WASHINGTON, D.C.— Today, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor highlighting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) unacceptable response to Western states and Indian tribes affected by last August’s Gold King Mine disaster.
Click here to watch Sen. Barrasso’s remarks.
Excerpts of Senator Barrasso’s remarks:
“Last August, several western states and Indian tribes suffered an enormous environmental disaster.
“It was called the Gold King Mine spill.
“In this disaster, the United States Environmental Protection Agency caused a spill of three million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado.
“This plume of toxic waste threatened people in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
“It stretched to the land of the Navajo Nation, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
“When the Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Gold King Mine spill last September, we heard testimony from Russell Begaye.
“He’s the president of the Navajo Nation, which has lands roughly the size of the state of West Virginia. A very large piece of land.
“President Begaye told our committee that for the Navajo people: ‘Water is sacred, and the river is life for all of us.”
“He said, ‘Today we are afraid to use the river.’ With an emphasis, he said, on the word ‘afraid.’
“The EPA caused that spill more than eight months ago because it made crucial mistakes, critical mistakes, and it failed to take basic precautions.
“We still have not gotten answers to some very important questions.
“Now that the snow in the Rocky Mountains is beginning to melt.
“People in this very area, in the course of this river are worried about being victimized again by the failures of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“They want to know if melting snow will stir up the lead, and mercury, and other poisons that settled to the bottom after this poisonous spill.
“They want to know if this blue river is going to turn bright yellow again.
“Next week, I’m chairing a field hearing of the Indian Affairs Committee in Phoenix, Arizona.
“We’re going to be looking at the Environmental Protection Agency’s unacceptable response to Indian tribes.
“This includes the inadequate handling of the Gold King Mine disaster.
“It includes the agency dragging its feet on cleaning up Cold War uranium mines across the Navajo and the Hopi reservations.
“The members of these tribes deserve to hear directly from the EPA. They want answers to what is being done to fix these blunders.
“From what I’ve seen lately, I expect the Environmental Protection Agency will be doing its best to avoid giving any answers at all.
“When we first invited – the Indian Affairs Committee first invited – the agency to send a representative to this hearing to update us, they refused. Astonishing, they refused.
“They said that they would send written testimony instead.
“I don’t think the EPA understands how this works.
“We’re holding this field hearing to do oversight on this catastrophe the EPA caused.
“This is not optional for them.
“This is not supposed to be another chance for EPA to show how uncooperative and unhelpful it can be.
“So tomorrow, the Indian Affairs Committee plans to issue a formal subpoena for the EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for her to appear at the field hearing.
“Now, Ms. McCarthy testified before our committee last September, she said that the agency was taking, her words, ‘full responsibility’ for the spill.
“Today, the agency won’t even come and look these people in the eye.
“Does that sound like it’s taking full responsibility?
“When this disaster first happened, the EPA didn’t notify the Navajo Nation until a full day after the spill.
“After four days, the EPA still had not reported to the Navajo leaders that there was arsenic in the water.
“This disaster happened more than eight months ago.
“No one, no one at the agency has been fired. No one has even been reprimanded for their failure.
“So what has the EPA done?
“Well, here’s a headline in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, April 8: ‘Toxic-Spill Fears Haunt West.’
“In the southwest part of this country, according to this article, it has been months since the agency has been back to test the safety of the well water for families near the river.
“Officials in New Mexico and in Utah say that ‘the EPA has failed to spearhead a comprehensive plan to manage the spring runoff or conduct long-term monitoring.’
“States and tribes are having to monitor the water quality themselves . Why you ask? Well, it’s because the EPA wasn’t planning to test enough sites or provide real-time data. And that’s what people need.
“What good is data if it isn’t telling people that the water they’re drinking is safe right now?
“Why tell people that the water that they drank a week ago or a month ago was contaminated? They need to know about the water today.
“There are 200,000 people who drink from the river system that the EPA poisoned last summer.
“Why has the Environmental Protection Agency walked away from these families?
“Why is this agency not taking full responsibility for making sure that this mess has been cleaned up?
“I’m not alone in asking that.
“This article about the toxic spill fears haunting the southwest in the Wall Street Journal on Friday goes further. They actually quote the state environment secretary from New Mexico, who lives there, lives on the land, knows the situation.
“And this is the state environment secretary. He says, ‘The fundamental problem is there is no engagement from EPA.’ None.
“This is a specific, definite, concrete environmental disaster, and it was caused by specific people at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is about a government agency failing to do its job.
“They took their eye off the ball, they caused this toxic spill – and now they still are not focused on cleaning up their own mess.
“Mr. President, like so much in Washington D.C., the EPA has grown too big, too arrogant, too irresponsible, and too unaccountable.
“And people in America deserve accountability.
“We all want a clean environment.
“That’s not in dispute.
“We all know that the original mission of the Environmental Protection Agency was a noble one.
“Somewhere along the line, this agency lost its way.
“It got preoccupied with other things, and it lost sight of its real job – which is to protect the environment. Instead we get this.
“When President Begaye of the Navajo Nation testified before the Indian Affairs Committee last fall, he was very clear.
“This is what he said. He said, ‘The Navajo Nation does not trust the U.S. EPA, and we expect it to be held fully accountable.’
“Let me repeat: The Navajo Nation does not trust the EPA, and we expect it to be held fully accountable.
“I think that the Navajo Nation and other tribes in the west are right to not trust the EPA.
“They are right to expect it to be held fully accountable – and that is exactly what we intend to do at this field hearing next week.
“Indian Country and all of America need to know that the EPA can do its job. From what they see here, they have serious, serious doubts.
“These people don’t need a written statement – they need to hear it straight from the people in charge.
“That means from Gina McCarthy, who is the head of the EPA.
“Now Mr. President, next Friday, April 22, is Earth Day.
“According to press reports, Administrator McCarthy is planning to go to New York for a big media event around the Paris climate change treaty. That’s what she’s planning for next Friday, the day of an important hearing, a day when the EPA just wants to send written testimony.
“It’s her preference to be in New York talking about what happened in Paris instead of going to Arizona to the people who her agency has abandoned.
“That’s what she thinks is more important. That’s the way this administration prioritizes its activity – a photo op in New York, not meeting with the people whose lives that her agency devastated.
“The director of the EPA still doesn’t have her priorities straight.
“It shouldn’t have to come down to a subpoena.
“The Environmental Protection Agency should have done the right thing from the very beginning.
“And it’s up to the EPA to do the right thing now.
“Mr. President, on Earth Day – of all days – we need to hear from the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.”