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Hundreds of Navajo farmers, ranchers sue over Gold King Mine spill

Richard Charley, right, and Melvin Jones deliver water to a ranch along the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation after the river was contaminated with toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine in 2015. (Matt York/The Associated Press)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Nearly 300 farmers and ranchers on the Navajo Nation affected by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill filed a lawsuit last week alleging gross negligence on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractors and demanding compensation for their losses.

The suit, filed Aug. 3 in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico in Albuquerque, includes 295 Navajo Nation members who say the spill caused extreme economic hardship to the tune of around $75 million, attorney Kate Ferlic said.

It’s the largest group of individuals to file suit over the spill.

Some lost their crops when they couldn’t use river water to irrigate them. Others were forced to sell livestock at reduced prices due to the stigma surrounding the San Juan River after the spill. One plaintiff said some of his animals died from dehydration and from drinking from the contaminated river.

Ethel Branch, Navajo Nation attorney general, said the disruption of the growing season also resulted in a shortage of items used in prayer and rituals such as cornmeal and pollen ceremonies.

“I think people had a lot of hope early on that the EPA would indeed take responsibility for their actions by processing the (Federal Tort Claims Act) claims quickly and ensuring that people were compensated for their injuries,” Branch said in a telephone interview Thursday. “People are disheartened that EPA has basically rejected actually assuming real responsibility for their actions.”

Branch said she believes the 295 plaintiffs represent half to two-thirds of farmers and ranchers who could have filed claims.

After the spill sent 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater and 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers in August 2015, the EPA under President Barack Obama determined that the law would not allow the agency to pay damage claims, though it did accept responsibility for the spill.

Former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July, had said the EPA would take a second look at the previously rejected claims.

But there still haven’t been any payouts.

Navajo leaders greet farmers affected by the Gold King Mine spill in 2015. Farmers and ranchers were unable to use the San Juan River to irrigate crops or water livestock after 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater were released into the river. (AP Photo/Matt York, File)

“The EPA does keep promising that the claims will be evaluated, but they continue not to evaluate the claims,” Ferlic said. “I think that the principle ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is relevant here.”

The lawsuit is one of several consolidated in Albuquerque federal court filed by New Mexico, Utah, the Navajo Nation and non-Navajo individual farmers and ranchers.

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said he hopes the plaintiffs are successful.

“For Navajo, because of our tradition and belief system, our world view is that these plants, they’re like our children and we treat them as our children,” he said. “I really was hoping that this administration would (compensate farmers) because they seem to be a lot more friendly toward righting government wrongs, and I have really been disappointed that has not been the case.”

Yellow water from the Animas River, contaminated with toxic metals, left, merges with the San Juan River, at right, after the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015. (Farmington Daily Times)