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Gold King suits will be heard in ABQ

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The confluence of the Animas and San Juan rivers is pictured in Farmington after the Gold King Mine spill in August of 2015. The yellow water contaminated with toxic metals, at left, merges with the San Juan River, at right. (Farmington Daily Times)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal judge has centralized four of the lawsuits stemming from the Gold King Mine spill for hearing before a federal court in Albuquerque against the wishes of the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

Three of the suits were already seated in New Mexico, including those brought by New Mexico, residents of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. The fourth suit was brought by the state of Utah, which hoped to delay a decision on running all of the lawsuits through the same federal judge.

The New Mexico residents, part of the McDaniel lawsuit, told the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation they supported the centralization, according to the panels order issued Wednesday.

“Given the apparent complexity of the factual issues, as well as the potential for significant tag-along activity” centralization is warranted, federal Judge Sarah Vance, chair of the panel, wrote in the order.

The lawsuits target Environmental Restoration LLC, the company working on contract with the Environmental Protection Agency at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., in 2015 when the mine’s containment system burst and flooded the Animas River with more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater, including more than 500 tons of heavy metals.

The company sought to have all of the lawsuits streamlined through one jurisdiction.

But New Mexico and the Navajo Nation had hoped “informal coordination and cooperation” would suffice to keep the lawsuits moving.

“We look forward to working alongside the other injured parties to recoup the damages done to our environment, cultural sites, and our economy,” Matt Baca, spokesman for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, wrote in a statement.

The order says the four lawsuits will be heard before Chief Judge William P. Johnson’s federal court in Albuquerque in order to streamline the lawsuits by avoiding “duplicative, complex discovery” and “eliminate the potential for inconsistent ruling on sovereign immunity, government-contractor immunity, and other issues.”

Colorado’s legislature has approved legal action against the company and federal government, but an official lawsuit has not been filed.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in March that the federal government is close to finishing its assessment of roughly 400 individual claims for financial damages related to the spill.

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