EPA to pay NM, Navajo Nation $63 million for Gold King Mine spill - Albuquerque Journal

EPA to pay NM, Navajo Nation $63 million for Gold King Mine spill

Water flows through ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants downstream from the Gold King Mine disaster on Aug. 14, 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will pay $32 million to New Mexico and $31 million to the Navajo Nation for the spill that sent 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the San Juan and Animas rivers. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

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Nearly seven years ago, federal contractors breached a tunnel at the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, sending 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will pay New Mexico and the Navajo Nation a combined $63 million for the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster, according to settlement agreements announced Thursday.

During a news conference in Farmington, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recalled the spill’s “disturbing yellow flow through our beautiful communities and rivers.”

Towns and farmers along the river scrambled to find alternative water after the disaster until testing declared the waterways safe.

“We can’t have these environmental accidents in our waterways,” Lujan Grisham said. “Every drop is precious.”

The EPA will pay $32 million to New Mexico and $31 million to the Navajo Nation.

The Gold King wastewater plume – with more than 500 tons of heavy metals, including arsenic, lead and copper – flowed through Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation.

Federal and state agencies found that post-spill water quality met safety standards.

But the stigma of contaminated water lingered.

That had long-term impacts for local agriculture and outdoor recreation.

Lynlaria Dickson, who farms in the Upper Fruitland Chapter of the Navajo Nation, remembers the chaos and confusion in the days after the spill.

Hers was one of the first Navajo communities to be impacted by the plume.

By the time residents received data showing the water was safe to use, “it was a little bit too late.”

Many communities had shut off irrigation canals. Crops died, and farmers lost everything.

“Some do not farm to this day,” Dickson said.

Former Navajo Nation Shiprock Chapter President Chili Yazzie looks at his garden in 2020. Some northwest New Mexico farmers still have concerns about water quality after the Gold King Mine spill. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

For Navajo farmers, the impact was a severe economic and cultural blow.

The confluence of the San Juan and Animas rivers has long been a hub for growing alfalfa, corn, melons and squash.

Indigenous farmers revere the river as a life-giving entity.

“We sacrificed so much during that time,” Dickson said. “Nobody would buy our crops that did survive. I always find myself preparing for the worst if it should ever come again.”

Lujan Grisham said the river “has largely healed” since the spill.

She credited communities and agencies for testing water and keeping residents informed.

“What hasn’t happened is creating a holistic investment in the community,” Lujan Grisham said.

The $32 million EPA settlement for New Mexico will fund aquatic habitat projects, cropland rehabilitation and long-term water quality monitoring.

The money is also aimed at addressing economic impacts on regional outdoor recreation and tourism.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said his office wasn’t afraid to “get into a fistfight” with the federal government to secure money and accountability for northwest New Mexico communities.

The state first filed a lawsuit in 2016.

“This was as much about justice as it was about science,” Balderas said.

After the Gold King incident, images of the river filled with yellow and orange sludge were international news.

But the region has a long history of mining and heavy metal pollution.

Many mines were abandoned long before environmental regulations came into play. Governments are left to clean up the hazardous waste.

Most heavy metals from the Gold King plume settled at the bottom of Utah’s Lake Powell.

The EPA has spent more than $150 million on cleanup at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site.

A water treatment plant at the site treats acid mine drainage from Gold King.

EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe joined state officials in Farmington for the announcement.

New Mexico will meet with the EPA annually for the next three years to discuss the Superfund work as part of the settlement.

“That’s why we’re here today,” McCabe said, “to mark this incredible progress in improving water quality in the Animas and San Juan rivers, and to reaffirm our commitment on behalf of the EPA to continuing our efforts to work with you to keep these waters safe and clean for your communities, for your health, for your economy, for your recreation, for everything that makes New Mexico what it is and makes it so special to those of you who are lucky enough to live here.”

The $31 million EPA settlement for the Navajo Nation reflects the “suffering” endured by tribal residents, said President Jonathan Nez.

At least one Navajo community chose not to irrigate from the river for an entire season.

Some farmers on the reservation are still hesitant to grow crops with river water.

“The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation,” Nez said in a statement.

Legal claims for about 300 Navajo farmers are still pending.

The Navajo Nation also has an ongoing lawsuit against the individual contractors that triggered the spill.

Last year, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation received $21 million from a settlement with the Sunnyside Gold Corp. mining company.

That money will fund new irrigation pumps, boat ramps on the river, a farmers market pavilion in Farmington and a soil health project for area farmers.

Local and state leaders fought hard to “get a settlement of this magnitude” from the EPA, said New Mexico Environment Secretary Jim Kenney.

“We don’t want to sit on the money,” he said. “As soon as the money comes in, we want to get it out to communities. That’s our goal.”

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