Congressman seeks funds for mine spill studies

Brett Berntsen
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján addresses the media with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy Aug. 13 at Berg Park in Farmington in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill.

FARMINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján has pushed through an amendment to a federal appropriations bill that would provide funding for long-term monitoring programs in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the New Mexico Democrat's provision, which allocates $6 million for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to partner with state and tribal entities to monitor water quality in rivers affected by the spill.

In August, an EPA crew working to restore abandoned mining sites near Silverton, Colo., accidentally triggered a blowout that released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.

During testimony in support of his amendment, Luján said the funding will address a key discrepancy between New Mexico and the EPA, which, in part, has fueled a lawsuit from the state in response to the disaster.

“It is disappointing that it has come to this point of legal action,” Luján said. “My amendment seeks to address this issue.”

The state has requested about $6 million from the EPA to carry out studies on heavy-metal contamination in the Animas River watershed. So far, the agency has made $2 million available to state and tribal monitoring plans.

“Congressman Luján does not believe that this level of funding is sufficient,” Andrew Stoddard, a spokesman for the lawmaker, said in an email.

While the EPA plans to conduct long-term studies of its own, New Mexico officials have criticized the extent of the agency’s efforts. Speaking at a conference in May, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Chief Scientist Dennis McQuillan said that programs need to be holistic and take into account various aspects, from water contamination to the effects on human health.

EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Claire declined to comment for this story, saying the agency does not discuss pending litigation.

Luján’s amendment was made to a bill from the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees the EPA’s budget. The U.S. Senate has a matching committee, on which New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall serves as a senior member.

In a statement issued today, Udall praised Luján’s efforts and said he is also working to fund monitoring programs.

“The Senate bill is somewhat different on this point,” Udall said. “But the goal is the same.”

While the subcommittee bills hash out the parameters for government spending, they typically do not pass through Congress due to their propensity to include language mandating action on unrelated issues. Instead, Congress has recently funded government agencies through a larger omnibus bill, which can be passed in one sweeping vote from each legislative branch.

Luján spokesman Andrew Stoddard said that no matter which process takes place this year, response efforts to the Gold King Mine spill have garnered bipartisan support across Congress.

“Luján will work with members of the Senate to advocate for this critical funding as the appropriations process moves forward,” Stoddard said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.