San Juan River polluted as result of Gold King Mine; Navajo Nation not happy with EPA’s lack of response.
Published August 11, 2018
WINDOW ROCK — On Friday, August 3, 2018, 295 Navajo farmers and ranchers filed suit against the USEPA and a number of private defendants responsible for the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill in Silverton, Colorado. As a result of the spill, these 295 Navajo farmers and ranchers were forced to stop using water from the San Juan River, the main source of water on the Navajo Nation, to irrigate their crops and water their livestock. The lawsuit seeks approximately $75 million in damages.
On August 5, 2015, the EPA and private contractors hired by the EPA to conduct environmental remediation were performing unsafe excavation work on the Gold King Mine when it burst, spilling 3,000,000 gallons of hazardous waste, including 880,000 pounds of heavy metals, into Cement Creek – a tributary of the Animas River. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River, which runs through 215 miles of the Navajo Nation.
President of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, states “the San Juan River has enormous cultural and spiritual significance for our nation in addition to its practical and economic importance. It is our lifeblood. Most of the farmers and ranchers have lived and farmed on these lands for generations. The spill was a disaster for the Nation and its people.”
“As a result of the spill, Navajo farmers were unable to irrigate crops. Many lost their harvest – which was their sole source of income,” noted Speaker of the 23rd Navajo Nation Council, LoRenzo Bates. “Those who were able to save crops by trucking in water could not sell their crops because of stigma associated with irrigation from waters contaminated by the Gold King Mine Spill. Navajo ranchers were forced to purchase feed and haul in water at significant expense in order to keep their livestock from drinking from the river. Then, when our ranchers tried to sell their livestock, they had to do so at significantly reduced prices due to the public stigma. Our people endured clear and significant losses, and I look forward to the court doing them justice by ordering the EPA and the other responsible parties to pay up for those losses.”
Attorney General for the Navajo Nation, Ethel Branch, added “It is a travesty of justice that our people have had to suffer so greatly at the hands of a federal agency that continues to evade true responsibility for its part in the Gold King Mine spill. I am hopeful that our farmers and ranchers will finally have justice, and the economic relief they so greatly deserve. Our people are tenacious; I am confident that with compensation for their losses, they will restore their fields and continue the legacy of the San Juan River Basin as the breadbasket of the Navajo Nation.”
The 295 plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the EPA, which have not yet been acted on by the EPA. The suit names the EPA, which has taken responsibility for the spill as a defendant along with eight private defendants ranging from EPA contractors to the mine owner. The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
“We are honored to represent the 295 individuals in seeking justice for their losses,” said Kate Ferlic, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and a partner at Egolf + Ferlic + Harwood, LLC, a Santa Fe-based law firm. “All 295 plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the E.P.A. and the E.P.A. still has not acted on those claims. According to the old legal maxim, justice delayed is justice denied.”
“While the EPA has publicly taken responsibility, it has not actually compensated anyone yet for their losses. The private defendants have yet to take any responsibility, although they certainly played a role in causing the spill,” said Kate Ferlic. “We are hopeful that the EPA will make good on its promises to help.”
The suit is separate from the suit filed by the Navajo Nation which seeks damages for harm to the San Juan River and land, reimbursement for cleanup efforts, and future water-quality monitoring, among other things. The suit on behalf of the 295 Navajo farmers and ranchers seeks compensation for their individual losses as a result of the spill. The suit filed by the individuals was immediately consolidated into the Multi-District Litigation, which includes lawsuits against the EPA and the private defendants by the States of New Mexico and Utah and the Navajo Nation, pending before the United States District Court of New Mexico.
“The farmers and ranchers went through hell trying to save their crops and livestock. They trucked in water; they hand-carried gallons of water down long dirt roads, some even tried to use their tap water. The spill was a very real crisis for the Navajo people,” explained Kate Ferlic. “We will work to get them justice.”