- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2015

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy moved to mend fences Thursday with Navajo Nation as the agency denied accusations that it tried to force Indians to waive their rights to future claims stemming from the Gold King Mine blowout.

In a statement Thursday, the EPA described as “inaccurate” comments by Navajo President Russell Begaye, who told The Washington Times and other press this week that EPA workers were going door to door on his reservation asking residents to sign claim forms appearing to waive future rights for payments now.

Mr. Begaye called it “underhanded” and posted a copy of the claim form online, but EPA officials insist it isn’t true.

“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 agency said.

The EPA also said those who face damages from the Aug. 5 accident at the abandoned Colorado mine, which sent 3 million gallons of bright orange wastewater down the Animas River, have two years to file claims under federal law.

Ms. McCarthy met with top Navajo officials for a private gathering Thursday on the reservation’s New Mexico side, then toured the San Juan River contamination site and the incident command center in Farmington, N.M.

The administrator, who has apologized repeatedly for the spill, called the accident “a heartbreaking situation for the EPA,” according to the Navajo Times.

She also announced that the EPA has committed $500,000 for clean water for livestock and crop irrigation for local farmers and ranchers. The day before, she toured the Animas River, which connects with the San Juan, in Durango, Colorado.

“We are making I think a concerted effort ‘round the clock at EPA, not only with hundreds of people on the ground but hundreds of people supporting them in the background, to make sure we get our short-term needs solved, but also to make sure that people know that EPA is in it for the long haul as well,” Ms. McCarthy said during a brief press conference in Farmington, N.M.

The EPA’s latest results from water testing in Colorado shows that the Animas River’s concentration of heavy metals is back to pre-spill levels, although orange residue remains on the river bottom, banks and rocks.

The orange plume from the spill moved down the Animas River and connected with the San Juan before heading to Utah and Lake Powell. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency Wednesday, the third governor to do so in reaction to the disaster.

“I am deeply disappointed by the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Mr. Herbert said after issuing the executive order. “It was a preventable mistake, and they must be held accountable.”

Mr. Begaye had questioned the EPA workers’ motives, saying they were approaching elderly Navajo farmers and ranchers who may not speak English as their first language, and who would have a hard time understanding the confusing language on Standard Form 95, which does seem to indicate that the claims made on it are final settlements and constitute a waiver of future claims.

As it wrestles with the fallout from the contamination, the Navajo Nation has received advice from an unexpected source: Erin Brockovich, the anti-pollution crusader made famous in the eponymous movie starring Julia Roberts.

“Navajo Nation stand strong,” Ms. Brockovich said on Facebook. “We stand with you; I stand with you!!!”

“Yesterday, EPA chief Gina McCarthy said she was ‘absolutely deeply sorry,’” said Ms. Brockovich on Facebook. “Well, that isn’t enough. You can apologize for calling someone names or even for a DUI, but an apology for a toxic disaster just ain’t gonna cut it.”

Ms. Brockovich urged the EPA to take four steps: provide “full disclosure,” minimize the damage to the environment, pay economic damages and “this is the most important, it must take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again, including firing people, taking action, and containing the toxic mining sites all across the west.”

“If it does that, it will still get bad marks for letting it happen but good marks for the proper reaction,” she added. “That’s how you handle a crisis.”

Mr. Begaye added on Facebook, “We need to bring her out to join us in this environmental fight!”

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