Around 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into the Animas River from an abandoned gold mine in southern Colorado last week after an accident caused by the EPA. The agency says the water contains lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals, but has still not disclosed what impact the spill will have on river users downstream, like those in the Navajo Nation. However, Begaye says officials are already trying to preempt future lawsuits by taking advantage of Navajo citizens.
“My interpretation as president of the Navajo Nation is the EPA is trying to minimize the amount of compensation that the people deserve,” said Begaye. “They want to close these cases and they don’t want more compensation to come later.”
The EPA did not return requests for comment.
Claims for damage, death or injury caused by a federal employee’s negligence are covered under Standard Form 95, but the form also states that any payments made are final.
“They’re saying if we pay you $500 for buying hay for your cattle, and you sign your name here, that’s all you’re going to get,” said Begaye. “Next week if you find something else that comes up because of the contamination and maybe your livestock may be injured, then we can’t pay you because you waived your right.”
The Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency and is planning lawsuits against the owner of the Gold King Mine, where the sludge originated, and the EPA for causing the spill. Navajo Nation officials are working around the clock on contingency plans, including drastic measures to protect farm and ranch livelihoods.
“We could ask all the owners if they could get their animals and bring them to the rodeo grounds and we could put them in pens,” said Alvis Kee, manager of the Upper Fruitland Chapter House. “We could get stock tanks with water, we could get the hay or whatever feed they need and to bring that over and provide it so they can insure that their livestock do not go to the river.”