While the world was watching the standoff between the local authorities and water protectors at Standing Rock, the Navajo nation was preparing a lawsuit over the fouling of their water. The Gold King mine spill in August of 2015 turned the river a deep yellow and sent toxic pollutants like arsenic and lead coursing through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo nation’s land. Although the river’s appearance is back to normal, the Navajo worry that sediments loaded with heavy metals will be disturbed and kick up into the surface water any time it rains.
While they still honor the river, many feel that the water cannot be used for irrigation, let alone drinking, until there has been a significant cleanup of the site. The EPA has claimed responsibility for the Gold King mine spill and had already devoted over $29 million to the cleanup and mitigation efforts as of August of this year. However, the Navajo are seeking over $160 million under the Federal Tort Claims Act for ongoing damages related to the spill. They would like more regular real-time monitoring of the river and of nearby sources of groundwater, water treatment, alternative sources of water, an assessment plan for the future of their natural resources, and funds for cultural preservation. The injury to the river resulting from the Gold King incident impacted more than just their water use and the health of their livestock and crops, but has touched their cultural and religious practices as well.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation last week that addresses improvements to the nation’s water infrastructure. Included was a provision that would require the EPA to submit all claims from states, local and tribal governments within 180 days of the passage of the bill into law. House Representative Scott Tipton (R-CO) said that “for rural communities, families and businesses, the ability to thrive depends on having reliable access to safe and affordable drinking water.”
While I suspect that people struggling with ongoing water issues from drought-ridden California, to Colorado, to Standing Rock, to beleaguered Flint, Michigan, would agree that their ability to thrive is deeply connected to the safety of their water, actions mean more than words. President-elect Trump’s current choice of Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA is like putting Monsanto executives in charge of organic standards. In his role as Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt worked hard to block EPA rules and repeatedly sued the agency over standards for clean air, limiting emissions of pollutants like mercury and arsenic from power plants, and other protections for public health that would in any way limit the ability of Oklahoma’s polluters to externalize their poisons. Further, he’s a climate change denier who claims that the science surrounding anthropogenic climate change is “unsettled.” Perhaps coincidentally, “unsettled” is also how my intestines feel when I consider that the fate of the environment at this crucial time may be in the hands of a man who receives strong support from the oil and gas industry.
If our ability to thrive depends upon clean and safe water, perhaps we’ll be relying on Republican congressmen like Rep. Tipton and Colorado senator Cory Gardner to block the efforts of Pruitt and people like him. However, I wonder how a man like Pruitt, who has pursued legal action so often against the EPA, will fare when the agency that is likely to be under his control is itself sued by the Navajo over the Gold King mine spill. Will he be forced to defend the agency he obviously wishes to muzzle?
Either way, with the incoming administration appointing a gallery of rogues to important leadership positions, I expect that preventing more disasters like the Gold King blowout won’t be topping the EPA’s agenda anytime soon. The cavalry isn’t coming. We’re going to have to find workarounds and take care of ourselves. Perhaps it is time for forging alliances between the First Nations people and the political Left as a way to counter the corrosive influences of not just the Gold King’s sulfuric acid, but of the next administration as a whole.
The author’s previous coverage of the Gold King Mine disaster can be found at this link.