The Obama administration, which regularly touts itself as a champion for minorities, is attempting to cheat thousands of Native Americans out of future compensation that is rightly theirs following a horrendously damaging toxic chemical spill in Colorado recently.
The Washington Times reported that tribal leaders say the Obama Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to cheat Navajo Indians by convincing them to sign away rights to future claims following the agency’s Gold King Mine disaster. These charges are only magnifying the White House’s public relations problems following the toxic spill, which threatens to disrupt critical waterways in the Southwest for many years to come.
Within days of the disaster, EPA officials began going door to door asking Navajos — some of whom do not speak English as their primary language — to sign a form offering to pay them some damages they have incurred from the spill so far. Signing the document waives any rights to return with new claims in the future if costs spiral higher than expected or if they encounter new, currently unforeseen fallout, Navajo President Russell Begaye told The Washington Times.
“It is underhanded. They’re just trying to protect their pocketbook,” he told the paper in a telephone interview.
Standard federal practice: Cheat those who have been wronged
Begaye promised he would file suit on behalf of the Navajo Nation. He also said he suspected that the EPA was attempting to buy off as many of his people as possible now to ward off any larger settlement expenses in the future.
As we previously reported, the toxic spill unleashed as much as three million gallons of heavily contaminated yellow-orange water into the Animas River, which feeds into the San Juan River and eventually the Colorado River. The tributaries provide water for cattle and crops in much of the Four Corners area, which is the nexus of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
The Navajo Nation encompasses a great deal of that area.
While the EPA had not officially responded to a Times inquiry regarding the pending suit, the agency’s chief, Gina McCarthy, described the spill as “heartbreaking” at a press conference in Durango, Colorado. She pledged to work with tribal leaders to control and manage the spill.
“We want everything to be transparent,” she said, despite the fact that the agency grossly underestimated the size of the spill, initially claiming that only about one million gallons of toxic water had escaped through a breached dam.
As for the EPA agents trolling the Navajo Nation for early settlements, McCarthy said they were merely following the regular federal claims process, which means that throughout the government, Uncle Sam’s standard practice is to shortchange people who have been harmed by careless federal actions.
“May cause forfeiture of your rights”
Some lawmakers have pledged to look into the process. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said via a spokeswoman that his office has fielded complaints from Navajo Nation and that his panel plans to look into the entire disaster.
“Chairman Bishop is outraged at the reports that the EPA is asking tribal members to sacrifice their rights after EPA’s ineptitude has potentially threatened their health and livelihoods,” spokeswoman Julia Bell Slingsby said. “People are suffering because of EPA negligence, and yet the federal government’s response is not to help, but to engage in grasping for legal cover before the full extent of damage is known to Navajo farmers.”
Slingsby added that the EPA would severely punish any private party or corporation that attempted to do the same thing, and she demanded to know why the Department of the Interior — which holds oversight over Native American affairs — has yet to come to the tribes’ aid.
The Times further reported:
The claim forms EPA officials were distributing on the Navajo reservation ask locals to estimate a dollar amount they can attribute to property damage, personal injury or wrongful death. The form warns that failing to total up the claim “may cause forfeiture of your rights.”