FromThe 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…
… 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.”
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Christie St. Clair):
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted the final fate and transport report for the Gold King Mine (GKM) release. The report focuses on understanding pre-existing river conditions, the movement of metals related to the GKM release through the river system, and the effects of the GKM release on water quality. The research supports EPA’s earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system returned to the levels that existed prior to the GKM release and contamination of metals from the release have moved through the river system to Lake Powell.
“This report is a comprehensive analysis of the effects on water quality from the Gold King Mine release,” said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “While data indicate that water quality has returned to pre-event conditions, EPA is committed to continue our work with States and Tribes in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”
The area affected by the Gold King Mine release consists of complex river systems influenced by decades of historic acid mine drainage. The report shows the total amount of metals, dominated by iron and aluminum, entering the Animas River following the release — which lasted about nine hours on August 5, 2015 –was comparable to four to seven days of ongoing GKM acid mine drainage or the average amount of metals carried by the river in one to two days of high spring runoff. However, the concentrations of some metals in the GKM plume were higher than historical mine drainage. As the yellow plume of metal-laden water traveled downstream after the release, the metal concentrations within the plume decreased as they were diluted by river water and as some of the metals settled to the river bed.
There were no reported fish kills in the affected rivers, and post-release surveys by multiple organizations have found that other aquatic life does not appear to have suffered harmful short-term effects from the GKM plume. The concentrations of metals in well-water samples collected after the plume passed did not exceed federal drinking water standards. No public water system using Lake Powell as a source of drinking water has reported an exceedance of metals standards since the release.
Some metals from the GKM release contributed to exceedances of state and tribal water quality criteria at various times for nine months after the release in some locations. Metals from the GKM release may have contributed to some water quality criteria exceedances during the spring 2016 snow melt. Other exceedances may reflect longstanding contributions of metals from historic mining activities in the region and natural levels of metals in soils and rocks in the area. EPA will continue to work with states and tribes to interpret and respond to these findings.
Results from this analysis will inform future federal, state and tribal decisions on water and sediment monitoring. EPA will continue to work with states and tribes to ensure the protection of public health and the environment in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release.
Read the final report, “Analysis of the Transport and Fate of Metals Released From the Gold King Mine in the Animas and San Juan Rivers”: https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_file_download.cfm?p_download_id=530074
The 2015 Gold King Mine spill deposited nearly 540 tons of metals over a 9-hour period into Cement Creek, which feeds into the Animas River, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday in it final report on the scope and ongoing effects of the spill.
The EPA estimated that roughly one percent of the metals, mostly iron and aluminum, contained in the spill came from the mine, with the rest coming from the waste piles on the hillside below the mine adit and the stream bed of Cement Creek.
The study states “the volume of the GKM release was equivalent to four to seven days of ongoing GKM acid mine drainage,” or “one to two days of high spring runoff.”
But, as indicated in previous tests, the river returned to pre-spill levels.
There have been no reported fish kills or significant impacts on other aquatic life, but the EPA will continue to monitor the waterways impacted by the spill, the agency said Friday in a release.
The study also looked at water quality in the Animas to see if it had returned to pre-event conditions and if the impacts of the spill itself had long-term detrimental ramifications on the river given the history of mining in the region…
“The research supports EPA’s earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system returned to the levels that existed prior to the GKM release and contamination of metals from the release have moved through the river system to Lake Powell,” the release said.
Following Aug. 5, 2015 spill, the concentration of contaminants exceeded water quality standards in multiple locations impacted.
This necessitated the building of an interim water treatment plant at Gladstone that was mandated to operate through November 2016, said Cynthia Peterson, community involvement coordinator for the Bonita Peak Mining District. The EPA concluded a public comment session on Dec. 14 regarding the future of the treatment plant, and will release a final decision by the end of January, Peterson said. But the EPA has a preferred course of action.
“EPA’s preferred plan for the water treatment plant is for its continued operations and to look at additional options in the future as we understand more about the nature and spread of the contamination,” she said.
The agency also is conducting remedial investigation to understand the impact of the 48 sites in the mining district, which was named a Superfund site in September, on river contamination, Peterson said. This represents the first step before clean-up operations can begin.
From the Associated Press (Matthew Daly) via The Farmington Daily Times:
Agency says only 1 percent of the metals came from inside the mine and the rest were “scoured” from waste piles on nearby hills and stream beds
Nearly 540 tons of metals — mostly iron and aluminum — contaminated the Animas River over nine hours during a massive wastewater spill from an abandoned Colorado gold mine, the Environmental Protection Agency said today in a new report on the 2015 blowout that turned rivers in three states a sickly yellow.
The total amount of metals entering the river system was comparable to levels during one or two days of high spring runoff, although the concentration of metals was significantly higher at the spill’s peak, the report said.
In February, the EPA estimated the amount of metals in the release at 440 tons. The agency said additional data and improved analysis resulted in the higher final estimate.
