#AnimasRiver: “Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance” — Hector Balderas

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 Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

New Mexico launched a legal fight against the EPA and owners of a Colorado gold mine Monday, demanding action, contending the Gold King disaster caused catastrophic harm to downriver people, aquatic insects and fish.

“Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance. … Governments need to be accountable to neighboring communities as well as their own community,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said after filing a lawsuit in federal court.

The lawsuit does not specify monetary damages, but state attorneys said New Mexico is entitled to at least $7 million to reimburse communities for emergency expenditures after the disaster and for independent, third-party monitoring of water quality. In addition, the attorneys estimated New Mexico suffered economic harm of $140 million.

It spares Colorado, for now. Balderas said he’s “having a conversation” with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and hopes legal issues between the states can be resolved.

EPA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but agency officials said the EPA has paid $1.3 million to help New Mexico cover costs related to the disaster. Coffman declined to comment.

The lawsuit contends New Mexico, tribes and Utah suffered catastrophic damage from the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 spill into Animas River headwaters, a “sickly yellow plume of contamination” that flowed out of southwestern Colorado into New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, Utah and eventually Lake Powell atop the Grand Canyon.The spill damaged water that is the lifeblood of downriver communities’ economy and culture with devastating impact, the lawsuit said.

It demands tougher water-quality testing — using “the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation” — by someone outside the EPA.

Compensation would go for remediation and to help agricultural and cultural communities that depend on the river for irrigation and drinking water. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy,” the lawsuit said.

New Mexico blames the plugging of the Sunnyside Mine, currently owned by Kinross Corp., as the root cause of the Gold King disaster because this action backed up acidic, metals-laden water, causing water levels to spread to nearby mines, including the Gold King Mine. The lawsuit also targets Environmental Restoration, the EPA’s contractor, involved in work to try to drain the Gold King when workers accidentally caused a blowout.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

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 “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.

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)

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Columbian:

The federal lawsuit says the environmental effects of the August 2015 spill are far worse than claimed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. New Mexico wants to be paid back for its immediate response to the disaster and receive funding for long-term monitoring, lost revenue and a marketing campaign to undo the stigma left behind by the bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals that fouled rivers in three Western states.

“The liability is crystal clear. The facts speak for themselves, and EPA for whatever reason is unwilling to resolve this outside of court,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Associated Press. “We’re going to do what we need to do to make sure New Mexicans are protected and compensated for the harm caused.”

[…]

Balderas said the spill has had a devastating effect on communities and that the federal agency should be held to the same standards it would impose on private interests accused of polluting.

“Remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water,” Balderas said. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy.”

The EPA typically declines to comment about pending litigation but a spokeswoman said last week that the agency was taking responsibility for the cleanup…

A notice sent this month to the EPA outlined the damage and argued that heavy metals in the Animas and San Juan rivers remain at levels that “present unacceptable risks to health and the environment.”

Attorneys for New Mexico argue that the spill was preventable and that the EPA had been warned about a potential blowout nearly a year before the incident.

The state also contends its offers to lead a regional long-term monitoring project to better understand the damage and the prospects of future contamination flowing down the river system have been repeatedly rebuffed by the EPA.

The agency offered $2 million to states and tribes affected by the spill for monitoring, but New Mexico officials say that’s only a fraction of the more than $6 million that would be needed for adequate monitoring in the state.

New Mexico also estimates the spill is costing the state $130 million in lost income taxes, fees and revenue. Officials have pointed to reduced tourism, fishing and land use throughout the region.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The state sued the Environmental Protection Agency, contractor Environmental Restoration LLC, and owners of the Gold King Mine as defendants. It’s the first state to take this kind of legal action…

New Mexico officials say that about $130 million would go toward economic damages, $17 million would be spent on a marketing fund to promote the state’s image, and $6 million would be spent on long-term water quality monitoring. About $1 million would help recoup emergency response costs at the time of the spill.

New Mexico isn’t the only state struggling with covering costs associated with the spill. La Plata County, in Colorado, reports a deficit of nearly $185,849 spent on wages, benefits and water quality monitoring since the spill. San Juan County reports that it’s seeking reimbursement for $357,363 for spill-related expenses through Feb. 29, 2016.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.):

In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department cite economic setbacks and environmental damage suffered by the state after more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste was dumped into the river.

It demands reimbursement of $889,327 for short-term emergency-response costs paid by the state, more than $6 million to pay for long-term monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers and $130 million for lost income, taxes, fees and revenues suffered by the state because of the spill.

“The river only flows one way,” said Ryan Flynn, New Mexico environment secretary. “Trouble could still be coming for New Mexico. We have been pushing for a monitoring effort since October. Our concept is $6 million plus and five years of comprehensive monitoring that would give us a firm grasp of what is happening in the watershed. All EPA has said is we will give you is $465,000. That just doesn’t cut it.”

