FEMA Refuses to Help Navajo with Gold King Mine Spill

As you should know by now, the EPA’s mismanagement of an operation to add a tap to the tailing pond of the Gold King Mine in Colorado has caused a monumental environmental disaster. The toxic wastewater flooded into the Animas and San Juan Rivers, and the Navajo in New Mexico and Arizona are the people who have been suffering the brunt of the disaster.

Thus far, the Navajo’s attempts to get proper help from the federal government in cleaning up a mess it created have gone mostly unheeded. It’s a topic I have covered in the past, and more depressing news on the issue came yesterday when we learned that FEMA had rejected the nation’s appeal for help. To make matters even worse for the Navajo, this news came on the same day that the EPA announced that it will be removing the the water tanks it had supplied to help with the tribe’s livestock. As the Arizona Republic explains:

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye had sought the appointment of a disaster-recovery coordinator to assess the spill’s impact and to focus federal resources to respond to the accident.

“The primary, secondary, and tertiary impacts of the toxic chemical spill are already affecting crucial areas of the Nation’s land, waters, crop production, livestock raising, and economic resources,” he wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to FEMA.

FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate wrote that he would not appoint a coordinator because the EPA has already been assisting with the problem.

“We are extremely frustrated with the news that both FEMA and the U.S. EPA have declined our urgent requests to continue assistance to the Navajo Nation,” Begaye said. “U.S. EPA caused this entire disaster. They have harmed the people, the water and the land.”

Either Fugate hasn’t been following the clean up all that closely or he doesn’t want to get FEMA involved in the mess. Regardless of the reason, it’s a disgrace. Any rational observer can realize how ridiculous the assertion that “the EPA has already been assisting with the problem”. The little help they have given has been woefully inadequate. First, as I have noted in the past, the agency tried to cheat the tribe of its right to sue them in the future over their troubles, and then, the water tanks the agency initially brought to aid them were still dirty from the last time they were used. The effects of this spill will be felt for years to come, and the EPA have given no indication that they are prepared or willing to help people deal with the consequences of mistakes it made.

It’s obvious that the Navajo would want to find aid wherever they can get it, given the EPA’s incompetence and neglect. Rather than attempt to fulfill FEMA’s ostensible mission of managing emergencies, Craig Fugate has decided to adopt the typical bureaucratic mindset of “it’s someone else’s problem, let them deal with it”, even when that someone else’s solutions have fallen far short of the necessary fixes.

This is an excellent opportunity for Republicans in Congress to hold the federal government accountable for a mess it created and needs to deal with. Beyond just investigating the spill itself, there are plenty of other avenues for inquiry. This Denver Post article has an excellent summary of how this disaster came to happen. Among other things, a couple of questions immediately stand out: first, why did the EPA underestimate the potential for disaster at this mine, and second, why does the agency not have any protocols for reopening inactive mines? The latter seems like a glaring defect in their policies. They might have called the blowout “inevitable” whether they intervened or not, but a proper understanding of the situation you are dealing with could have made the result far more manageable in scope.

Before we get to investigations, though, we need to focus on helping those affected by this tragedy, especially considering that the Navajo Nation is one of the most impoverished regions of the United States. That comes first, and FEMA and the EPA deserve every bit of scorn they are getting for refusing to make truly meaningful attempts at doing their jobs.