EPA / Reuters

Navajo Nation leader rejects EPA no-sue waivers

Navajo Nation president bars EPA from handing out waiver forms to tribal members affected by toxic spill

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to stop handing out forms to Navajo citizens impacted by the Animas River spill that would effectively waive an individual’s rights to sue the agency for any future damages caused by contaminated water released from an abandoned mine upstream in Colorado last week.

“The people that live up and down the river, the Navajo people, many do not speak English, and those that do may not comprehend legal language,” Begaye said. 

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.”

Yellow mine waste water from the Gold King Mine collects in a holding pool.
Allen Schauffler / AL Jazeera

Other communities along the Animas are making their own plans. In Aztec, City Manager Josh Rays says authorities are primarily concerned with getting drinking water to residents who use wells instead of the municipal system.

“We have roughly 73 million gallons of untreated water in reserve,” Rays said. “We have another three or four million gallons in treated water in reserve, so we have sufficient water supply for 30 to 45 days without having to access new water sources.”

For the moment, Aztec is preparing for up to six months without access to the Animas. After that, Rays says that water will have to be trucked in.

“We just don’t know how long this is going to last,” Kee said. “We’re hoping for the best, but we’re starting to plan for the worst, and that’s all we can do at this stage.”

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