Of the many communities affected by the 3 million gallons of mine wastewater spilled into the Animas River and beyond, the Navajo Nation has had the sharpest criticisms for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA, after all, is responsible for the spill of the toxic pollutants from the Gold King Mine in Colorado. The orange sludge flowed from the Animas River in Colorado into New Mexico, where it met and started following the San Juan River, a key source of water for Navajo communities.
Several political leaders have expressed outrage at the EPA spill and declared states of emergency, but the Navajo Nation is the first to say it will take legal action the federal government.
The spill will have a destructive impact on the ecosystems fed by the San Juan River that the Navajo culture depends on, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said at a community meeting this weekend.
“They are not going to get away with this,” Begaye said. “The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster, and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources.”
Begaye also instructed the Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take action against the EPA.
The EPA said it is helping provide water delivery to areas where water sources are contaminated, and the Navajo Nation utility company is sourcing its water from wells not affected.
“Navajo officials have reacted quickly, assessing their well fields and drinking and irrigation water intake systems and issuing a precautionary ‘do not use’ public service announcement regarding water from potentially impacted sources,” the EPA said in a statement this week.
One area of concern is Shiprock, New Mexico, one of the largest farming communities for the Navajo Nation. The San Juan River is the main supply for irrigation in that area.
According to the EPA, the spill occurred when one of its teams was using heavy equipment to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine north of Durango. Instead of entering the mine and beginning the process of pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas.