#AnimasRiver: @EPA cites “sovereign immunity” — $1.2 billion in claims set aside

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Farmington Daily Times (Magdalena Wegrzyn , Leigh Black Irvin , Joshua Kellogg and Noel Lyn Smith):

Federal lawmakers, tribal leaders and state and local officials presented a rare unified front today as they vehemently denounced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it will not pay more than $1.2 billion in claims filed against it in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

The EPA said the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents the agency from paying claims that result from “discretionary” government actions. Congress passed the law to allow government agencies — and in this case, contractors working on their behalf — to act “without the fear of paying damages in the event something went wrong while taking the action,” according to a press release from the EPA.

Three federal lawmakers representing New Mexico denounced the news in a joint statement, calling the agency’s reasoning a “shameful legal interpretation of liability.” Meanwhile, Navajo Nation officials questioned who would take responsibility for reimbursing tribal members hurt by the spill, which on Aug. 5, 2015, released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary that feeds the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River, ultimately emptying into Lake Powell.

The EPA said the work contractors conducted at the mine near Silverton, Colo., is considered a “discretionary function” under the law.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a statement saying they would continue pushing for legislation to hold the EPA accountable. They also said it would be up to the courts to determine whether the EPA’s defense is legitimate.

Heinrich said in a phone interview that he intends to introduce legislation to ensure the EPA pays claims that have already been filed, as well as future claims.

“I’m going to speak to all of the senators from Colorado and Arizona, and we’re going to introduce legislation to do this right,” he said.

An EPA agency official said paying the claims would discourage cleanup efforts — such as the one being conducted at the Gold King Mine when it was breached — in the future…

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will continue pursuing its lawsuit against the EPA and several other entities. He said the tribe plans to work with president-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration to address claims tied to the spill.

“It doesn’t stop here,” Begaye said shortly after attending an inauguration ceremony in Shiprock for recently elected Northern Agency chapter officials. “This is one step, and we will continue taking the next step and if we have to, we’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.”

[…]

An EPA official said 73 claims related to the mine spill were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Four were from governmental agencies and the rest were from individuals and companies…

Joe Ben Jr. served as the Shiprock Chapter’s farm board member when the spill occurred. Ben, a farmer himself, said he did not file a claim but knows several other farmers who submitted claims for lost crops and revenue…

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

… collecting compensation doesn’t weigh heavily on [Earl] Yazzie. Instead, the farmer said he’s more concerned about whether to plant crops this spring and if he’ll irrigate with water from the San Juan River…

Included in the $1.2 billion is about $154 million in tort claims that are part of a lawsuit filed by the state of New Mexico, according to the EPA official. She said the EPA’s defense will be used in court to deny payment of those claims…

The EPA official acknowledged the announcement was slow in coming, adding “we spent a lot of time trying to see if there was any other way to address this because this is obviously an answer that leaves a lot of people unhappy who have been hurt.”

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

The EPA said the claims could be refiled in federal court, or Congress could authorize payments.

But attorneys for the EPA and the Justice Department concluded the EPA is barred from paying the claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.

“The agency worked hard to find a way in which it could pay individuals for damages due to the incident, but unfortunately, our hands are tied,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said.

The EPA said it has spent more than $31.3 million on the spill, including remediation work, water testing and payments to state, local and tribal agencies.

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