The EPA said its research supports earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system has returned to pre-spill levels…
The EPA said in its report that only 1 percent of the metals came from inside the mine, while 99 percent were “scoured” from waste piles on nearby hills and stream beds. The iron and aluminum reacted with the river water to cause the eye-catching mustard color that was visible for days as the plume traveled down the river system into Lake Powell, the EPA said.
Besides iron and aluminum, the spill released manganese, lead, copper, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and a small amount of mercury into the river, the EPA said…
New Mexico Environment Secretary Butch Tongate accused the EPA of using the taxpayer-funded report to try to defend its actions. The state has sued the agency over the spill.
Colorado officials said they had no comment on the report. Utah officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“While data indicate that water quality has returned to pre-event conditions, EPA is committed to continue our work with States and Tribes in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release to ensure the protection of public health and the environment,” Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s science adviser and deputy assistant administrator in its office of research and development, said in a statement…
The disaster, which turned the Animas River a toxic-looking yellow-orange, prompted concern and anger downstream, particularly in the Navajo Nation and New Mexico, where officials have been continually complaining about the spill’s water-quality impacts and have filed lawsuits against the EPA. The concentrations of some metals in the Gold King mine plume were higher than historical mine drainage, the EPA said in a news release announcing the report’s findings, but the impacts on water quality were not long lasting as some had worried…
There were no reported fish kills in the Animas or San Juan rivers, and the EPA says surveys have round that other aquatic life does not appear to have suffered any short-term impacts…
Also, the agency says the concentrations of metals in well-water samples collected after the 3 million-gallon spill’s plume passed through areas did not exceed federal drinking water standards. No public water system using Lake Powell as a source of drinking water has reported an exceedance of metals standards since the release, according to the EPA.
“Some metals from the GKM release contributed to exceedances of state and tribal water quality criteria at various times for nine months after the release in some locations,” the release said. “Metals from the GKM release may have contributed to some water quality criteria exceedances during the spring 2016 snow melt.”
However the EPA says other metal-level exceedances may reflect the longstanding mine drainage from the region’s historic sites as well as natural levels of metals in southwest Colorado’s soils and rocks. Silverton and its surroundings are now slated to get a federal cleanup of their leaching, historic mines under the EPA’s Superfund program.
The mines and mining sites in Silverton’s surroundings — including the Gold King — pour an estimated 5.4 million gallons of metal-laden waste into the Animas’ headwaters each day.
“Results from this analysis will inform future federal, state and tribal decisions on water and sediment monitoring,” the EPA release said, though it did not immediately elaborate.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday it would prefer to continue operations at the temporary water-treatment plant that handles discharges out of the Gold King Mine while the agency continues to evaluate long-term options.
Before the EPA makes that decision final, a public comment period that began Monday will run to Dec. 14.
“As EPA understands more about the hydrology of the area, and how various sources of contamination are affecting water quality, the Agency will consider any number of options, including potential expansion of the IWTP, to address the contamination,” Chris Wardell, of U.S. EPA Region 8, said in a news release.
The second option considered in the report released Monday was to mothball the $1.5 million water-treatment plant, which was built two months after an EPA contracted crew on Aug. 5, 2015, breached the portal of the Gold King Mine, releasing 3 million gallons of mine waste down the Animas River.
The treatment plant’s high cost of operation, as well as the need to deal with the lime-heavy metal sludge by-product, led officials tasked with improving water quality in the Animas River watershed to find other options.
As of last week, the average flow rate into the treatment plant was 712 gallons per minute, and it costs about $16,000 per week to operate.
If EPA, after reviewing public comments, formally decides to continue operations, the agency will move the plant from “emergency removal action” funding to “Non-Time Critical Removal Action,” which falls under the proper Superfund process.
In a lawsuit filed earlier this year in U.S. District Court of New Mexico, the tribe named Sunnyside Gold Corp. as a responsible party for the spill on Aug. 5, 2015.
The lawsuit also names the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Restoration LLC, Harrison Western Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and John Does 1-10.
Sunnyside filed a motion on Oct. 17 to dismiss its involvement in the lawsuit, and the tribe filed its response on Monday.
In the tribe’s response to Sunnyside’s motion, it called the company a “key contributor” to the toxic water buildup at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo.
The buildup led to a blowout, triggering the release of more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“It knew that its actions in bulk heading its mine would shift the flow of contaminated water to other mines in the Upper Animas Watershed and pose a substantial threat of a future blowout into downstream communities,” the response states…
Sunnyside argued the state of Colorado should be named in the lawsuit since the mine and associated activities at the mine site are within the state.
In the tribe’s response, it stated the federal court can provide “complete relief” for damages incurred as a result of the spill among the defendants already named in the lawsuit. It adds that Colorado’s role as a mine regulator is of “no consequence” because the tribe is not challenging how the state regulates mining nor is it asking for an injunction only the state could provide.
