WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Navajo Don’t Trust EPA’s Toxic Spill Investigation

Posted on Sep 9, 2015

The Navajo Nation’s environmental regulator said Wednesday that it has “grave concerns” that the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into a massive toxic spill last month represents a “strong conflict of interest” and is calling for the creation of an independent panel.

An Aug. 5 spill in Colorado caused by an EPA contractor was the subject of a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Wednesday. The spill released 3 million gallons of toxic sludge that stretched across the waterways of three states, including portions of the San Juan River that runs along tribal lands in New Mexico.

Donald Benn, the Navajo Nation’s environmental regulator, said he is encouraged that the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General is reviewing the incident, “but we believe another agency should be made lead on the response, and an independent body should conduct the investigation of the incident.”

“We have grave concerns about the strong conflict of interest U.S. EPA has with respect to this investigation and the emergency response,” Benn said in prepared testimony.

“No other environmental bad actor would be given this same amount of leeway to investigate itself and determine to what extent it will be held accountable.”

Benn described a level of “distrust” between the nation and the EPA, based on the lack of warning and transparency from federal authorities.

“To the issue of distrust, our first point of concern with … EPA is with its delay in notifying the nation of the spill,” Benn said. “The spill occurred the morning of Aug. 5, 2015, but the Navajo Nation was not informed of the release until Aug. 6,” when state authorities, not the EPA, alerted the Navajo.

“The … EPA did not seek to notify the Navajo Nation of the release for almost two full days,” he said. “This is a completely unacceptable delay in notifying a downstream jurisdiction.”

The second major gripe the Navajo have with the EPA is the agency’s lack of disclosure regarding the toxic mix of chemicals that made up the spill.

Benn said the agency sought to downplay the threat of the spill by emphasizing the acidic level of the wastewater. He said EPA officials emphasized the acidity was that of “black coffee.”

“This served to downplay the magnitude of risk to human and animal health, and later reports by U.S. EPA of released contaminants were incomplete,” he said.

It was confirmed later that the spill contained concentrations of lead and arsenic, but at much lower levels than were actually present, Benn said.