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New Mexico Sues EPA Over Gold King Spill

New Mexico Sues EPA Over Gold King Spill

NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn said the EPA has ignored data his department has provided showing continuing high levels of metals, turbity and suspended solids in the state's rivers.

Charges Regulators Deaf to State’s Claim of Extent of Pollution

BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI

New Mexico sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court Monday, seeking $136 million in damages from last summer’s Gold King Mine spill that sent 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River and into New Mexico.

The lawsuit was filed by the New Mexico Environment Department and Atty. Gen. Hector Balderas against the EPA, its contractor and the owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mine. The Aug. 5, 2015, spill released 888,000 pounds of metals into the Animas and the San Juan Rivers, the lawsuit said.

In a news release announcing the suit, NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn said the EPA has ignored data his department has provided showing continuing high levels of metals, turbity and suspended solids in the state’s rivers.

“Over the last seven months we have sought practical negotiations with EPA on topics ranging from their bizarre sediment standard, to comprehensive long-term monitoring,” Flynn said. “Our requests have been simple: ‘Please help us keep New Mexicans safe from the effects of the spill which you caused.’

“Rather than joining our monitoring efforts, EPA instead cherry picks the data they choose to monitor and present; and then dodges accountability at every turn.”

Balders said he was “disappointed by the continued unwillingness to respond to the New Mexico Environment Department’s numerous attempts to resolve this matter diplomatically and outside of court.”

The lawsuit said the heavy metals—lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and zinc—released by the spill still pose a health risk to New Mexicans.

“Many reaches of the Animas—on both sides of the Colorado-New Mexico state line—are now ‘sinks,’ which have temporarily captured heavy metals from the release,” the suit said. “Rainfall, snowmelt, and other high flow events will re-suspend these pollutants and carry them further downstream into and through New Mexico.

“These sources of ongoing and future discharges pose imminent and long-term health risks to the New Mexican people—particularly residents, farmers, ranchers, and recreational users of the Animas and San Juan Rivers. They also threaten fish, invertebrates, plants, and the environment in New Mexico.”

In the ten months since the spill, the State of New Mexico has provided the EPA with data  showing continuing high levels of metals, turbidity, and suspended solids in New Mexico’s rivers and sediment, the EPA has consistently discounted or ignored this data, the New Mexico Environment Department said in a news release.

The spill was caused when an EPA contractor breached a retaining pond wall at the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado.

EPA knew of danger

The lawsuit filed May 23 that an EPA supervisor on vacation at the time specifically told EPA employees not to excavate the mine portal without measuring hydraulic pressure behind it or preparing to capture acidic and heavy metal-laden water that could be released.

According to the lawsuit, the owners of the Sunnyside Mine under Bonita Peak, Col., had for years been treating acidic water from that mine, but the company persuaded the State of Colorado to allow it to stop the treatment operation and allow the wastewater to build up under the mountain and flood adjacent mines, including the otherwise dry workings of the nearby abandoned Gold King Mine.

Balderas, who filed the lawsuit in New Mexico U.S. District Court, said,  “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. 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 the economy.”

What N.M. seeks

The suit seeks action by the EPA to abate the potential pollution of the Animas River posed by abandoned Colorado mines. It seeks to recover costs incurred by the state in remediating the Gold King pollution impact. It also seeks to recover all profits made by the mines’ owners. The suit names the EPA; Environmental Restoration, Inc., an EPA contractor; Kinross Gold and its subsidiary Sunnyside Gold.

The lawsuit charges that the ultimate responsible party, Kinross, a Canadian company, abandoned environmental responsibilities it inherited when it took control of the Sunnyside Mine and it eventually abandoned the mine financially as well, leaving no surety bond to clean up pollution caused by the mining operation.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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Johnny Vizcaino is an editorial intern at ABQ Free Press Weekly.

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