On Aug. 5, a team of workers contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spilled 3 million gallons of orange-colored waste from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River in Colorado. The pollutants flowed into New Mexico where it merged into the San Juan River, a critical source of water for Navajo communities.
Local citizens and lawmakers alike are outraged by the lack of transparency from the EPA for the spill and now, the amount of tax dollars given to the firm responsible.
Colorado and New Mexico are now in a state of emergency because of the accident.
New Mexico governor Susana Martinez said in a press release that she is “concerned about the EPA’s lack of communication and inability to provide accurate information.” Stating that, “one day the spill is 1 million gallons, the next day, 3 million.”
Part of the frustration is the EPA’s failure to disclose the name of the contractor responsible to law makers and media outlets.
However, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that a Missouri-based firm, Environmental Restoration LLC (ER), was the “contractor whose work caused a mine spill in Colorado that released an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into a major river system.”
According to a WSJ review of data, ER received $381 million in government contracts since October 2007, approximately $364 million from the EPA and $37 million from work performed in Colorado.
That $381 million is a large chunk of change for taxpayers to spend to have pollutants that were carried to the Shiprock community on the Navajo reservation.
Despite preliminary tests showing minimum adverse health effects, Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie told CNN that he is waiting for a definitive all-clear before using river water on crops.
“Our community here, the very critical nature of our predicament is that we are a river-based community and we’re a strong agricultural community and the impact is very, very tremendous,” Yazzie said.
Around 750 families rely on the river to grow melons, corn and other crops.
According to CNN, the Navajo Nation is the first to announce legal action against the federal government. Yazzie said the EPA didn’t alert them about the spill until 24 hours after the incident, placing tribe members’ health at risk.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told CNN that the spill will have a “destructive impact on the ecosystems…that the Navajo culture depends on.” Begaye also said that the Navajo Nation intends to “recover every dollar it spends on cleaning up up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our natural resources.”
Beyond the obvious economic impact, it is the cultural and traditional impact on the community that is the most agonizing.
The river represents a spiritual element that is the basis of the tradition of the Navajo religion and for it to be harmed is spiritually, emotionally and psychologically very difficult, Yazzie said.