EPA Causes Massive Waste Spill, Hurting Navajo Nation

 animas river

By Daniel Davis, Townhall.com

Durango, Colorado declared a state of emergency yesterday after the EPA accidentally contaminated a local river with 3 million gallons of waste. The Animas River has turned orange, and residents living along its banks have been warned to avoid it.

The accident began Wednesday last week when EPA workers accidentally leaked a local mine, releasing concentrated minerals into a stream. The mine had been abandoned for about 10 years, and ground water had accumulated inside it. EPA workers were there to clean up the mine. Now, the mine is leaking at 500 gallons per minute. It still hasn’t been contained, though workers are treating the nearby ponds where the minerals are leaking.

The EPA has tested the polluted water and reports arsenic levels at 300 times the normal level, and lead levels at 3,500 times the normal level. Both arsenic and lead pose significant dangers to humans when highly concentrated. The local sheriff has warned local residents to stay away from the river. The contaminants move along the river fairly quickly, they will not completely pass until the mine leak is plugged.

Many people who live along the Animas River depend on private wells for their water, but those are now threatened by the river’s pollution. The EPA is sending materials to these residents so that they can test their well water for cleanness.

The water pollution has flowed straight into the territory of the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous reservation Native American reservation spanning parts of northern Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah. The spill is already threatening the livelihoods of many Navajo residents, and the nation has declared its own state of emergency. It even looks to be preparing for a lawsuit against the EPA — the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management has directed the tribe’s Attorney General to assemble a legal team to address the grievances of local residents:


Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates told the Daily Times that residents were concerned about drinking water safety, river access, water for livestock and crops, and the possibility of compensation for failed crops. With irrigation canals shut off, many farmers are concerned about their next step, Bates said.

“If these farmers don’t get water in the next week, they’ll lose their crops,” he said.


The plume of orange waste has already reached three states, and is expected to reach a fourth by Wednesday. As USA Today reports:


Mustard-colored water flowed this week into Cement Creek, a tributary that runs through Silverton [Colorado] and into the Animas River. In New Mexico, the plume of pollution entered Aztec early Saturday morning and Farmington later that morning. Officials said they expected it to reach the Utah border on Monday and Lake Powell, in Arizona, late Wednesday.


New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez toured the damage in Farmington, NM over the weekend. She was stunned by the disaster:


“The magnitude of it, you can’t even describe it,” she said, CNN affiliate KRQE reported. “It’s like when I flew over the fires, your mind sees something it’s not ready or adjusted to see.”


Equally stunning was the EPA’s slow response in notifying states of the disaster. New Mexico officials got their first word of the disaster from Native American officials. By the time they heard from EPA officials, it was 24 hours after the spill had begun. Gov. Martinez commented:


“It’s completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior release final rules regarding Osage minerals estate development

By Samantha Vicent, Tulsa World

The Bureau of Indian Affairs on Monday released their final rules that revise government regulations relating to development of the Osage Nation’s minerals estate.

BIA Director Michael Black told the Tulsa World on Friday that the release comes nearly three years after a $380 million Osage tribal trust settlement resolved litigation alleging the U.S. mismanaged the tribe’s minerals.

The new rule, which was made available for public inspection in the Federal Register that day, clears issues that Black said the Bureau and Nation couldn’t remedy through the 2011 settlement, in which a federal judge said the U.S. “grossly mismanaged” the nation’s oil and gas money.

The document says the regulations will take effect July 10, and include developing and implementing standardized reporting to manage production and accounting; improving methods for calculating quarterly oil and gas royalties for headright holders, and rental rates’ implementing technological enhancements to better manage the mineral estate; identifying best practices for development and conducting onsite inspection programs; and documenting formal communication needed to most effectively manage the mineral estate between the Osage Nation, Osage Minerals Council and the U.S.

Headrights, or mineral estate shares, were given to 2,229 Osage tribe members after the nation signed off on a 1906 Allotment Act. The Department of the Interior will now use the New York Mercantile Exchange price settlement point in Cushing to determine quarterly royalty payments.

“We do believe the rules balance the various interests of producers and service owners, and it does ensure the Osage mineral estate will be developed for the benefit of the Osage,” he said. “We’re also increasing the standards of safety.”

However, the new rules also state there may be additional upfront costs to oil and gas producers’ operations to ensure they comply with the new regulations, and that while the BIA will consult with the Osage Minerals Council about matters relating to the mineral estate, the BIA will be able to take “corrective actions” against lessees who violate the regulations up to and including terminating leases after consultation with the council. The document also lays out financial penalties for violations of lease terms and operating regulations.

Shane Matson, president of energy company Bandolier Energy LLC, works extensively in Osage County and has said few, if any, wells have been drilled there this year because the BIA has not approved permits while working on these rules and also a new environmental assessment of the county, which could take until the end of 2015 to complete. Producers in the meantime would have to complete 72-page environmental assessments on individual well sites before receiving a permit, and the Osage Minerals Council has called a proposed new permitting requirement “vague and confusing,” according to Tulsa World archives.

When asked about that issue, Black said the fluctuating economy and falling oil prices have played roles in the county’s production decline. He also emphasized surface land is owned separately from the oil and other minerals beneath, and that the BIA has been governing the county under existing regulations and will do so until the new rules take effect.

“There have been some questions with the applications for permits to drill and some of our procedures, and (the rule and permits) are two separate and distinct issues,” he said. “The rule isn’t really directly related to whether or not there is drilling going on out there.”

The Osage Producers Association and Osage Minerals Council have not yet commented on the final rule, which Black said they received over the weekend, and have publicly spoken little on the pending environmental assessment, which BIA officials previously said was in the works before a class action lawsuit was filed against the agency and oil producers last year.

