New Mexico sues EPA over Gold King Mine spill

The complaint alleges New Mexico is dealing with "enormous economic losses" because of the Aug. 5 mine blowout

Noel Lyn Smith
  • The New Mexico AG filed a lawsuit today against the EPA for its role in the Gold King Mine spill.
  • The Aug. 5 mine blowout released millions of gallons of waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
  • The NM Environment Secretary says the state will suffer $130M in lost income, taxes and revenue.
  • Navajo Nation president says tribe will support New Mexico and closely monitor the lawsuit.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas

FARMINGTON — The state of New Mexico is the first to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and two mine owners for economic and environmental damages caused by the Gold King Mine spill.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the complaint today on behalf of the New Mexico Environment Department in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.

The EPA has admitted responsibility for the Aug. 5 mine blowout. Employees of an EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration, released millions of gallons of mine waste laced with heavy metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers during a cleanup operation. The plume carried more than 880,000 pounds of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and zinc through state and tribal lands.

In addition to the EPA, the lawsuit names EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and Sunnyside Gold Corp.

New Mexico is demanding the defendants "abate the imminent and substantial threats" from the Sunnyside Mine network and remediate residual contamination from mine releases. The state is also seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages.

The complaint alleges the state is experiencing "enormous economic losses" because of the spill.

"The indelible images of a mustard-hewed toxic plume meandering downstream – into the habitat of several endangered species and superb sport fishing and recreational grounds – will linger long after the visible impacts of the release have vanished," the complaint states.

The confluence of the Animas River, at left, and the San Juan River, right, is pictured Aug. 8 as a plume of orange water contaminated with mine waste flows through Farmington after the Gold King Mine spill.

The "lingering stigma" will result in reduced economic activity and a decline in taxes, fees and income because of lost tourism, fishing and land use, according to the complaint.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the federal Tort claim notice filed this month included an estimate the state has suffered and will suffer $130 million in lost income, taxes, fees and revenues.

In a telephone interview Monday, Flynn said the department tried to work with the EPA to address ongoing concerns — including monitoring heavy metals levels in the river — but were unable to resolve those matters.

"We tried over seven months to pursue a diplomatic path forward," he said adding the agency has to be accountable for its promises to address the spill and its aftermath.

A press release from the attorney general's office states New Mexico and the EPA have been unable to "mutually agree" on a monitoring plan that "appropriately protects" state and tribal lands.

"It is inappropriate for the EPA to impose weak testing standards in New Mexico and I am demanding the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation to protect the health and well-being of our citizens," Balderas said in the release.

In a statement emailed to The Daily Times Monday, EPA Region 6 spokesman David Gray said the agency takes responsibility for the cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and provide funding for monitoring plans developed by state and tribal governments.

"EPA’s longstanding practice has been not to comment on pending litigation filed by external parties," Gray said.

He added the EPA has paid approximately $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring costs for New Mexico. Other funding has been distributed to Colorado, Utah, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Louie Diaz, spokesman for Kinross, said in an email Monday that Kinross and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the mine spill.

The complaint names Kinross Gold Corp., through its subsidiary Kinross Gold USA, as owner of the Sunnyside Mine and neighboring properties near Silverton, Colo.

"Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action," Diaz said.

The 51-page complaint asks the federal court to declare the defendants liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act for all costs incurred by New Mexico for its response to the releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances from the Gold King Mine and two additional locations, which are also mine sites in the mountains above Silverton.

The court is being asked to declare the named mining companies and EPA contractor in violation of the "imminent and substantial endangerment" provision in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The contractor, Environmental Restoration, did not return calls seeking comment today.

In addition, it requests EPA Administrator McCarthy to find a way to moderate pollution from inactive and abandoned mines in Colorado that discharge acid mine waste water into the Animas River.

New Mexico is asking the court to declare the mine owners and EPA contractor “negligent, grossly negligent or both” and award the state compensatory, consequential and punitive damages.

The complaint comes months after the state announced its intent to sue the EPA, the owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines, and the state of Colorado, which was not named in Monday’s complaint.

James Hallinan, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the state is still attempting to resolve issues with Colorado. Letters obtained by The Daily Times sent by Balderas to the EPA and the Colorado attorney general last week detailed some of the state's problems with responses to the spill.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will support New Mexico in its action and the tribe will closely monitor the lawsuit.

The president added the economic and environmental impacts and losses related to the spill, including abandoned crops, "heavily affect" the tribe, and the EPA has yet to reimburse those Navajo farmers and ranchers.

"The U.S. EPA has yet to provide significant clean-up along the river banks and in the river beds. The Navajo Nation is still very concerned that the contaminants will continue to migrate down river, particularly when there is a spike in the flow of the river," Begaye said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.