Brockovich and Begaye toured the riverfront and some of the hardest hit agricultural areas, culminating with a speech to students at a Shiprock, New Mexico highs school. Insisting that the government clean up its mess, Brockovich said “They did not tell the truth about the amount. There were millions and millions of gallons.” Brockovich accused federal regulators of lax oversight, both in the Navajo Nation, and throughout the U.S.
Activist Erin Brockovich has taken up a new, yet familiar cause, this time accusing the federal government of lying about the amount of toxic wastewater that was spilled last month from a defunct Colorado mine into the rivers in three states. Brockovich, who was portrayed by the Oscar-winning performance of Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” continued the same environmental activism that garnered Hollywood’s attention in the 1990s. Brockovich visited the Navajo Nation in New Mexico on Tuesday to see firsthand the pollution of the 215-mile stretch of the San Juan River that runs through the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. As a legal clerk in 1993, Brockovich led a similar case involving groundwater pollution in the Southern California town of Hinkley, caused by utilities provider PG&E, which resulted in a $333 million settlement in 1996, the largest ever for a direct-action lawsuit. Since the release of the film bearing her name, she has also taken part in several other environmental lawsuits while also serving as a celebrity activist, raising awareness for environmental and consumer safety concerns.
On August 5th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with private anti-pollution contractor, Fenton, Missouri-based Environmental Restoration LLC, accidently destroyed a dam at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado that held back a tailing pond. The pond contained a large portion of wastewater full of separated minerals including a large amount of cadmium, lead, and toxic arsenic. Water from the pond spilled into the Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, sending the wastewater flowing through Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico before emptying into the San Juan River. Originally, the EPA said that roughly a million gallons of wastewater were spilled, although later revising its estimates to three million gallons. Analysis of the water near Durango, Colorado showed that six different metals were above the legal limit for drinking water in the state, including some metals being over a hundred times the maximum level. In addition to its initial understatement of the scope of the spill, the EPA also took major criticism for failing to notify state authorities until the day after the spill. Congress is holding a hearing on Wednesday to begin its investigation of the spill, with some committee leaders accusing the EPA of withholding documents that could explain the cause of the accident.
Although the Animas River was closed indefinitely for all citizens on August 10th, the spill has hit the Navajo Nation especially hard. The Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management issued a state of emergency declaration in response to the spill. The pollution of the San Juan River has severely threatened the economic conditions of farmers as well as the health and well being of the roughly 300,000 residents of the semi-autonomous territory. Much of the territory’s irrigation systems have been off-limits pending results from the reservation’s internal sediment testing. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has petitioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help in cleaning up the pollution. Giving his thanks for Brockovich’s impending visit in a statement last week, Begaye said “We appreciate Ms. Brockovich’s willingness to visit our Nation to witness the damage firsthand and help raise awareness about the plight of our people.”
After arriving in the Navajo Nation and witnessing the damage firsthand, Brockovich had some extremely critical words regarding the EPA’s actions. Brockovich and Begaye toured the riverfront and some of the hardest hit agricultural areas, culminating with a speech to students at a Shiprock, New Mexico highs school. Insisting that the government clean up its mess, Brockovich said “They did not tell the truth about the amount. There were millions and millions of gallons.” Brockovich accused federal regulators of lax oversight, both in the Navajo Nation, and throughout the U.S. She added that it was up to citizens, especially the younger generation, to hold the government and industry accountable for pollution control, saying “You are the future and you will be the answers.”
Daily Mail (UK) – Corey Charlton
Denver Post – Jesse Paul
U.S. News and World Report – Associated Press