Navajo families await justice after Utah settles Gold King mine spill case

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The Gold King mine spill dumped about three million gallons of toxic water into the San Juan River in 2015. Utah settled a lawsuit with the federal government on the spill in early August. But the Navajo families who live along the river are still waiting for their day in court.

Steve Benally lives in Halchita, a community on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County. His house has running water, unlike many on the reservation, but it comes straight out of the San Juan River. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority operates a pump and treatment facility there, and it shut down the pump after the Gold King mine spill. Over the next few weeks, there was a shortage of drinking water in her community.

“They told us not to use the water, which we had stored,” Benally said. “[They said] try not to use it for gardening, or for watering the shade tree, or too much laundry or vehicle washing.

Benally lost her garden that year and spent a lot of time fetching drinking water in Bluff, 30 minutes away. And he said he was still suffering from the side effects of the spill. The Tribal Utility Authority was unable to recommission the water treatment facility after it closed, so it now has to haul clean water to fill the community’s storage tank. Benally said that sometimes the reservoir runs out of water in the summer and during vacations.

“You need to have backup water so if that happens you can use that to flush the toilet or have drinking water you can fall back on,” he added. .

Benally is one of more than 300 Navajo residents and farmers who live along the San Juan River and are suing the federal government and mining companies responsible for the spill.

The trial consolidated individual claims to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking a total of approximately $78 million in damages. All were submitted before 2018 but are still pending.

“The Gold King mine spill happened five years ago,” said Kate Ferlic, one of the lawyers handling the group’s case. “And basically these people are being ignored.”

That’s certainly how Benally feels. He was excited to join the lawsuit, which was filed in August 2018, but has not heard from his lawyers for months.

“We don’t have any more meetings,” he said. “So now, you know, we’re just kind of like sitting in the dark. A lot of people just gave up, that’s their attitude now.

The lawsuit is still ongoing, according to Ferlic, who said his firm has sent two notices to plaintiffs since the pandemic began. She said it’s in the discovery, or information-gathering, phase right now. Next summer is the earliest she expects he can go on trial.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports to KUER’s southeast office in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

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