(Washington Times) – The EPA is trying to cheat Navajo Indians by getting them to sign away their rights to future claims from the agency’s Gold King Mine disaster, tribal officials charged Wednesday, adding more to the administration’s public relations problems over the spill that threatens critical Southwest waterways.
Environmental Protection Agency officials were going door to door asking Navajos, some of whom don’t speak English as their primary language, to sign a form that offers to pay damages incurred so far from the spill, but waiving the right to come back and ask for more if their costs escalate or if they discover bigger problems, Navajo President Russell Begaye told The Washington Times.
“It is underhanded. They’re just trying to protect their pocketbook,” Mr. Begaye said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Begaye has promised a lawsuit on behalf of the Navajo Nation and said he suspects the EPA is trying to buy off as many Navajo as possible now to head off a bigger settlement later.
The spill has dumped millions of gallons of polluted wastewater into the Animas River, which feeds the San Juan River and eventually the Colorado River, which provide water for grazing and crops in much of the Four Corners area, the quadripoint of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo Nation covers much of that territory.
The EPA did not have an immediate comment on Mr. Begaye’s charges Wednesday.
At a press conference in Durango, Colorado, agency Administrator Gina McCarthy called the spill “heartbreaking” and pledged to work with tribal officials to get control of the spill.
“We want everything to be transparent,” she said.
She said officials were following the standard federal claims process for those who said they were damaged from the spill.
Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said through a spokeswoman that he has heard the complaints from the Navajo Nation and that his panel will investigate the entire disaster.
“Chairman Bishop is outraged at the reports that the EPA is asking tribal members to sacrifice their rights after EPA’s ineptitude has potentially threatened their health and livelihoods,” spokeswoman Julia Bell Slingsby said. “People are suffering because of EPA negligence, and yet the federal government’s response is not to help, but to engage in grasping for legal cover before the full extent of damage is known to Navajo farmers.”
She said the EPA would come down hard on any private party that tries the same tactics and demanded to know why the Interior Department, which has oversight of Indian affairs, hasn’t come to the aid of the tribes.
A reporter at Wednesday’s press conference asked Ms. McCarthy whether she was being as hard on her own agency as she would have been on a private mine that had this kind of spill.
“We will hold ourselves to a higher standards than we will anyone else,” Ms. McCarthy replied, though she didn’t say what accountability would entail.
The claim forms EPA officials were distributing on the Navajo reservation ask locals to estimate a dollar amount they can attribute to property damage, personal injury or wrongful death. The form warns that failing to total up the claim “may cause forfeiture of your rights.”
Mr. Begaye said many of the Navajo involved are elderly and speak Navajo as their primary language. As a result, they may have a difficult time understanding the forms and may feel pressed by the EPA to sign quickly.
He said the situation is all the more enraging because the EPA has acknowledged that the cleanup will take decades yet is pushing for Navajo to calculate their costs now and sign away their rights for the future.
“Our leadership from the White House — it’s almost nonexistent. And now they’re asking us to waive all of this stuff, and the yellow water is still flowing into the river. Nothing has been contained,” he said. “It’s just a huge — I don’t want to use the word cover-up, but it’s just government not doing its job, causing all of this to happen to our people, our land, our economy.”
He said EPA workers have acknowledged that other mines could face similar problems and that the priority should be on fixing those and cleaning up the existing spill, which is still flowing, rather than trying to deflect liability.
The EPA has admitted it is at fault in the spill from the closed mine, which agency employees were attempting to clean. They underestimated the pressure buildup behind debris at the entrance, which ruptured when workers disturbed it, spilling what the EPA says has been 3 million gallons of toxic water.
Mr. Begaye, who has visited the scene, said the amount is far more than 3 million gallons because the plume of yellow water, which demarcates the toxic spill, stretches for more than 100 miles.