Senator Udall Presses EPA Administrator on Response to Gold King Mine Spill at Indian Affairs Hearing

Hearing included testimony from Navajo President and rancher; Udall reiterates plans to introduce 2 bills to ensure EPA compensates those impacted by spill, reform laws to prevent another mine accident

During a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the Gold King Mine spill, U.S. Senator Tom Udall pressed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy about the impact on the Navajo Nation and San Juan County. Udall, who serves on the committee and requested the hearing, pushed McCarthy to commit to a smooth claims process for spill victims seeking compensation, a strong government-to-government relationship between the EPA and the Navajo Nation, and to support designating the area as a Superfund site.

“In the West, rivers are a lifeline. This is especially true for the Navajo Nation — which depends on limited surface water resources,” Udall said. “The San Juan River is crucial. It brings water for drinking, irrigation and recreation, and also has cultural and religious significance to the Navajo people. So the federal government must own up to this tragedy.”

To prepare for the hearing, Udall visited earlier this month with Navajo Nation leaders and farmers who showed him the impact that the spill has had on their land. Many farmers suffered significant damage due to the spill, Udall told McCarthy: “Those on the Navajo Nation and others affected by this spill must be compensated,” Udall said. “The Navajo Nation has been on the receiving end of devastating environmental disasters — brought on by the federal government and others — for far too long. Mistakes have been made. We need to do everything in our power to make sure they are not made again.”

Udall pressed McCarthy to commit to working with the Navajo Nation and other spill victims to handle damage claims quickly and appropriately, without trying to avoid responsibility. He also asked McCarthy to prioritize funding for long-term monitoring of the rivers and for compensation for those impacted. “That is our responsibility and we will meet that,” McCarthy told Udall.

Udall also questioned Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and other witnesses about costs associated with the spill, the long-term impact on human health and whether communities have received appropriate assistance from the EPA so far. “The government-to-government relationship could have been done much better, and we’re going to stand with you to make sure it improves every day into the future,” Udall said to Begaye.

“It’s easy for Washington to expect things will return to normal in due time,” he continued. “But it is clear this disaster will continue to affect the Navajo people.”

The hearing before the Indian Affairs Committee was the second of two in the Senate to address the spill today. Earlier, Udall addressed a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about the spill and outlined two bills he plans to introduce. Along with Senator Martin Heinrich and Representative Ben Ray Luján, Udall plans to introduce a bill this week to ensure the EPA continues to work with communities in Northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. It would require the EPA to compensate those who were impacted by the spill and continue to monitor water quality from the mine, which had been leaking contamination even before the spill.

Udall and Heinrich also plan to introduce a second bill in response to the spill that would reform the nation’s antiquated mining laws, which date back to 1872, to ensure mining companies pay a royalty for the minerals they take from public lands. The royalty — similar to that paid by oil and gas and coal companies — would help pay for abandoned mine cleanup.

“I believe in the principle of the polluter pays…. But we are stuck with the 1872 mining law, which requires none of this,” Udall said at the hearing. “These big mining companies are refusing reform, refusing to pay. Some look at this area and say that the 1872 mining law is some of the laxest public oversight of any industry. We cannot continue that way.”