aftermath of the spill, despite the thousands of farmers who work alongside the San Juan River, which flows from Animas through New Mexico and Utah, being unable to sustain their crops and livestock.

“One of the Navajo people’s most important sources of water for life and livelihood was poisoned with some of the worst contaminants known to man, including lead and arsenic,” Begaye stated in a 48-page complaint.

“Efforts to be made whole over the past year have been met with resistance, delays, and second-guessing,” he added in the lawsuit, accusing the EPA of ignoring “warning signs for years.”

The Navajo Nation is being represented by John Heuston, who was a lead prosecutor against Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling in the infamous trials that lead to the closure of the energy company.

“The river has always been a source of life, of purification, and of healing,” Ethel Branch, the Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, told CNN. “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 people who rely on it.”

The EPA has been criticized for dismissing hundreds of environmental discrimination claims, reaching up to 95 percent of community claims based on issues caused by industrial facilities in neighborhoods, strongly hitting poor and minority communities between 1996 and 2013.