The Navajo Nation is the largest single Indian nation in the United States. It also happens to, more or less, straddles all four states in the Four Corners region. Their livelihood depends upon water from the San Juan River, of which the Animas River is a tributary. Needless to say, they are outraged over what has happened with the Gold King Mine wastewater. The Navajo have been some of the most vocal of the critics of the EPA over all of this. This short report from USA Today helps explain their response:
As the video notes, the Navajo are going to do everything they can to hold the EPA accountable for this mess, going even as far as preparing legal action against the agency. President Russell Begaye told a community meeting this weekend:
“They are not going to get away with this,” Begaye said. “The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster, and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources.”
The EPA’s complete mishandling of the wastewater is not the only reason for the Navajo to be outraged. The compound the problems the agency has already created, it looks like they are basically trying to swindle the tribe out of future compensation for the spill. Here’s how it works: in order to receive compensation for damages caused by the spill, the EPA wants people to sign a document called Standard Form 95. The agency has given people six months to do so. However, it looks like there’s a catch. From New Mexico’s KOB4:
But Wednesday, Navajo President Russell Begaye sent a directive to cease any promotion of the form, saying it contains “offending language that will waive future claims for individuals that sign the form and preclude [Navajos] from seeking full compensation for injuries suffered from the spill.”
A disclaimer near the bottom of the first page of the form says: “I certify that the amount of claim covers only damages and injuries caused by the incident above and agree to accept said amount in full satisfaction and final settlement of this claim.”
The Navajo Nation directive says that if people sign the form, they forfeit any further compensation for damages suffered beyond the date it is signed, leaving the possibility that people affected years down the road will not receive any further compensation.
“The U.S. EPA has admitted they are at fault and stated this disaster will last for decades. This is unacceptable. The damages to our people will be long term and the Navajo Nation will not settle for pennies. I have consistently stated that the Navajo people deserve to be compensated for every penny lost. I will not allow fine print to let U.S. EPA off the hook. The Navajo people deserve better from the federal government,” said President Begaye.
“If we fill these out today, with no knowledge of what kind of heavy metal is in the river, what type of particulates is there we have no cause or reason to fill this out,’ said Joe Ben Jr., the Shiprock Chapter Farm Board Representative at a meeting of more than 100 farmers and ranchers Wednesday morning.
“For that reason I urge farmers ranchers of San Juan area of the Navajo Nation not to fill the form out,” he said.
So basically, the EPA wants people to sign this form as soon as possible, which means they could be signing it before they know what all is even in the river. Even more importantly, with even the EPA itself acknowledging that this disaster will take decades to fix, the people signing these forms won’t be able to claim any compensation for future problems.
To make a long story short, the EPA is trying to dodge being held accountable for the long term effects of the spill, and their actions are hurting and will hurt some of the people who can least afford it. Per the nation’s website, the tribe’s median income is $20,005. Furthermore, of the 180,462 people living on the reservation, 43% live below the poverty line, and 42% are unemployed.* This spill only exacerbates the national crisis that is the state of life on Indian reservations.
Beyond that, though, is the fact that the history of relations between Indian tribes and the United States government is full of horrible mistakes. Books upon books have been written on the subject, but it looks like the Obama administration’s EPA is trying to add one more sordid chapter to this history. Making amends for the mistakes of the past is a complicated process, to say the least, and our government should not be adding to the list. When the inevitable Congressional hearings begin, I hope Republicans do not forget to look at how this catastrophe has affected the Navajo and how the EPA is apparently trying to absolve themselves of the legal responsibility of helping them in the long term future.
*=By Indian reservation standards, these stats are relatively good. The average unemployment rate on a reservation is 49%, for example.