Amendment speeds up reimbursements for mine spill

Lawmakers say an approved amendment to the Water Resources Development Act will help communities get reimbursed more quickly for expenses related to the Gold King Mine spill

Joshua Kellogg
The San Juan River flows near its confluence with the Animas River in Farmington on Aug. 8, 2015, shortly after the Gold King Mine spill.

FARMINGTON — Federal lawmakers representing New Mexico say the approval of an amendment to expedite reimbursements for expenses incurred during the Gold King Mine spill is a victory for local governments and residents.

Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., announced in a press release on Saturday that an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act had passed both the House and Senate.

In the release, Heinrich said the Navajo Nation and northwestern New Mexico are still recovering from the mine spill "in part because of the unacceptable pace of reimbursement to those impacted by this terrible incident."

"This measure will ensure that state, local and tribal governments will be fully reimbursed for their emergency response costs, and establishes a long-term water quality monitoring program in cooperation with local stakeholders," he said in a prepared statement

A crew working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered a breach of the abandoned Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 5, 2015. The breach released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers downstream.

The amendment gives tribal and state governments an option to challenge claims denied by the EPA, according to the press release.  It also allows them to file claims for damages through Sept. 9, 2016. The EPA previously used Oct. 31, 2015, as the cut-off for allowed reimbursements.

The measure also includes a "Sense of Congress" for the EPA to receive and process individual claims through the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Further, it directs the federal agency to coordinate with regional governments to implement a water monitoring program for the rivers affected by the mine spill.

A plume of toxic mine waste flows in the Animas River south of Durango, Colo., on Aug. 7, 2015, just days after the Gold Kine Mine north of Silverton, Colo., was breached.

Udall, the incoming vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said the amendment instructs the EPA to expedite the process of addressing farmers’ claims and to coordinate with governments to cover the costs of water monitoring.

"With passage of this important amendment, we will compel the EPA — which has only reimbursed a fraction of the costs incurred by affected parties — to move expeditiously to make right this exceedingly costly disaster,” he said in the press release.

The amendment was introduced as part of the Senate bill for the Water Resources Development Act in September. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and John McCain, R-Ariz. joined Udall and Heinrich in backing the amendment.

Luján introduced the amendment in the U.S House of Representatives.

"The devastation caused by the Gold King Mine spill took a toll on farmers, businesses and families, and has left state, local, and tribal governments facing unexpected cleanup and recovery costs," he said in the release.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.