The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is among several defendants named in a lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation alleging that the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 could have been prevented, and seeking damages.
When three million gallons of mining wastewater were let loose last August by EPA contractors attempting to remediate the site in Silverton, Colorado, it gushed into the Animas River, then the San Juan, prompting it to be declared off-limits for agriculture and drinking for several days. Even today, the tribe is still seeing fallout.
“For nearly two days, the USEPA did not call, alert or notify the Nation that this toxic sludge had been released and was headed into their waters and land,” the Navajo allege in the complaint. “Now, a year after one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected, or their way of life restored.”
Members of Congress representing the region that encompasses the Navajo Nation applauded the move. A statement from the office of U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, said the EPA’s priority should be to “make the Navajo community whole and mitigate financial risk to Navajo tribal members” and urged the agency to consider a fast settlement so as not to drag the process out. Other Democrats expressed support as well.
“I am proud to represent the Navajo Nation in Congress, and I stand firmly with them in this lawsuit against the EPA,” said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Arizona, in a statement. “The Gold King Mine spill was catastrophic for the Navajo people. Not only was it an environmental and economic disaster, it was a failure by the EPA on several fronts. First, the agency failed to respond swiftly and transparently. It failed to immediately engage the tribal government. And it failed to fully address the disaster’s short- and long-term burdens on the tribe.”
“The Navajo people have been on the receiving end of devastating environmental disasters brought on by the federal government and private industry for far too long,” said U.S. Senator Tom Udall in a statement. “The spill was an accident, but the EPA made several serious mistakes, and the Navajo Nation has every right to pursue its claims for damages in court. This was not a natural disaster, and the communities that were harmed by the toxic spill deserve compensation.”
In addition to naming the EPA as defendants, the Navajo Nation pinpoints several companies related to both the Gold King Mine itself, and to surrounding abandoned mines whose conditions allegedly contributed to the fragility of the Gold King site, and thus provided ideal circumstances for the spill to occur. Also named in the suit are Environmental Restoration LLC, the EPA subcontractor that punctured the abandoned mine; Harrison Western Corp., a subcontractor working with Environmental Restoration; Gold King Mines Corp., which owned the mine just before the current owners, the San Juan Corp.; Sunnyside Gold Corp., Kinross Gold Corp. and Kinross Gold USA Inc., co-owners and operators of the Sunnyside Mine, “whose conduct contributed to the hazardous conditions that led to the massive release of toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine on August 5, 2015,” and other parties named as John Does 1-10.
“When Sunnyside Mine ceased operations in the 1990s, Sunnyside Gold attempted to shut down operations as quickly and inexpensively as possible—despite the inevitable, foreseeable, and catastrophic consequences to the environment and downstream communities,” the Navajo complaint said.
Sunnyside did this by plugging an underground drainage passage known as the American Tunnel with bulkheads designed to seal the mine openings and hold back the toxic waste that company officials expected to accumulate over time. A history of alleged shunted responsibility and ignored warning signs followed, culminating in the EPA’s mistake—all of which could have been prevented, the Navajo Nation said. Several of the parties had recognized the possibility of a blowout at the mine and done nothing about it, the Nation alleged.
“By plugging the Sunnyside mine with bulkheads, the owners and prior owners of the Sunnyside Mine recklessly caused the Gold King Mine, among others, to fill with toxic, contaminated water, without regard to the effect it would have on nearby mines, the environment, or the downstream communities,” the complaint said.
The complaint also details the damage done to the Navajo Nation and its citizens.
“One of the Navajo people’s most important sources of water for life and livelihood was poisoned with some of the worst contaminants known to man, including lead and arsenic,” the complaint alleges. “The Nation brings this case to finally hold accountable the USEPA, their contractors, the mining companies, and others that have poisoned the San Juan River with their neglect, their wantonness, and their advancement of their own interests above those of the people who live and rely on the waterways. The Defendants ignored warning signs for years, ignored the years-long buildup of contaminants and hazards, failed to follow reasonable and necessary precautions prior to and during their efforts at the Gold King Mine, and failed to prepare for known risks of a mine blowout.”
Without specifying damages, the complaint said it expected to be compensated for future costs related to the incident.
“The Nation is entitled to entry of a declaratory judgment that Defendants are jointly and severally liable for future response costs and natural resource damages assessment costs based on the contamination of the San Juan River to the extent that those costs are not inconsistent with the national contingency plan,” the complaint states.