The Navajo Nation is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for unleashing a torrent of polluted water that contaminated a river bordering tribal lands.
On Aug. 5, 2015, EPA officials were at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, trying to figure out how to stop or treat a slow leak of toxic water from one of the mine's entrances.
Instead, while excavating an adit -- a type of drainage tunnel used in mines -- EPA officials accidentally dislodged debris that was holding back around 3 million gallons of contaminated water, the agency admitted in papers released after the accident.
The "pulse" of contaminated water, as the EPA describes it, lasted only an hour, but the 3,043,067 gallons flooded into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. The Animas feeds a reservoir, Lake Nighthorse, and flows through Navajo lands.
The contaminated water contains lead and arsenic and turned the river water orange.
"The river has always been a source of life, of purification, and of healing," Ethel Branch, attorney general of the Navajo Nation, told CNN. "Now it's been transformed into something that's a threat. It's been pretty traumatic in changing the role of the river in the lives of the people who rely on it."
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the Washington Examiner that tribe officials made the decision to move ahead with a lawsuit after receiving reports that the EPA knew the toxic spill was possible, or even likely.
EPA officials "knew this was about to happen [but] they did nothing," Begaye said.
While the EPA has admitted it was responsible for the spill, and said it has taken responsibility for cleanup efforts, lawyers for the Navajo Nation say the federal agency has done little to remove contaminated elements from the impacted waterways and surrounding land.
"After one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected or their way of life restored," the Navajo lawsuit reads.
Without clean water from the Animas River, farmers had to delay harvests and to find alternate ways to irrigate their crops. The spill impacted the livelihoods of workers in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, CNN reported.
But in the Navajo lawsuit, attorneys for the tribal nation say the EPA's failure to remediate the disaster goes beyond incompetence. They say the federal agency has activity pushed back against pleas to clean up the mess.
The EPA "has yet to provide any meaningful recovery," the lawsuit alleges. "Efforts to be made whole over the past year have been met with resistance, delays, and second-guessing. Unfortunately this is consistent with a long history of neglect and disregard for the well being of the Navajo."