The Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday — one of the final days of the Obama Administration — that it won’t compensate Navajo farmers and others who suffered damages resulting from the 2015 Gold King Mine spill.
The EPA said it won’t pay more than $1.2 billion in claims because of a law that protects government agencies and contractors from liability, according to the Farmington Daily Times. In addition, according to the newspaper, an EPA official said paying such claims would discourage the agency from cleaning up polluted sites in the future.
The August 2015 spill of millions of gallons of mine waste and heavy metals was accidentally triggered by the EPA while it was cleaning up an old mine site. Many Navajo farmers and others, believing the Animas River was unsafe after a flood of yellow flowed through it, watched their crops whither and die instead of watering. The situation was financially devastating to many on the Navajo Nation, where about half of people live below the poverty line.
People filed the claims seeking compensation from the EPA because the EPA asked them to do it. “EPA takes responsibility for the Gold King Mine release and is committed to continue working hand-in-hand with the impacted local governments, states and tribes,” the agency states on its website, which includes links related to filing claims.
Elected leaders from New Mexico slammed the federal government on Friday for what they viewed as a betrayal.
“We are outraged at this last-ditch move by the federal government’s lawyers to go back on the EPA’s promise to the people of the state of New Mexico — and especially the Navajo Nation — that it would fully address this environmental disaster that still plagues the people of the Four Corners region,” U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, all Democrats, said in a joint statement.
More than a year ago, the lawmakers said, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy “assured both the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and all of us individually that her agency would do the right thing, and see to it that the spill was cleaned up properly.”
“While the agency has taken steps to clean up the mine, no farmer has received a dime of compensation over a year later, and distrust in the government has deepened,” they said, adding that Navajo farmers “are still struggling to recover because of distrust of the water and financial losses they took at harvest time.”
Gov. Susana Martinez, meanwhile, called Friday’s news “yet another insult by the Obama EPA.”
“I can guarantee you that if a private company had caused this massive environmental disaster, the EPA would have gone all out to hold them accountable. But when the federal government dumps millions of gallons of toxic sludge into our rivers, they shirk their responsibility and leave it up to the states to mop up the mess they created,” Martinez said. “This is unacceptable and just another example as to why the people have lost faith in the federal government.”
N.M. Attorney General Hector Balderas was also harsh in his criticism.
“New Mexico’s children, families and economy have already been devastated by the EPA’s horrific actions, and now the EPA is re-victimizing our state and the Navajo Nation with its reckless refusal to take full responsibility for the toxic Gold King Mine spill,” he said. “Our families and farmers rely on this water, and I will continue to aggressively pursue litigation to obtain justice for our culturally unique population and fragile economy.”
While Balderas promised to continue pursuing legal action, Udall, Heinrich and Luján promised to seek legislative remedies. “We will not give up until the government makes this right,” the lawmakers said.
The lawmakers spoke about the history Navajos have faced, saying they have been “the victims of terrible and deadly environmental injustice over many years.”
But, the lawmakers pointed out, the decision to pay the claims isn’t up to the EPA. It’s up to a federal judge presiding over lawsuits from the Navajo Nation and State of New Mexico against the EPA.
Regardless of the EPA’s “shameful legal interpretation of liability today” or the outcome of lawsuits, Udall, Heinrich and Luján said they believe the federal government “has a moral obligation to compensate farmers, small business owners and others injured for their losses; to fully reimburse local and tribal governments for the costs of responding to the spill; and to continue to pay the costs of independent water monitoring until the people have faith in the water again.”
On Twitter, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., called the EPA’s action “a slap in the face to the Navajo Nation and Four Corners communities.” And on Facebook, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., called the action “absolutely disgusting.”
“I am glad to see my Democrat colleagues are outraged as well and hope they join with me to hold these agencies accountable,” Pearce said. “I will continue to fight to make sure that New Mexicans are compensated for damage done, and for the state to take over remediation efforts as the EPA has lost all accountability in our state.”
This article has been updated with comments from Martinez, Pearce and Grisham.