Litigation on hold in New Mexico's case against EPA over Gold King Mine spill

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Megan Oller, an assistant engineer associate with Western Solutions Inc., measures water flowing out of Gold King Mine on Aug. 10, 2015.

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Attorney General's Office says an agreement in principle has been reached to settle the state's claims in the 2016 lawsuit filed over the Gold King Mine spill.

On Feb. 16, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque about the agreement.

In the joint motion, the parties agreed to place litigation on hold for 90 days so they can draft and finalize a written settlement agreement.

The potential settlement would only apply to the civil suit brought by New Mexico against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other defendants.

A trial in federal court was expected to start this year.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas speaks about the Gold King Mine spill during a press conference on Oct. 25, 2016 at the San Juan County Commission chambers in Aztec.

The attorney general's office, along with the New Mexico Environment Department and the state Office of Natural Resources Trustee, issued a news release about the agreement on the same day the joint motion was filed.

"Final settlement terms will be focused on investing funds into communities in northwest New Mexico to bolster the agriculture and outdoor recreation economics and mitigate the stigma caused by the spill," the release states.

The settlement will also pay for the state's response costs, restore and conserve riverine and land habitats, provide ongoing monitoring of water quality, and control and mitigate sources of pollution to protect drinking water.

“We have fought to hold the mining companies and federal government accountable for the damage they caused, and achieve an agreement that provides justice for the region’s culturally unique communities and the needed resources to build up the regional economy that was damaged as a result of the disaster,” Attorney General Hector Balderas said in the release.

Millions of gallons of toxic wastewater were released in August 2015 after workers contracted by the EPA breached a collapsed portal at the mine, located near Silverton, Colorado.

The mouth of the Gold King Mine, located north of Silverton, Colo., is pictured on Aug. 10, 2015, several days after a crew working on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency breached the mine, causing toxic wastewater to enter the Animas River.

The wastewater entered the river system that flows through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation.

"The U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA have heard extensively from New Mexico about the lasting impact of the Gold King Mine release on our natural resources and our residents who depend on them," state Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins said. "Through the final settlement, we will expand restoration efforts to address those injuries and invest in communities along the Animas and San Juan rivers."

The State of New Mexico was the first government to file a lawsuit against the EPA and its contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, and Sunnyside Gold Corp., Kinross Gold Corp. and Kinross Gold USA Inc. for economic and environmental damages caused by the spill.

The news release states that New Mexico continues to pursue relief for damages from federal contractor Environmental Restoration LLC.

"The settlement, once finalized, will avoid additional years of litigation with the federal defendants and instead quickly direct the federal government’s resources towards making the people of New Mexico whole," the release stated.

Last year, New Mexico entered into a no-fault settlement with Sunnyside and its parent company, Kinross Gold Corp., and its subsidiary, Kinross Gold USA.

The state received $10 million for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue while $1 million was paid to the state Office of Natural Resources Trustee for damages to natural resources.

The office is seeking comment through March 2 on plans to use the $1 million on four public works projects in San Juan County.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

Support local journalism with a digital subscription to The Daily Times.