Sunnyside also argued for a dismissal using a section of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which is commonly known as the Superfund Act.
The section Sunnyside cited states that no federal court has jurisdiction to review any challenges when remedial action is taking place at a Superfund site.
In response, the tribe argues Sunnyside cannot use that section of the Superfund Act because the Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes the Gold King Mine, was designated a Superfund site only after the mine spill.
The EPA declared the area a Superfund site in September.
“Too many local families are losing money because they lost their crops,” San Juan County Commissioner Margaret McDaniel said. “They are afraid to water their crops. There are some wells along here people are afraid to drink from.”
Kirtland Mayor Mark Duncan said some farmers could not sell hay they had raised because potential buyers feared it might have been poisoned by mine-spill contaminated water used to irrigate the crop.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas presided over the news conference, which also included other state officials and elected municipal and county officials in northwest New Mexico. The Journal took part via conference phone call.
Balderas said the state is committed to a long-standing litigation strategy ensuring that the people of New Mexico are fully compensated for the mine spill that dumped 3 million gallons of water laced with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, into a Colorado creek on Aug. 5, 2015. That creek flowed into the Animas River, which took the tainted water into New Mexico and into the San Juan River near Farmington and through the Navajo Nation.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. filed a motion last week to be dismissed from its inclusion in a lawsuit brought by the Navajo Nation for the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill.
“We are hopeful that the case against Sunnyside will be promptly dismissed, as we see no basis for us even being named in this litigation,” spokesman Larry Perino wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
In August, the Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit that included Sunnyside, the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, for the mine spill, which sent 3 million gallons of wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers.
The lawsuit also named Kinross Gold Corp. (Sunnyside’s parent company), Gold King Mine Corp. (the entity that owns the Gold King mine) as well as Harrison Western Corp., and John Does 1 to 10.
The reasons Sunnyside asked the U.S. Federal Court in New Mexico to dismiss its inclusion are manifold: the company was not involved on the work last summer, the New Mexico court lacks jurisdiction and the bulkheading of the American Tunnel was done at the direction of the state of Colorado.
Sunnyside argued that for those reasons, the state Colorado should have been also named in the lawsuit.
“In essence, the point of Navajo Nation’s lawsuit is to hold Sunnyside liable for following the directives of Colorado and for intending to store water in Colorado,” the motion says. “The fact that an accident at the Gold King Mine – of which Sunnyside had no part – carried water into New Mexico is irrelevant for a personal jurisdiction analysis.”
In July, Sunnyside filed a similar motion to dismiss concerning the state of New Mexico’s lawsuit for impacts to that state regarding the spill.
Questions have been raised whether the bulkheading of Sunnyside’s American Tunnel has caused mine waste to back up and discharge out adjacent mines, namely the Gold King and Red & Bonita.
The EPA has said it will conduct further evaluations this summer to better understand the network of mines in the complicated drainage.
The Navajo Nation has 60-days to respond to the motion to dismiss, though it has asked the courts for an extension of that deadline.
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
A defendant in the Navajo Nation’s Gold King Mine spill lawsuit has filed a motion to dismiss its involvement in the case.
In the motion filed last week, the Sunnyside Gold Corp. claims the company had no involvement in the Aug. 5, 2015, spill that released more than 3 million gallons of toxic-laden wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
On Aug. 16, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye announced the tribe had filed a lawsuit against Sunnyside, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Restoration LLC, Harrison Western Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and John Does 1-10.
Sunnyside, which is based in Silverton, Colo., owns and operates several mining properties, according to a company overview listed on the Bloomberg website.
The company states in its motion that claims against it must be dismissed for several reasons, including that the U.S. District Court of New Mexico lacks jurisdiction in the matter. The court lacks jurisdiction because only the alleged injury occurred in New Mexico, and none of the activities related to the mine happened in the state, according to the motion.
“In this case, there is no suggestion that Sunnyside’s activities were ever directed at New Mexico. All of Sunnyside’s conduct and activities, everything it did or did not do relevant to this case, occurred in Colorado. Nothing Sunnyside did was in or aimed at New Mexico,” the motion states.
Sunnyside argues the state of Colorado must be a party to the lawsuit because the mine and associated work was done within the state.
According to the motion, the company claims bulkheads installed at the mine were completed through specific directives issued by the state of Colorado and by a consent decree approved by a Colorado district court judge in May 1996.
Any fault associated with the installation of bulkheads must include Colorado, the motion states.
Another reason the motion asks to dismiss Sunnyside is due to a section of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which established the Superfund program, that deprives the court’s jurisdiction over the tribe’s abatement claims.
On Sept. 9, the EPA designated the Bonita Peak Mining District, where the Gold King Mine is located, a Superfund site.
Because the area has received the Superfund designation, any abatement activities would be determined by the EPA, and the tribe is not entitled to punitive damages from Sunnyside, according to the motion.