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Erin Brockovich to Survey Gold King Mine Spill Damage on Navajo Nation

Erin Brockovich to tour Navajo Nation damage from Gold King Mine Spill into San Juan River.
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As federal investigations get under way into the Gold King Mine spill that sent three million gallons of waste into the San Juan River across the Navajo Nation a month ago, renowned consumer advocate Erin Brockovich is set to visit the reservation on September 8 to survey the damage and consult with President Russell Begaye.

“The Navajo Nation has been culturally and economically devastated by the impact of the Gold King Mine Spill, and we need help to address this crisis,” Begaye said in a statement on September 4. “We appreciate Ms. Brockovich’s willingness to visit our Nation to witness the damage first hand and help raise awareness about the plight of our people.”

Brockovich became famous as the protagonist in the eponymous 2000 movie that chronicled her tireless fight to get restitution for residents of Hinkley, California, who suffered illness as a result of pollutants released into their water supply by PG&E gas in the 1990s. After inspiring the film starring Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for the role, Brockovich went on to become a consumer advocate and environmentalist.

The mine outside Silverton, Colorado, has continued to leak, albeit at a reduced rate, into Cement Creek, which feeds into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan. The initial spill occurred on August 5 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally triggered a deluge while trying to remediate the site of Gold King Mine.

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"I am deeply concerned with the actions of the U.S. EPA and I stand by the Navajo Nation," said Brockovich in a statement announcing her visit. "Over 20 million gallons of contaminated water have poured out and are continuing to pour out from the Gold King Mine. This needs to stop, and the U.S. government needs to clean up the mess they caused."

Begaye has declared his intent to sue the EPA for the spill, and Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch has retained the law firm of Hueston Hennigan LLP to represent the tribe. Leading the case will be John Heuston, who also led the case against Tronox, a $5.15 billion contamination settlement of which $1 billion went to the Navajo Nation.

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The Bureau of Reclamation is heading the federal investigation at the request of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which was asked by the EPA to investigate the exact cause. The EPA also asked Interior to make recommendations to prevent future occurrences, the Bureau of Reclamation said in an August 20 statement.

“The Bureau of Reclamation is well-suited to head up this independent technical review on behalf of Interior,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael L. Connor in the statement. “Reclamation is already active in the watershed and understands the issues. Reclamation is also credited with fast action in response to the spill by doubling water releases from the Navajo Dam on the San Juan River to dilute the spill as it moved its way down the river system.”

Soon after the spill, Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) and Vice Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) announced they would hold an oversight hearing on the impact of the spill on the Navajo Nation. Members of Congress praised the initiatives.

“We appreciate Chairman Barrasso and Vice Chairman Tester’s commitment to holding a Senate Indian Affairs Committee oversight hearing on the impact of the EPA Gold King Mine spill on the Navajo Nation,” said Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Tom Udall (D-NM) in a statement on August 18. “Through our ongoing conversations with leaders of the Navajo Nation, we understand their dissatisfaction with the EPA’s response to the spill, and share their concerns that toxic substances might flow onto their lands and waters. Congress has a responsibility to oversee the federal government’s response to this crisis, and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing will ensure that the EPA explains the public health, environmental, and economic costs of the spill, and its remediation plans, as well as addresses other problematic EPA activities involving the Navajo Nation.”

On August 28 Begaye opened the San Juan River and related waterways back up for irrigation, though not for livestock. He also made a disaster-assistance request to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), which was denied on Friday September 4.

"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,” said Begaye in a statement quoted by KOB4 News on Sunday September 6. “U.S. EPA caused this entire disaster; they have harmed the people, the water and the land. I appreciated the fact U.S. EPA took responsibility, and I was hoping for the U.S. EPA to prove to the Navajo Nation they are willing to hold themselves accountable. This action clearly shows otherwise. For years, we have consistently been at the receiving end of toxic spills and contamination with no adequate relief as the United States Government and Private Companies became wealthy off of the natural resources of the Navajo Nation."