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President of Navajo Nation upset with EPA's response to spill

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, center, tapes an appearance on the Today show, along with Vice President Jonathan Nez and Attorney General Ethel Branch. Photo from Facebook

The leader of the Environmental Protection Agency took responsibility on Tuesday for a mine waste spill that has angered tribal and state officials in the Southwest.

Speaking from Washington, D.C., Administrator Gina McCarthy offered her first public comments on the August 5 incident at the Gold King Mine that caused at least three million gallons of waste to enter the water system. She committed the agency's full resources to protect the health and safety of the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe and the states of Colorado and New Mexico.

"EPA is an agency whose core mission is ensuring a clean environment and protecting public health, so it pains me to see this happening," McCarthy said during a forum on clean energy at Resources for the Future.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy discusses Gold King Mine Incident

McCarthy is headed to Colorado and New Mexico today to meet with the affected communities. Her visit comes a week after she said a contractor for the EPA accidentally released the waste into the water system.

After flowing through Colorado, the waste traveled through the northwestern portion of the Navajo Nation. Although the drinking supply remains unaffected thanks to quick action from local and state officials in New Mexico, tribal citizens have been warned not to allow livestock to drink from the San Juan River, enter the river or otherwise use the water from the river due to concerns about extremely dangerous levels of arsenic, metals and other toxins.

The spill has angered Navajo leaders, including President Russell Begaye, who has focused much of his time since the incident addressing concerns of his citizens. Along with Vice President Jonathan Nez, he traveled to the Gold King Mine over the weekend after hearing conflicting information from EPA officials.

Navajo Nation citizens from Utah listen to an update on the Gold King Mine spill on August 10, 2015. The waste is making its way to the Utah portion of the reservation. Photo from Facebook

Begaye has vowed to sue the Obama administration in order to address the economic, health, safety and spiritual impacts of the spill. He lashed out at the EPA yesterday after the agency distributed forms that he said will require citizens to give up any future claims for damages.

“The federal government is asking our people to waive their future rights because they know without the waiver they will be paying millions to our people," Begaye said. "This is simple; the feds are protecting themselves at the expense of the Navajo people and it is outrageous.”

"This is unacceptable," added Begaye, who noted that the EPA -- including Administrator McCarthy -- have accepted responsibility for the incident. "The damages to our people will be long term and the Navajo Nation will not settle for pennies."

According to tribal officials, EPA employees have been passing out the document -- which is labeled "Gold King Mine Release (A8K9) Claim" -- at meetings on the reservation. Anyone who signs it agrees that it represents a "FULL SATISFACTION AND FINAL SETTLEMENT" of any damages, injuries or even deaths.

The spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado prompted a release of orange-colored waste into the river system. As the waste continues to head downstream, the color is dissipating but tribal citizens are being warned that the lack of a visible threat does not mean the water is safe to use. Photo from Facebook

"Think twice before you sign this form, we must hold U.S. EPA fully accountable for their negligence," warned Vice President Nez.

In a sign of the national attention paid to the issue, Begaye and Nez taped a segment for the Today show to air their concerns. A video was not yet available on the NBC website.

As the spill continues to pass through the Navajo Nation, it's expected to reach Lake Powell, a major tourism and recreation area further down the river in Utah and Arizona, sometime this evening. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is warning people not to swim in the water, drink it or engage in any recreational activities.

The abandoned Gold King Mine is located San Juan County The waste was being held being some debris before it was accidentally released into the Animas River, which feeds into the San Juan River. Both are a part of the larger Colorado River System, where Lake Powell lies further west.

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