Navajo Nation Indians say the EPA is trying to cheat them into signing away their rights to future monetary claims from the agency's Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado, reports The Washington Times.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the Times that EPA officials have been going door to door attempting to get Navajo to sign a form that offers to pay for damages caused by the spill - the stipulation being that anyone who signs would also waive their right to ask for more money if the clean-up costs end up surpassing estimations or if bigger problems are discovered.
Begaye said he now suspects the EPA is trying to buy off as many Navajo as possible to ward off a bigger settlement in the future.
"It is underhanded," Begaye told the Times in a phone interview. "They're just trying to protect their pocketbook."
The group is the first to announce plans to sue the U.S. government over the incident, which has spilled over 3 million gallons of toxic pollutants into the Animas River in Colorado and continues to spill up to 700 gallons per minute, according to CNN. The spill was caused by an EPA team that was using heavy equipment to inspect the abandoned mine.
The EPA estimates the toxic sludge has flowed at least 100 miles downstream from the Animas River and into New Mexico, where it entered the San Juan River, which provides Navajo communities with a key source of water for grazing and crops.
Begaye said the spill will have a destructive impact on the ecosystems that his community depends on and will take decades to clean up, which is why he is warning others that it would not be a good idea to attempt to calculate costs now and sign away their rights.
"They are not going to get away with this," Begaye said at a community meeting this week, reported CNN. "The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster, and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources."
Being that EPA workers have said there are other mines at risk, Begaye said the agency's priority should be to fix those and clean up the current spill, rather than attempting to reduce its liability.
"Our leadership from the White House - it's almost nonexistent. And now they're asking us to waive all of this stuff, and the yellow water is still flowing into the river, nothing has been contained," he told the Times. "It's just a huge - I don't want to use the word coverup, but it's just government not doing its job, causing all of this to happen to our people, our land, our economy."
A spokesman for Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he has heard about the complaints and will be looking into the matter.
"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, according to the Times. "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."