DENVER — The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the and several corporations, saying that poisoned water that flowed from a punctured Colorado mine last year disrupted hundreds of lives near a critical watershed.
The disaster, the federal says, has heightened economic and spiritual pain in a region hamstrung by poverty and drought. The tribe is seeking to hold the agency and corporations accountable, be made whole for at least $2 million spent on testing and alternative water sources and be compensated for lost revenue and psychological damages.
“We cannot just sit back and let the E.P.A. do what they’ve been doing, just doling us pennies,” said the president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, in a telephone interview. “This river is the main river that gives life to the whole region, not just those who live around the river, but the entire nation. This is our lifeblood. It is sacred to us.”
A spokeswoman for the E.P.A., Nancy Grantham, said the agency could not comment on active legal issues. Representatives from the mining companies and the E.P.A. contractors declined to comment or did not return messages.
The lawsuit stems from an August 2015 episode in which contractors hired by the E.P.A. to assess a shuttered gold mine — the Gold King in southwest Colorado — accidentally broke the mine’s seal, causing about three million gallons of chemical-laced orange sludge to flow into the Animas River south of the mine and then into the San Juan.
An on the Animas River became a neon media sensation, drawing attention to a problem that continues to plague the West: The region has thousands of old, acid-filled mines, some leaching into waterways, others that could burst at any time. The mines have filled with poison from water and air entering earth cavities, mixing with sulfurous minerals.
The E.P.A. took responsibility for the accident and has spent to address cleanup and compensate communities, including the Navajo Nation. But people along the spill’s path have continued to feel its effects. The sludge coursed through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The E.P.A. is considering whether to declare the area around the Gold King a site.
The Navajo reservation, a vast region of red rocks that sits south of the mine, was hit particularly hard by the spill because leaders told people not to use water from the San Juan River for weeks after the E.P.A. said it was safe. Mr. Begaye, the Navajo president, said he was wary of the claim that the stream was healthy enough for agricultural and other use.
Irrigation lines were cut off. Corn, melons, hay and wheat never made it to market. The spill, the president said, delivered a psychological lashing in a drought-stricken place where , many live in poverty and the San Juan River holds financial and spiritual power.
The lawsuit names several defendants: the E.P.A.; two contractors called Environmental Restoration and Harrison Western; four mining companies called Gold King Mines Corporation, Sunnyside Gold Corporation, Kinross in Canada and Kinross USA; and 10 unnamed individuals.
It alleges that mismanagement of the mine, which had been closed for years but never cleaned up, caused it to swell with toxic water and eventually burst. The suit says that 880,000 pounds of metals spilled out when the Gold King burst, and that “roughly 80 to 90 percent” remains embedded in the river upstream, ready to flush into the Navajo Nation during rains and storms.
Near the Gold King in Colorado, toxic water continues to flow out of the mine at a rate of 570 gallons a minute. A nearby water treatment plant put in place by the E.P.A. removes 95 percent of contaminants.
The agency says that the water below the mine and the treatment facility has generally returned to prespill conditions, and local governments have instructed residents to resume recreational and agricultural activities on the Animas and San Juan Rivers.
The suit is the latest to come out of the mine blowout. Earlier this year, New Mexico sued the E.P.A. and the State of Colorado over the accident. And the E.P.A.’s Office of the Inspector General has opened a criminal investigation into the spill.