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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Navajo Families Await Justice After Utah Settles Gold King Mine Spill Case

houses with homes in red dirt landscape with craggy rock formation in background
Kate Groetzinger
The community of Halchita on the Navajo Nation was without water for almost a month after the Gold King Mine Spill, according to residents.

The Gold King Mine spill released about three million gallons of toxic water into the San Juan River in 2015. Utah settled a lawsuit with the federal government over the spill in early August. But Navajo families who live along the river are still waiting for their day in court. 

Steve Benally lives in Halchita, a community on the northern edge of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County. His home has running water, unlike many on the reservation, but it comes directly out of the San Juan River. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority operates a pump and treatment facility there, and it shut the pump off after the Gold King Mine spill. In the following weeks, there was a shortage of clean water in his community. 

“They told us not to be using water, which we had stored,” Benally said. “[They said] try not to use it for gardening, or to water the shade tree, or too much laundry washing or vehicle washing.” 

Benally lost his garden that year and spent a lot of time getting drinking water from Bluff, 30 minutes away. And he said he’s still suffering the secondary effects of the spill. The Tribal Utility Authority hasn’t been able to get the water treatment facility back online after it was shut off, so now it has to haul in clean water to fill the community’s storage tank. Benally said sometimes the tank runs out of water in the summer and on holidays. 

“You have to have some standby water, so if that happens you can use that to flush your toilet or have some drinking water you can fall back on,” he added.

Benally is one of over 300 Navajo residents and farmers who live along the San Juan River who are suing the federal government and the mining companies responsible for the spill.

The lawsuit consolidated individual claims made to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking a total of around $78 million in damages. All were submitted prior to 2018 but are still pending. 

“The Gold King Mine spill happened five years ago,” said Kate Ferlic, one of the lawyers handling the group’s case. “And basically these folks are being ignored.”

That’s certainly how Benally feels. He was excited to join the lawsuit, which was filed in August 2018, but hasn’t heard from his lawyers in months. 

“We don’t have meetings anymore,” he said. “So now, you know, we’re just kind of like sitting in the dark. A lot of people just gave up on it, that’s their attitude now.”

The lawsuit is still pending, according to Ferlic, who said her firm has sent out two notices to plaintiffs since the pandemic began. She said it’s in the discovery, or information gathering, phase right now. Next summer is the earliest she expects it could go to trial.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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