In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came in with contractors to drain the toxic Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. When they failed to control the toxic sludge, the dam ruptured uncontrollably.
Instantly, millions of gallons of heavily polluted water burst from the mine, spilling into the majestic Animas and San Juan Rivers. The once beautiful waters turned putrid yellow. The chemicals, heavy metals and uranium dispersed, traveling into Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. The water from the river was no longer safe to drink or use for crop irrigation.
For the two days that this toxic sludge invaded the Navajo Nation, the EPA failed to call and alert the people. When the EPA did get around to issuing a notification, no details were given on how long the toxic sludge would contaminate their land. The most secluded areas that rely heavily on this water source didn’t hear from the EPA for weeks about how the contamination would impact their livelihood. After losing their crops and being poisoned by the EPA’s negligence, the Navajo Nation is now coming together and suing the agency for neglect and for providing no true recourse.
Navajo Nation becoming radiation victims
EPA officials told the Navajo people that the river would restore itself and would be safe to use two weeks after the spill. However, Navajo president Russell Begaye warned residents not to trust the EPA’s official story. After conducting their own analysis of the river and finding widespread contamination, the Navajo Nation pressured the EPA into sending non-potable water to their farmers so that they could try to sustain their crops and animals.
The effort wasn’t enough to sustain the crops, however. An estimated 2,000 Navajo farmers lost their crops over the past year when they stopped using their irrigation pumps. Their produce sales have dropped dramatically, since people are afraid of being poisoned by toxic uranium and other heavy metals. Petuuche Gilbert of the Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment says that the uranium mines cause radioactive contamination, and as a result, “All the residents in their vicinity are becoming nuclear radiation victims.”
EPA provides no recourse
The EPA has yet to offer compensation for the farmer’s lost crops, which is the reason for the lawsuit. The EPA hasn’t even helped with cleanup efforts, or worked to improve health protections for the Navajo Nation.
Leona Morgan of the organization Dine NO NUKES confirms this, saying, “A mostly-Navajo community in Sanders, Arizona has been exposed to twice the legal limit allowable for uranium through their tap.” At the very least, the EPA could be handing out standalone water filtration devices to the families living in areas of high contamination.
The people of the United States continue to wonder if the EPA’s purpose is to protect the environment and the people’s health, or if it merely exists to control and facilitate industries such as uranium mining.
The Gold King Mine Spill is just the beginning of the problems associated with abandoned uranium mines. There are an estimated 15,000 of such abandoned mines throughout the Western United States. About 75 percent of these mines lie on native and tribal lands, which will pose an ongoing threat to the future and health of the people of these regions.