By Daniel Rothberg

The Nevada Independent

“Our voices are like a little squeak.” That is what a Yerington Paiute tribal elder told former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, the first presidential candidate to visit the Anaconda Copper Mine, during a roundtable on Monday. 

Legacy practices at the mine polluted groundwater with arsenic and uranium, forming a plume that has travelled below homes and toward the Yerington Paiute Tribe’s reservation. It has taken years for state and federal regulators to start closing the mine and address the contamination. 

Last year, the Trump administration shifted oversight of the clean up from the EPA to state regulators in a deal that deferred putting the site on a Superfund list. The state has argued that the deferral deal will allow it to conduct a faster and less expensive cleanup. But mining watchdogs and environmental groups have been concerned that the decision could short-cut the process while leaving the state with fewer legal and financial tools to fix the contamination. 

Castro’s visit on Monday highlighted an issue that few candidates have raised in a campaign season that has featured several environmental issues. In a roundtable with tribal elders and representatives of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the former San Antonio mayor said as president, he would require consent from tribes on projects, including clean-ups, that affect culturally significant land. After the discussion, Castro toured the mine site near Yerington. 

“It makes it real to come out here and see it,” Castro said after seeing where mining activity left abandoned materials. “The thing that has impressed itself most in my mind is the fact that these communities have to live with the consequences of contamination for thousands of years.”

The federal government has not always lived up to its “obligation” to tribes, Castro added. Now the tribes must work with the state as the lead agency charged with cleaning up the 3,600-acre mine site. 

A new state law could give tribes a greater voice in government by codifying consultation with state agencies. The purpose of the bill was to ensure a greater voice for sovereign nations in state government, which does not have the same responsibility as the federal government.

In the past, state and federal governments have often overlooked tribes. That story does not end near Yerington — or in Nevada. In cases throughout the West, indigenous communities still face access barriers when it comes to water infrastructure that most Americans take for granted. 

On the same day as Castro’s visit, NPR reported that more than two million Americans go without running water or indoor plumbing, an issue disproportionately affecting indigenous communities. The finding, from a new report, found that “race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.”

This article was originally published on TheNevadaIndependent.com website.