Gold King mine toxic spill case reaches $32 million settlement
FARMINGTON — Just under seven years after contractors working at the site of an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado sparked a toxic material spill that led to perhaps the worst environmental disaster in history of the Four Corners area. Federal and New Mexico officials announced at a June 16 press conference that they had agreed to a $32 million settlement to compensate the state for damages related to the incident. .
The announcement, which was made during a press conference at the Farmington Museum in Gateway Park, featured New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, Secretary of the Department of New Mexico Environmental Commissioner James Kenney and Janet McCabe, the deputy administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency — the entity that hired the contractors to do the work on the mine.
The announcement came the same day Navajo Nation officials announced in a statement that they had reached a $31 million settlement with federal officials for damages from the same incident.
Lujan Grisham noted that New Mexico’s settlement with the EPA does not include the additional $11 million the state received from private entities that shared responsibility for the Aug. 5, 2015 crash, during from which millions of gallons of toxic waste were discharged from the abandoned Gold. King Mine near Silverton, Colorado which eventually ends up in the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“The river has mostly healed up, which is incredible,” Lujan Grisham said when the settlement was announced, adding that various partners had worked together to resolve the issues created by the spill. “What hasn’t happened is the creation of a holistic investment in the community.”
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The $32 million that New Mexico will receive from the federal government includes $18.1 million that will be earmarked for response costs, $10 million for restoration of damaged natural resources, and $3.5 million for water quality and cleanup activities through the Clean Water Act and Superfund grants.
The governor said much of the money will go to funding outdoor recreation opportunities in northwestern New Mexico.
“This is a boom in economic development for this whole community,” she said.
Lujan Grisham said that once the money is made available to communities affected by the spill, state officials will largely stay away from decisions about how the money is spent.
“We invest through the community,” she said. “You don’t need the state to tell you how to do this.”
The money should be available soon, Kenney said, explaining that calls for proposals for specific projects could start going out in August.
“We don’t want to sit on the money,” he said.
Kenney later added that gross revenue tax data collected following the spill illustrated the impact of the incident on the economy of northwest New Mexico.
“We have seen harm,” he said.
Balderas said he still remembered the immediate aftermath of the spill, which he attributed to a succession of failures by multiple entities. He said there was a lot of chaos and fear in northwest New Mexico in the early days following the incident, especially when many entities involved in the spill denied responsibility.
He said he quickly realized that his office and the state of New Mexico “were going to have to fight to the hilt” with these parties to ensure that the interests of communities throughout the region were met. protected.
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In a press release accompanying the announcement, the governor described the settlement as a milestone in the seven-year effort to restore the integrity of communities affected by the spill. While describing the incident’s negative impact on the Animas and San Juan Rivers, Lujan Grisham noted that the state and the entire region did not have enough water to begin with, so the mine spill made the situation worse.
“We can’t have these environmental accidents in our waterways,” she said.
McCabe said she doesn’t know how her agency’s settlement with New Mexico compares to other settlements the EPA has reached with injured parties in the past. In a follow-up email, Juan Acevedo-Beauchamp, director of intergovernmental, congressional, multimedia, and press staff at the EPA’s Region 6 Office of External Affairs in Dallas, wrote that each case is settled on its own. own set of facts. and the circumstances. But he did not list other significant settlements the agency has reached over the years.
McCabe announced at the press conference that his agency will hold three annual briefings over the next three years to discuss ongoing cleanup efforts at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, where the Gold Mine is located. King. A follow-up news release from the agency said the EPA will update its Bonita Peak Superfund Site Community Involvement Plan to include a New Mexico-specific annex.
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The EPA settlement with the Navajo Nation is in addition to an additional $10 million the tribe has received from other responsible parties, according to a press release from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.
“When the spill happened, we went to the Gold King mine site and saw firsthand the environmental impacts on land and water,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. the statement, adding that the Navajo government was committed to holding accountable those who caused or contributed to the incident. “I am grateful that the Biden-Harris administration recognizes the devastation it has caused and has taken the necessary steps to achieve this settlement. This important settlement reflects USEPA’s recognition of the suffering it has caused the Navajo Nation and our people.”
The Navajo Nation statement did not say how the settlement money will be spent.
The settlements reached by the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation with the EPA may not be the last of such incident-related agreements to be announced. Both the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation continue to pursue additional lawsuits against other parties they claim are responsible for the spill.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or [email protected] Support local journalism with a digital subscription.