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Editorial: EPA right to do 180 on Gold King spill claims

It has taken two years, but the Environmental Protection Agency says it will reconsider paying farmers, business owners and tribes for economic losses attributable to the Gold King Mine spill. Because it was EPA workers who triggered the spill, there never should have been a question about which agency should pay for the damages.

On Aug. 5, 2015, an EPA team dug out a dirt-and-rock plug from the long abandoned Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado and dumped 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater laden with more than 880,000 pounds of metals into Four Corners waterways, including the Animas River. The resulting yellow sludge made the national news and affected rivers, businesses, farms and wells in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Farmers who depend on the rivers for irrigation lost crops; water wells were fouled; clean water had to be trucked to livestock; municipalities had to temporarily halt using river water; and popular rafting, kayaking and fishing venues were unusable.

Although EPA officials urged those affected to file claims – which at one time totaled about $1.2 billion – they announced in January that federal law prevented the EPA from paying claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.

The agency said last year it would reimburse $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments for their emergency response to the spill but rejected $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses, again citing federal law.

A recent review by The Associated Press estimates the damages sought now total about $420 million.

Although the EPA has spent more than $31.3 million on remediation work, water testing and some payments to state, local and tribal agencies, there are still many individuals, municipalities and businesses that have yet to be made whole.

Administrator Scott Pruitt said last month “I think the agency’s response to the Gold King spill … shirked its response to help compensate claimants that were injured.” And this month he said he has sent letters telling people to resubmit claims because the “EPA should be held to the same standard as those we regulate. The previous administration failed those who counted on them to protect the environment.”

To its credit, the EPA has also designated the affected area a Superfund site, meaning it will foot the bill for a broad cleanup.

It doesn’t take a cynic to understand it’s unlikely every single claim is valid, and it would be fiscally irresponsible for the EPA to start writing checks simply to appease claimants. However, the EPA’s about-face is overdue, and two years in it is past time for the agency to investigate claims quickly and take whatever steps are necessary – including Congressional approval, if needed – to ensure timely payments to those with proven and valid claims.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.