#AnimasRiver: Sunnyside asks judge to dismiss #NewMexico lawsuit

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 (Jonathan Romeo):

On Friday, Sunnyside – now owned by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. – called for New Mexico’s lawsuit over the Gold King Mine spill’s impact to the state to be dismissed.

“We see no basis for us even being named in this litigation,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino wrote in an email.

In May, the state of New Mexico, seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, naming the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractor, as well as Sunnyside and its parent company, as responsible parties for the Aug. 5, 2015, mine blowout.

In the complaint, New Mexico state officials claim the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside’s attempt to block waste water drainage by building bulkheads in tunnels below the vast Sunnyside Mine network north of Silverton…

In its July 29 motion to dismiss, Sunnyside argued that installing the American Tunnel bulkhead was done at the direction of the state of Colorado, and that New Mexico officials “point to no facts to support that historic discharges from the Sunnyside Mine pool in Colorado, unrelated to the Gold King Mine blowout, somehow impacted New Mexico.”

The motion further alleges New Mexico has no personal jurisdiction over Sunnyside; the state of Colorado is a required party in the case and is not named (Colorado was sued by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court); and New Mexico is not entitled to punitive damages.

Sunnyside has long dismissed claims that water backed up behind the American Tunnel has seeped to other mine workings, though most experts in the region suspected the opposite.

Regardless, as a result of the proposed Superfund listing, the EPA plans to enter the mine and investigate, which should provide clarity, EPA officials previously said. It is unclear if those efforts have started this summer.

And Sunnyside’s involvement does not end with the New Mexico lawsuit, as the company has emerged high atop the list of potentially responsible parties that the EPA would seek financial costs from should a Superfund be declared.

Though Sunnyside claims an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three bulkheads in the 1990s would release the company of further liability for pollution in the district, officials familiar with the Superfund process say otherwise.

“It’s a different law,” Doug Jamison, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a previous interview. “(Sunnyside) was relieved of their liability from a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. It has nothing to do with Superfund liability.”

It’s been a convoluted, and expensive, quarter century since the company last hauled gold, silver, copper and other precious metals from the highly mineralized mountains surrounding San Juan County.

After the mine shut down in 1991, a number of remedial efforts began, with Perino estimating about $15 million has been directed to cleaning up sites around the basin.

Still, ever since Sunnyside’s water treatment plant shut down in 2004 (a result of a sale to local Steve Fearn, who was evicted by current Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis), water quality in the Animas River has degraded.

The town, too, felt the departure.

“It was a wrenching time,” Silverton native Bev Rich said.

Rich said nearly 150 workers lost high paying jobs. The only school in the small mountain hamlet of about 600 full-time residents went from 150 students to about 50, and San Juan County lost $300,000 – about one third – of its annual budget.

Meanwhile the U.S. Attorney General’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill. Here’s a report from Jesse Paul writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Federal authorities have confirmed for the first time that a criminal investigation into the 2015 Gold King Mine spill is underway, saying their probe involves the U.S. Attorney’s Office and came at the request of members of Congress.

The announcement Monday came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) as it released letters sent to lawmakers about the status of its work to analyze the disaster. Documents reviewed by The Denver Post on Monday indicate the probe has been in progress for nearly a year.

Jeffrey Lagda, spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said the OIG is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the criminal investigation. It was “based on requests from several members of the House and Senate,” he added…

In a June 29 letter to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the inspector general’s office said a number of investigations into the spill “have been underway.”

Gardner said Monday in a statement that he appreciates the criminal review and urged the expedited release of a full report on the disaster. He added: “I look forward to a response to my questions surrounding EPA’s insufficient and untimely recovery efforts immediately following the spill.”

In recent letters to members of Congress, the OIG wrote: “There is investigative material that we cannot reveal in any report about our program evaluation until the investigation reaches a point where the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA’s OIG’s Office of Investigations inform us that we may do so. Many of your questions to us, including those that go to the heart of what you asked us to address, directly implicate and will have to be answered in part by investigative results that are not currently releasable.”

[…]

Also Monday, the EPA released a 23-page retrospective report on the Gold King and its efforts since the incident to restore and protect impacted communities.

The agency said that as of July 15 it has dedicated $29 million in response efforts and for continued water quality monitoring. Officials say they are also evaluating more incident-related expenses and that they are working to expedite the distribution of those funds.

“We have been responsive in terms of doing the cleanup and demonstrating how we’ve done the cleanup,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s assistant administrator, told The Post in an interview Monday.

He added that 68 claims that have been filed against the EPA, which include a mixture of individuals, businesses and local and state governments, are pending review…

The National Wildlife Federation on Monday proclaimed “no meaningful effort has been made” since the Gold King spill to address the ongoing threats from hundreds of mines across the country. Jim Lyon, the federation’s vice president of conservation policy, called for legislation to stop the clock from ticking toward another similar catastrophe.

Stanislaus said the universal problem is broader than the EPA and is being examined from many federal levels.

“I think the EPA can only take on an extremely small subset of the abandoned mine situation,” Stanislaus said. “We only get involved in the highest risk situations where you have this high risk (to) ecological and public health.”

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 Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

In a July 22 interview with the Telluride Daily Planet, Hays Griswold, speaking of a cleanup project set to begin at a mine near Ophir, cautioned residents there that work might cause some discoloration in the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River.

“You may see some yellow water. Don’t get excited like they do in Durango,” Griswold said.

EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison wrote in an emailed response that Griswold’s comments do not reflect the views of the agency. Requests for an interview with Griswold were ignored, and independent attempts to reach him Thursday were unsuccessful…

Griswold last August was charged with taking over cleanup efforts at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton while the EPA’s permanent on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, was on vacation.

Just days into his command, Griswold gave the EPA’s contracted crews orders to dig into the loose pile of dirt and rock that covered the entrance to the mine – despite clear instructions left by Way to postpone any such work due to the inherit risk of a blowout…

Griswold is now tasked with cleaning up 15,000 cubic yards of mill tailings at the Carribeau Mine, west of Ophir, according to the Telluride Daily Planet. He will not, however, be touching the mine’s adit, which is leaking anywhere from 600 to 800 gallons of mine drainage a minute.

The EPA’s Harrison wrote that the remediation plan for Carribeau Mine is under review by the regional office, and no final decisions have been made about the work.

The EPA’s efforts in the Silverton mining district, now proposed for Superfund listing as the Bonita Peak Mining District, are under the direction of Rebecca Thomas, remedial project manager.

From Reuters (Keith Coffman):

At the urging of congressional leaders, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the rupture from the Gold King Mine above Silverton, Colorado, that fouled waterways in three states and Native American lands, the agency said in a statement.

“Based on requests from several members of the House and Senate, the OIG is conducting both a program evaluation and a criminal investigation of the Gold King Mine spill,” the EPA said in a statement.

The OIG is an independent office that audits, investigates and evaluates the agency’s activities, the EPA statement said…

Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA’s Inspector General, told Reuters that the probe has been ongoing for some time, and that investigators are working with prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.

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
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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s