But Matson said most of those who drill in the county, instead of large companies such as ExxonMobil, are simply “guys pumping our own resources in Pawhuska and Skiatook and Hominy,” and that the new regulations have the potential to negatively affect production and income due to the government agencies’ admission that additional costs could be incurred by producers.

“This business requires regulatory stability because you’re planning the deployment of millions of dollars in very complicated engineering processes,” he said, but added that producers hoped the negotiated rule-making process committee would have been more inclusive of everyone who could be affected.

That committee was comprised of four employees from federal agencies and five members of the Osage Minerals Council, a BIA spokeswoman said Friday. The Department of the Interior, in its response to comments requesting it restart the rule-making process, said it wasn’t necessary to do so because it provided “extensive opportunity” for public comments and gave notice for committee meetings at least 30 days in advance.

“The Osage Producers Association board will meet later this week to evaluate the code and determine a path for it,” Matson said.

Wyoming tribes start getting federal payments

By Benjamin Storrow, Casper-Star Tribune

James C'Hair shows settlement checks from the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians received by him and his wife Wednesday outside Atlantic City Federal Credit Union in Riverton.Ryan Dorgan | Star-Tribune
James C’Hair shows settlement checks from the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians received by him and his wife Wednesday outside Atlantic City Federal Credit Union in Riverton.
Ryan Dorgan | Star-Tribune

LANDER, Wyo. (AP) – The first installment in a $157 million federal settlement began to pour into the Wind River Indian Reservation this week, as members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe started receiving $6,300 checks in the mail.

The impact of the cash infusion was almost immediately evident on the reservation and in surrounding communities, where many tribal members went to deposit their checks.

Riverton and Lander, both straddling the reservation border, were bustling. Banks saw long lines. Car dealerships and auto parts stores reported brisk business. And law enforcement in both communities was highly visible, posting cruisers at banks in what authorities said was an effort to protect tribal members cashing checks from would-be assailants.

Many tribal members welcomed the injection of money into a reservation long beset by poverty. Unemployment there is almost double the state average, while average family income lags far behind state and national standards.

But they also expressed trepidation that the money could lead to an increase in crime, and they worried that many tribal members might squander the once-in-a-lifetime payday.

“People need to be smart and budget their money,’’ said Randee Iron Cloud, of Ethete, who was with her husband, Norman, at the Atlantic City Federal Credit Union in Lander. “They need to think about the needs of the kids above all else.’’

The couple said they planned to use the money to pay down debt on their car and to take their five children on a trip to Albuquerque.

The settlement stems from a 1970s lawsuit brought by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes against the federal government for its failure to properly collect mineral royalties from oil and gas development on tribal lands.

The total settlement is worth $157 million and will be split evenly between Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal members.

Of the total, $10 million will be used to repair environmental degradation resulting from oil and gas operations.

Federal law requires that 85 percent of Native American mineral royalties be paid to individual tribal members, with the remaining 15 percent going to the tribes themselves.

The distributions to individual members varies by tribe, as the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone have different-sized membership rolls. Northern Arapaho members will receive $6,300 each, while Eastern Shoshone members are to receive $15,000. Eastern Shoshone members are expected to receive their checks next week.

Overton Sankey, who works at a local Head Start, said most tribal members have long prepared to receive their checks and made plans to save the money or use it for bigger purchases like cars.

While Sankey is not a tribal member, his wife is, and she received a check. The couple intend to use the money for home repairs, but not before going on a trip.

“We haven’t had a vacation in years,’’ Sankey said while playing the slots at the Wind River Casino. “We’re going to work on the house when we get back.’’

Businesses were bustling in Lander and Riverton. A parade of cars for sale lined U.S. Highway 287 approaching the Atlantic City Federal Credit Union in Lander. Inside the bank, Vice President of Member Services Kyleen West said the credit union had seen a steady stream of customers.

The bank was cashing checks from members and nonmembers alike. It would continue to do so until it ran out of money. A first pot of cash set aside to accommodate the settlements would likely be exhausted, West said, noting that a second installment was also due to arrive to meet the second round of checks.

As of midday Wednesday, all was going smoothly, she said. Local banks worked with the tribes in advance to encourage members to create bank accounts where they could deposit money. The bank has seen a rise in the number of new accounts as a result, she said.

“I have been very pleased with the way the tribes have worked with the banking industry, local law enforcement and the community,’’ West said.

In Riverton, Bobbi Higgs, manager of an O’Reilly Auto Parts, said the store was busier Wednesday than it is on strong Saturdays. Six cars for sale were stationed in the parking lot outside, an oddity in its own right, she said. Many of the new car owners then came into the store to buy parts, Higgs added.

“Everyone is selling what they can,’’ she said. In the adjacent Ace Hardware parking lot, a relatively new 35-foot camper sold quickly Wednesday morning, she said.

Law enforcement was ubiquitous in both communities. Police cars were parked outside banks, and officers stood by the doors.

Police officers from around the state were called in to help. Cruisers from Cody, Jackson and Green River were stationed in front of banks in Lander, while a trailer bearing the name of the Sweetwater County bomb squad helped form a temporary command center outside Atlantic City Federal Credit Union.

Lander Police Chief Jim Carey said the settlement had been well publicized, and authorities worried about outsiders who might potentially prey on tribal members cashing their checks.

“We want to send a message that anyone who wants to do violence to our citizens won’t be allowed to,’’ Carey said. “Our mission today is to prevent violent crime and make sure they can get their checks in a safe manner.’’
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com