[…]

Flynn said efforts to resolve issues with the EPA outside of court have proved fruitless.

“I couldn’t tell you what EPA is thinking,” Flynn said. “EPA seems totally unwilling to resolve this in a collaborative manner.”

Among the major impasses between New Mexico and the EPA has been appropriate screening levels for contaminant metals such as lead.

Flynn said the EPA wants to impose a recreational standard that would be safe for hikers and campers, but New Mexico believes the much more strict residential standard should be applied because people live along the affected rivers in New Mexico.

“There are a lot of people whose homes are right on the river or who use the river for a lot more than kayaking,” Flynn said.

Balderas agrees.

“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. “Additionally, remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water. They must be properly compensated, and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and economy.”

The EPA does not comment on pending litigation filed by outside parties. But in a statement released Monday, the EPA said the agency takes responsibility for the mine spill cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and fund tribal and state monitoring plans as well as conduct its own monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers.

“EPA has funded about $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring cost for New Mexico to date,” the EPA statement said. “We continue to review documentation and applications for different entities in the state and will expedite payments. New Mexico has $7.1 million available in unallocated federal funds – of which $108,000 has already been approved – to fund real-time monitors in the river.”

[…]

Flynn said the EPA has paid back more than $700,000 of the emergency-response money New Mexico shelled out dealing with the spill, but that the state is seeking another $800,000-plus from the federal agency to cover those costs.

New Mexico also wants $130 million to pay for economic losses it attributes to the mine spill.

“We asked our analyst to be as conservative as possible,” Flynn said. “But there is stigma associated with this region due to the yellow river.”

He said that stigma had hurt New Mexico in revenue lost because kayakers, fishermen, hikers and other outdoorsmen have sought other places to enjoy outdoor recreation, tourists have selected other vacation destinations and consumers of agricultural products have looked elsewhere for their purchases.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Flynn said. “They (EPA) are clearly at fault. At the end of the day the law is on our side. EPA is now on the other side of the law it has been fighting to enforce for so many years.”

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Sue McMillin):

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, names the EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold U.S.A. Inc., and Sunnyside Gold Corp. as defendants. Kinross is the parent company of Sunnyside.

Along with seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages related to the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, the lawsuit “demands that the Defendants abate the imminent and substantial threats emanating from the mines in Colorado, and remediate residual contamination from the Gold King Mine releases in New Mexico’s surface waters and sediments.”

James Hallinan, communications director for the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, said he could not comment on open litigation, but the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is in “ongoing communication” with the state of Colorado over the Gold King spill. The state of Colorado and the owner of the Gold King Mine were not named in the lawsuit filed Monday, although in March the New Mexico Environment Department filed notice of its intent to sue those parties as well.

Colorado Attorney General Office spokeswoman Erin Lamb declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A spokesman with Kinross Gold Corp. responded in an email to a request for comment: “Kinross Gold and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the incident on August 5th, 2015 and Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action.”

The lawsuit claims the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside Gold’s attempt to block acid mine drainage by building bulkheads in drainage tunnels below the mine. The owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines have disputed the source of the wastewater buildup.

“These bulkheads impounded possibly billions of gallons of acid mine drainage and wastewater in Bonita Peak Mountain and caused the water to flood several adjacent mines,” the complaint says. It accuses Sunnyside Gold of using the mountain to store its waste rather than properly treating it.

General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library
General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

A federal grant will fund an economic development coordinator to help Silverton and San Juan County businesses during the potential Superfund cleanup of historic mines.

“They are totally reliant on tourism, and we don’t know how that will be impacted,” said Laura Lewis Marchino, the deputy director of the Region 9 Economic Development District.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration is providing about $115,600 to pay a coordinator for two years and cover expenses such as marketing materials and travel, Marchino said.

The coordinator will be focused on supporting existing businesses through the federal cleanup of the Bonita Peak Mining District, which could include 48 mine-related sites.

The mining district was recommended for a Superfund listing in April following the Aug. 5 mine blowout, and the proposed designation is nearing the end of a 60-day comment period.

Easing the housing shortage when Superfund workers come to town will likely be another priority for the coordinator, she said.

During the construction of the temporary water-treatment plant near the Gold King Mine, there was not enough housing, she said.

The town needs more rentals so that hotel and motel rooms aren’t used as permanent housing.

The five-member San Juan Development Association Board that includes representatives from the town of Silverton, San Juan County, the Silverton Chamber of Commerce and Region 9 will hire the new coordinator.

Region 9 will manage the two-year grant, and Marchino would like to have the position filled by late summer.

“We needed to do what we could to help,” she said.

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

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