Before Dakota Access, many Americans were unaware of the excessive damage and exploitation that Native Americans have endured and continue to suffer from massive corporations. However, last year, one of the worst environmental catastrophes was not caused by a corporation, but by the government itself. More specifically, the disaster was caused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the very part of the federal government tasked with protecting the environment from such events. In August of 2015, a group of contractors hired by the EPA spilled massive amounts of waste from an abandoned gold mine into the Animas river and its tributaries. Gold mining, one of the dirtiest types of mining, produces extremely toxic waste and thus the river was pumped full of arsenic, lead, mercury, and other extremely potent toxins, killing off fish and wildlife and ruining water supplies for entire communities. In total, the EPA caused over 300 million gallons of toxic waste to pass into the river, an amount so great that it turned the entire river yellow.
Normally, if a corporation were responsible for such a mess, the EPA would fine them for significant amounts of money. However, because the spill was caused by the EPA itself, no fines were given out and the EPA offered only hollow apologies and failed to offer a concrete plan for the clean-up. The EPA told local tribes whose lands border the river, such as the Navajo Nation, that their people would have “to live in a state of uncertainty” as it could take “decades” to fully clean-up the spill. A federal report released in April found the EPA to be at fault, though, ultimately, no one was held accountable. Yet, new developments suggest that may soon change.
This past Monday, the Navajo filed suit against the US government and the EPA, asking for $160 million in damages. The Navajo Nation, who once relied on the river for drinking water, irrigation, and livestock, have suffered economically as well as emotionally, as the river has been transformed from “a life-giver and protector” to a “threat.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch also spoke to the cultural and spiritual impacts of the spill, saying that “in particular, [the spill] has impaired our ability to maintain the cultural, ceremonial, and spiritual practices that under-grid the Navajo way of life. Through this claim and our corresponding lawsuit, we are demanding that the US government finally provides the Navajo Nation relief.”
Though the lawsuit is expected to move forward, it remains to be seen if legal action will be able to ameliorate the extensive damage caused by the spill. This spill is also unlikely to impact EPA policy, which has consistently ignored environmental discrimination claims from the nation’s poorest communities, rejecting 95% of such claims between 1996 and 2013. Native Americans are one of the groups most affected by this criminal and discriminatory policy as government agencies have consistently broken treaties, guaranteeing native rights in order to allow private interests to pillage their land-holdings. The EPA’s response to this catastrophic mess highlights how Native Americans have consistently been dealt strings of empty promises by the federal government all the while being forced to suffer the worst of government negligence and man-made environmental catastrophe.