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Toxic Mine Spill That Turned River Yellow Prompts Call For Criminal Investigation

The Gold King Mine spewed millions of gallons of contaminated water into Colorado's Animas River last year, cutting off irrigation to farming operations downstream.

Posted on April 22, 2016, at 9:05 p.m. ET

Jerry Mcbride / The Durango Herald via AP

Sen. John McCain on Friday called for a criminal investigation into the toxic Gold King Mine blowout in Colorado last year that turned stretches of river bright yellow and crippled tourism and farming operations downstream.

The Gold King Mine spewed roughly 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into the Animas River in August after crews working under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency dug into the abandoned well without adequately testing the pressure. The contamination had far reaching effects as it washed downstream from Colorado into the San Juan River, and from there into Utah and McCain's home state of Arizona.

The Republican senator said about 1,500 Navajo farmers have gone without water for crops and livestock since the spill, and roughly 30,000 acres of farmland have been "essentially fallowed."

The EPA responded to the disaster by providing 100,000 gallons of water a day to farmers in the region, the Denver Post reported, as well as food for livestock.

But McCain on Friday called the response "unacceptable."

"The EPA has failed on many occasions to meet its obligations to Native American tribes," he said.

Handout . / Reuters

Yellow mine waste water is seen at the entrance to the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colorado, on August 5, 2015.

McCain called for the criminal investigation during a congressional field hearing in Phoenix, saying there is "no question as to the EPA's culpability and negligence in this disaster." The economic impact could reach upwards of $335 million, he added.

Several Native American leaders also spoke at the hearing and detailed the dire ramifications of the spill.

Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said the San Juan River is a major source of water for his people, in addition to holding "a profound spiritual significance." The spill, he added, "caused severe damage and devastation."

"Our subsistence farmers and ranchers watched their crops die and relocated their livestock away from the River at great expense," Begaye said. "Many have lost crucial sources of income and are still suffering."

He also criticized the EPA for not compensating Navajo people and or taking steps to prevent future spills.

LoRenzo Bates, a Navajo Nation Council Delegate, reiterated the call to compensate people during his testimony Friday, saying the Navajo Nation's unemployment rate "hovers at 50%" and for a population with per capita income of around $7,000.

Brennan Linsley / AP

Water flows through a series of ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals outside Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 14, 2015.

The economic impacts of the spill have been playing out for months. McCain said the Navajo Nation lost about $892,000 in the first few weeks after the disaster. But the resulting water and livestock aid from the EPA wasn't enough to stave off significant loses.

Robert Lapahie, told the Post last year he would lose about 6.5 acres of crops, while Jonathan Nez, vice president of the Navajo Nation, envisioned long-lasting effects.

"What's going to happen when people find out that the cattle they're being sold is from this region?" he asked. "It could really devastate ranchers here."

In his comments, Begaye said the contaminants have now become embedded in the river sediment, meaning "the Navajo Nation now faces the continuous threat of re-contamination with every storm and increase in river flow."

The EPA did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment Friday.

However, EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus, who was at the hearing, defended the agency's response to the spill, noting that $22 million was spent on the disaster, including $1.1 million for aid.

"The EPA has also provided more than $157,000 in reimbursement to Navajo agencies for their response costs," she said.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.