$32 million settlement reached over toxic Gold King Mine spill damages

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A little less than seven years after contractors working at the site of an abandoned mine in southwest Colorado triggered a spill of toxic materials that led to perhaps the worst environmental disaster in the history of the Four Corners region. Federal and New Mexico officials announced during a June 16 press conference they had agreed on a settlement of $32 million to compensate the state for damages related to the incident.

The announcement, which was made during a press conference at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, featured New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, New Mexico Environmental Department Secretary James Kenney and Janet McCabe, the deputy administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the entity that hired the contractors to perform the work on the mine.

The announcement came on the same day that Navajo Nation officials announced in a statement that they had reached a $31 million settlement with federal officials for damages caused by the same incident.

Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, left; New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas; New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham; and James Kenney, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, discuss details of a $32 million settlement between the state and the EPA over the Gold King Mine spill litigation on June 16 at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

Lujan Grisham noted New Mexico's settlement with the EPA does not include an additional $11 million the state has received from private entities that shared responsibility for the Aug. 5, 2015, accident, in which millions of gallons of toxic waste were released from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, eventually winding up in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

"The river has largely healed, which is incredible," Lujan Grisham said while announcing the settlement, adding that a variety of partners worked together to resolve the issues created by the spill. "What hasn't happened is creating a holistic investment in the community."

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The $32 million New Mexico will receive from the feds includes $18.1 million that will be designated for response costs, $10 million for restoration of injured natural resources, and $3.5 million for water quality and cleanup activities through Clean Water Act and Superfund grants.

The governor said much of the money will go to fund outdoor recreation opportunities in northwest New Mexico.

"This is an economic development boom for this entire community," she said.

Lujan Grisham said once the money is made available to the communities impacted by the spill, state officials largely will stay out of decisions about how the money is spent.

"We're investing through the community," she said. "You don't need the state telling you how to do that."

Janet McCabe, deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, discusses cleanup efforts at the site of the Gold King Mine spill during a press conference on June 16 at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

They money should be available soon, Kenney said, explaining that calls for proposals for specific projects could start being issued in August.

"We don't want to sit on the money," he said.

Kenney later added that gross receipts tax data collected in the aftermath of the spill illustrated the impact the incident had on the economy of northwest New Mexico.

"We saw harm," he said.

Balderas said he can still remember the immediate aftermath of the spill, which he attributed to a succession of failures on the part of several entities. He said there was a great deal of chaos and fear in northwest New Mexico in those initial days after the incident, especially when many of the entities involved in the spill denied responsibility for it.

He said he quickly realized his office and the State of New Mexico "were going to have to get into a fistfight" with those parties to ensure that the interests of communities throughout the region were protected.

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In a news release accompanying the announcement, the governor described the settlement as a turning point in the seven-year effort to make the communities affected by the spill whole again. While describing the negative impact of the incident on the Animas and San Juan rivers, Lujan Grisham noted that the state and the entire region don't have enough water to begin with, so the mine spill made that situation much worse.

"We can't have these environmental accidents in our waterways," she said.

McCabe said she did not know how her agency's settlement with New Mexico compared with other settlements the EPA has reached with injured parties in the past. In a follow-up email, Juan Acevedo-Beauchamp, the staff director for intergovernmental, congressional, multimedia and press in the Office of External Affairs for the EPA's Region 6 in Dallas, wrote that each case is settled based on its own set of facts and circumstances. But he did not list any other significant settlements the agency has reached over the years.

McCabe announced during the press conference that her agency will conduct three annual informational meetings over the next three years to discuss ongoing cleanup efforts at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site, where the Gold King Mine is located. 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 appendix.

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The EPA's settlement with the Navajo Nation is in addition to another $10 million the tribe has received from other responsible parties, according to a news release from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice.

"When the spill occurred, we went to the Gold King Mine site and saw firsthand the environmental impacts to the land and water," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez stated in the release, adding that the Navajo government had pledged to hold accountable those who caused or contributed to the incident. "I am thankful that the Biden-Harris Administration acknowledges the devastation that it caused and took the steps necessary to reach this settlement. This important settlement reflects the USEPA's recognition of the suffering it caused the Navajo Nation and our people."

The Navajo Nation release did not indicate 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 agreements related to the incident that are announced. The State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation both continue to pursue additional litigation against other parties they claim were responsible for the spill.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.