WASHINGTON D.C. — U.S. Sen. Tom Udall urged Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy to move more quickly to respond to requests for reimbursements and process tort compensation claims by Navajo Nation residents and other New Mexicans harmed by the devastating release of toxic water from the Gold King Mine in Colorado.
Speaking at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, Udall, the lead Democrat on the subcommittee, told McCarthy that it’s unacceptable that eight months after the spill, the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico still are waiting for reimbursements for the costs that the governments incurred responding to the spill.
Additionally, the EPA has yet to issue a legal finding of tort responsibility to determine whether it is responsible for damages — a necessary step before individuals can receive compensation.
“The EPA is responsible for a number of serious mistakes, technical failures and management failures.” Udall said. “These are deeply disappointing, and they have had a serious, long-term impact. After the accident, the EPA was slow to notify downstream communities — communities that depend on the river for their livelihood. The Navajo Nation and the people in Northwestern New Mexico are still frustrated. Those impacted deserve compensation. I want reimbursements for New Mexico taxpayers and for the Navajo, long-term water monitoring, and a promise that the Gold King Mine, the source of this pollution, will be cleaned up.”
McCarthy pledged to keep working with the Navajo and the state. She said that the EPA is processing reimbursements to the governments. Simultaneously, the agency has begun the process of making the Gold King Mine a Superfund site, meaning it will be eligible for millions of dollars more for cleanup. She added that the tort compensation claim finding is being determined independently by the EPA’s legal department and the U.S. Justice Department.
“I wish I could give you a firm date, I believe it’s happening soon,” McCarthy said. “I do know that people are anxious. We’ve had about 57 federal tort claims that have been submitted. And we certainly want to get information out to people as soon as we can.”
Udall added that although the EPA has responded to concerns expressed in a recent letter from the Navajo Nation, Udall and the Navajo want more specificity about the EPA’s intention to continue working to respond to the spill and the claims for damages.
“I think it would go a long way if you could reiterate EPA’s commitment to the Navajo and other stakeholders. Could you state for the record again that the EPA intends to make things right for the Navajo and others affected by the spill,” Udall said.
McCarthy confirmed that she and the EPA intend to honor the commitments made to the Navajo Nation and New Mexicans in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill.
The hearing was held to review the EPA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request. Udall asked additional questions about ongoing work in New Mexico to clean up the over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation — including 145 in New Mexico. The worst, the area around the Church Rock Mine spill near Gallup, N.M. — the largest accidental radiation release in U.S. history — still needs extensive cleanup, Udall said.
Even though the Church Rock Mine spill is the EPA’s top priority, Udall said he is concerned about how long cleanup is scheduled to take. “We have heard it may not begin until 2020 and may take seven to nine years to finish. Why will the cleanup take so long to start and finish? And can we speed it up?” Udall asked.
McCarthy said the agency will devote over $60.6 million this year looking at 46 high priority mines located near homes and streams to replace contaminated homes and water. But Church Rock “is a complicated site. It is projected to take a little longer. Part of that is related to the fact that we have to go through some nuclear regulatory permitting obligations. But I will do the best I can to make sure that we’re providing the kind of prompt response that we can.”
Finally, Udall asked why the EPA has requested just $5 million to continue the Mexico Border Water Infrastructure program, which helps fund construction of safe drinking water and sanitary sewer infrastructure in colonias in New Mexico and other border communities.
“It’s critical in New Mexico,” Udall said. “But I’m concerned about the program’s future. There are at least $800 million in remaining projects. So we have a huge need out there. And I’m disappointed that the budget request is just $5 million. It’s hard to imagine how we make progress at that pace.”
McCarthy agreed, “The needs are rather dramatic as you well know,” she said. “We have a number of projects that are in the pipeline that have been funded. You’re right that we are looking at a fiscal year 17 proposal of $5 million that will allow us continue to add new projects into the system. But we’re trying very hard to work within limited resources to be able to continue to construct the 14 projects that are funded within the system as well as to continue to add in a reasonable way. But certainly, the more funding we have, the more we can get done.”
Below is Udall’s opening statement as delivered:
Welcome Administrator McCarthy. Thank you for joining us today. It’s been quite a year since you last testified before this subcommittee. The EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan. This is a critical step. It will reduce carbon pollution and make real progress on climate change. The EPA also proposed standards for methane to protect public health and the environment. We worked together on last year’s Omnibus bill and fought off dangerous environmental riders.
And we made history when the United States took part in the Paris agreement to fight climate change. The U.S. and 200 other countries agreed to work together to fight rising sea levels and climbing temperatures. On Friday — Earth Day — Secretary of State Kerry will sign the agreement for the United States. This will be a monumental step. It will seal our commitment with our global partners to fighting climate change.
The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will frame our efforts to meet that commitment. While the Supreme Court did issue a stay on the Clean Power Plan, that decision was not on the merits of the case. And I am confident that the Clean Power Plan will prevail. It will be flexible. And it will meet the unique needs of each state.
I’m pleased to see that the EPA has not skipped a beat. It will keep helping states that are working to reduce carbon pollution; providing funding and technical help, ensuring that these plans are tailored to each state’s needs. I want to hear more about how the EPA plans to build on these efforts in Fiscal Year 2017.
It takes time, effort, and resources to make progress on international agreements and new standards. But that’s why I’m also worried. Last year, the budget deal allowed us to make targeted investments for many agencies. But not so for the EPA. Its operating budget was frozen in last year’s budget deal. Left at the sequester level. Over the past decade, its budget has dropped 10 percent in real terms. And the agency has lost 10 percent of its staff.
The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request proposes important increases to support clean air, clean water, and basic agency functions. I think the EPA has reached a critical point, and I think it’s time for us to get realistic about providing the resources the EPA needs.
Administrator McCarthy, I want to thank you for making sure your draft budget supports programs that are important to New Mexico – especially uranium cleanup.
But I think we need to look closely at the proposed offsets — in particular, the 11 percent cut to State grants for Clean Water and Drinking Water. Across our country, communities — like Flint, Michigan—face serious water contamination.
In my state of New Mexico, over 20 water systems exceed the EPA’s lead action level, including St. Vincent’s hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is very troubling.
I’m also concerned about the EPA’s proposal to reverse progress on the US-Mexico Border Water program. This is critical to ensure our border communities have clean water.
But, Administrator McCarthy, my top priority today is to get firm answers about EPA’s response to communities in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado after the Gold King Mine spill.
The spill was an accident. But the EPA made several serious mistakes. And the EPA owes it to the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico to make things right as soon as possible.
I appreciate that $2 million was made available for long-term water quality monitoring. This funding is greatly needed by affected states and tribes. But the EPA must sustain that commitment.
And I’m very disappointed at how long it has taken the EPA to process reimbursements submitted by the state and the Navajo Nation. And I’m frustrated that — eight months later — we still don’t have an official finding of tort responsibility, despite public assurances that EPA takes full responsibility for the spill.
We need a fair compensation process up and running for those who were affected so that people can file claims and receive compensation.
I look forward to getting clear answers from you about when this will be corrected.
Administrator, I want to add one note. Thank you to you and your team for all of your technical assistance as we work on many drafts of TSCA. The program office and general counsel have been invaluable. And I hope you feel as optimistic as I do about that we can get this done.
Thank you again for appearing before us today. I look forward to a good discussion.