WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), current chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and former chairman and current committee member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), toured St. Michael Indian School and then participated in a roundtable discussion focusing on “Safeguarding Tribal Sovereignty, Economic Development, and Education on the Navajo Nation.” The roundtable took place on Friday Sept. 16 at the Karigan Professional Building Complex, in St. Michaels, Arizona.
St. Michael Indian School is a private school that offers kindergarten through 12th grade on the Navajo Nation. The school boasts a very high college acceptance rate. The visit included touring the school’s facilities and meeting with administrators, teachers, and students to hear how the private school was succeeding.
Click here to view all of the pictures from the senators’ visit to St. Michael Indian School.
The roundtable featured several leaders from the Navajo Nation, including the Honorable Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation; the Honorable Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation; and the Honorable LoRenzo Bates, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council.
The roundtable discussion focused on several topics including the EPA’s Gold King Mine disaster, how to best spur economic development on Navajo Nation, education reform, and tribal dam maintenance. Sens. Barrasso and McCain noted important legislation that had passed the committee and the full Senate on all these issues.
Click here to view all of the pictures from the roundtable discussion.
On the EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster:
“Some of the issues we face on the Navajo Nation you have really helped us with, for example the Gold King Mine,” said President Begaye. “Of course we had to file suit to really expedite the reimbursements of farmers for damages that they incurred a year ago. And we know that it is going to continue. The losses will continue for more than just a year or two years…. these farmers depend on the farm land for their annual income. That is how they put food on the table, pay their bills, and buy clothes for their children and to this day, they have not been reimbursed yet.”
Senator McCain responded by highlighting action the Senate took as part of the S. 2848, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016. “Just yesterday, we passed an amendment to the WRDA bill, to accelerate reimbursements that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) owes to the tribe for the emergency,” said McCain. “And it also requires the EPA to support more soil quality monitoring, so that we can assess the damage there. So that is in legislation we passed just yesterday through the Senate, and I am confident that it would be signed by the President of the United States.”
Later in the roundtable, President Begaye thanked the committee for their attention to the Gold King Mine issue. “Thank you for the follow up hearing in Phoenix that really, I believe, made a statement to say that: ‘We are serious. This is not going to be a onetime issue but this is important to Capitol Hill and to the Navajo people.’ And your support by walking with us has been really commendable. So thank you.”
On Economic Growth:
President Begaye also highlighted Chairman Barrasso’s bill, S. 3234, the Indian Community Economic Enhancement Act of 2016. “With the Buy Indian Act, we appreciate the efforts within your bill that is going through committee now, said Begaye. “Which would make sure that the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) buy products produced by Navajo and Indian tribes.”
“You’re absolutely right,” said Chairman Barrasso. “I think we have bipartisan support for the bill. We held a discussion a few weeks ago in the Indian Affairs Committee and we heard that it is critical that this be done with BIA and IHS. These are opportunities to continue to expand and if you want to be able to deal with high unemployment, passing this bill is a certain way to do it.”
On Tribal Dam Maintenance:
President Begaye also voiced the Navajo Nation’s support of the S. 2717, the Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act of 2016 (DRIFT Act). “The DRIFT Act is something we would like to see continued and we appreciate your bill, Mr. Chairman,” said Begaye. “We support that because there are a lot more water projects that are needed out there.”
Chairman Barrasso responded that the DRIFT Act was also included in the WRDA package that had just passed the Senate. “The DRIFT Act was also part of the WRDA bill that passed,” said Barrasso. “It passed the Senate yesterday by a vote of 97 to 3. Now we need it to pass the House of Representatives, so that we can send it to the president.”
Gold King Mine Disaster
On Aug. 5, 2015, an EPA-supervised crew at the Gold King Mine in Colorado released roughly 3 million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River in Colorado and onward to the San Juan River in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The Animas/San Juan River crosses the reservations of both the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Indian tribe. The contaminated water contained heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.
On Sept. 16, 2015, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing on the “EPA’s Gold King Mine Disaster: Examining the Harmful Impacts to Indian Country,” which featured testimony from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
On April 13, 2016, Senators John Barrasso (R-WY) and Jon Tester (D-MT), chairman and vice chairman of the SCIA, subpoenaed Administrator McCarthy or Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus to testify at a field hearing. The invitation for Stanislaus to testify was originally sent on March 28, but the EPA declined to send him or any other witness. On April 22, 2016, the committee held a field oversight hearing in Phoenix, AZ on “Examining EPA’s Unacceptable Response to Indian Tribes.”
On May 3, 2016, Barrasso and McCain sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting a Department of Justice criminal investigation into the EPA’s responsibility for the mine spill. In July 2016, the EPA Office of the Inspector General publicly stated that a criminal investigation was ongoing concerning the Gold King Mine disaster.
On Sept. 15, 2016, the Senate passed legislation to accelerate reimbursements to the tribes affected by the spill, as part of S. 2848.
Indian Community Economic Enhancement Act of 2016
Following several committee hearings and roundtables on economic development, on July 14, 2016, Barrasso and McCain introduced the Indian Community Economic Enhancement Act of 2016. The legislation will improve access to capital in tribal communities by amending and improving existing law.
The Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act of 2016 (DRIFT Act)
The BIA is responsible for 137 high-hazard dams and more than 700 low-hazard dams across the United States. The majority of high-hazard dams are in the western United States. On average, they are 70 to 80 years old and have more than $500 million in deferred maintenance needs. Two of the high-hazard dams are located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming – the Washakie Dam and Ray Lake Dam.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed the DRIFT Act on April 27, 2016.
On Sept. 15, 2016, the Senate passed the DRIFT Act as part of S. 2848.