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Navajo President Warns Against Signing EPA Claim Forms for Mine Spill Damage

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye warns residents not to submit and sign EPA claim forms to avoid waiving their rights in wake of spill.
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Don’t sign anything.

That’s the message from Navajo President Russell Begaye, who has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop distributing claim forms to Navajo citizens affected by the August 5 spill at Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which sent three million gallons of toxic wastewater into the San Juan River. The fear is that the forms, once signed, would effectively waive an individual’s right to seek future damages caused by the contaminated water, although the EPA says that is not the case.

“Don’t sign it,” said Begaye, who called the EPA’s distribution of Standard Form 95 “insensitive and minimizing” for individual Navajo citizens who may be facing years or even decades of hardship caused by the spill.

The spill occurred when an EPA contractor, tasked with pumping toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, ruptured the roof of the mine, releasing a mustard-yellow plume of waste into Cement Creek. That creek drains into the Animas River, which joins the San Juan River in Farmington, N.M.

The San Juan runs for 215 miles along the northern portion of the Navajo Nation, from Fruitland, N.M., to Page, Arizona, where it drains into Lake Powell. Navajo communities in three states were affected by the spill, as were the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes of Colorado.

RELATED: Southern Ute Tribe Declares Disaster Over Mining Spill in Animas River

The EPA, which is taking “full responsibility” for the accident, began distributing the claims forms shortly afterward. The form covers claims for property damage, death or injury caused by a federal employee’s negligence, but it also states that any payments made are final.

When an individual submits the form, he or she agrees to accept the payment “in full satisfaction and final settlement” of the claim. Wording on the form also indicates that failure to complete the document and proof of loss within two years of the incident may render any claim invalid.

The claims process appears to avoid taking into consideration the long-term effects of the spill, which dumped massive amounts of chemicals, mining waste and heavy metals into the river. Early tests found extremely high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, zinc, iron and copper, heavy metals whose health and environmental effects may not be apparent for some time.

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The EPA, which is still taking water and soil samples and gathering data, has not indicated when cleanup will begin. The agency did estimate full cleanup could take decades, but it has not yet addressed the long-term environmental or health concerns.

“People will continue to need resources,” Begaye said. “We’re talking about the needs of the individuals for decades. Don’t sign a claim for $400 when you will end up spending $4,000.”

The EPA has denied that it is trying to force individuals to forfeit rights to future claims. However, in a statement issued on August 13, the federal agency did confirm that those who face damages have only two years to file claims under federal law.

“To be clear—EPA is not offering immediate reimbursements for damages from the Gold King Mine water, and it is not true that if someone submits a claim that by doing so they limit or waive future rights,” the EPA said in a statement outlining how to file the form. “Although EPA’s regulations state that it has six months to resolve a claim, we will make every effort to respond to Gold King Mine release claims as soon as possible. Claims must be presented to EPA within two years after the claim accrues.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a press conference held August 13 on the banks of the San Juan River, tried to ease worries about the form. The agency has made $500,000 available to address immediate needs, she said, and people do not need to file claims to receive that aid.

Water for drinking, irrigation and livestock is being made available at stations across the affected area, McCarthy said. The EPA and local agencies are collaborating to meet all the immediate needs “in a way that doesn’t require claims to be filed.”

The Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency and is planning lawsuits against the owner of Gold King Mine and the EPA. Begaye is concerned about the long-term uncertainty about water safety, the toxins deposited in the riverbeds and shores, and what will happen once EPA officials go home.

“The question is, how will we know that when our children are out there playing, or when cattle are out there drinking, that the toxins won’t rise to the top and get on their bodies, or be consumed?” he said. “Since cleanup will take decades, is that how long we will wait to have complete certainty that we will not be ingesting that stuff?”

Citizens seeking immediate relief can call the EPA toll-free at 844-607-9700. The Navajo Nation has also set up command centers to answer questions and provide resources in Shiprock, N.M., and Aneth and Oljato, both in Utah.