ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is seeking more than $136 million from the Environmental Protection Agency and the owners of Colorado’s Gold King Mine, noting that dangers from contaminants spewed into the Animas River by the Aug. 5 mine spill are still lurking in New Mexico waters.
In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department cite economic setbacks and environmental damage suffered by the state after more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste was dumped into the river.
It demands reimbursement of $889,327 for short-term emergency-response costs paid by the state, more than $6 million to pay for long-term monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers and $130 million for lost income, taxes, fees and revenues suffered by the state because of the spill.
“The river only flows one way,” said Ryan Flynn, New Mexico environment secretary. “Trouble could still be coming for New Mexico. We have been pushing for a monitoring effort since October. Our concept is $6 million plus and five years of comprehensive monitoring that would give us a firm grasp of what is happening in the watershed. All EPA has said is we will give you is $465,000. That just doesn’t cut it.”
A crew hired by the EPA to work on the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colo., inadvertently breached a containment wall, releasing water laced with heavy-metal contaminants. The toxic water spilled into the Animas River, which flows from Colorado into New Mexico and joins with the San Juan River near Farmington.
Flynn said efforts to resolve issues with the EPA outside of court have proved fruitless.
“I couldn’t tell you what EPA is thinking,” Flynn said. “EPA seems totally unwilling to resolve this in a collaborative manner.”
Among the major impasses between New Mexico and the EPA has been appropriate screening levels for contaminant metals such as lead.
Flynn said the EPA wants to impose a recreational standard that would be safe for hikers and campers, but New Mexico believes the much more strict residential standard should be applied because people live along the affected rivers in New Mexico.
“There are a lot of people whose homes are right on the river or who use the river for a lot more than kayaking,” Flynn 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,” Balderas said. “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 economy.”
The EPA does not comment on pending litigation filed by outside parties. But in a statement released Monday, the EPA said the agency takes responsibility for the mine spill cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and fund tribal and state monitoring plans as well as conduct its own monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“EPA has funded about $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring cost for New Mexico to date,” the EPA statement said. “We continue to review documentation and applications for different entities in the state and will expedite payments. New Mexico has $7.1 million available in unallocated federal funds – of which $108,000 has already been approved – to fund real-time monitors in the river.”
The yellow-orange plume of waste that rushed out of the Gold King Mine carried more than 888,000 pounds of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and zinc into New Mexico, forcing municipal and community water systems and irrigation ditches in San Juan County to stop drawing water from the Animas and San Juan rivers for more than a week after the spill. But because these heavy metals are still embedded in the sediment of the rivers, the threat of contamination still exists and some systems still cease drawing water from the rivers after rainstorms or heavy runoffs that set river waters churning.
New Mexico officials say that’s why the state is pushing for a rigorous monitoring system that will cost far more than the $6 million the EPA has been willing to pay.
Flynn said the EPA has paid back more than $700,000 of the emergency-response money New Mexico shelled out dealing with the spill, but that the state is seeking another $800,000-plus from the federal agency to cover those costs.
New Mexico also wants $130 million to pay for economic losses it attributes to the mine spill.
“We asked our analyst to be as conservative as possible,” Flynn said. “But there is stigma associated with this region due to the yellow river.”
He said that stigma had hurt New Mexico in revenue lost because kayakers, fishermen, hikers and other outdoorsmen have sought other places to enjoy outdoor recreation, tourists have selected other vacation destinations and consumers of agricultural products have looked elsewhere for their purchases.
“The facts speak for themselves,” Flynn said. “They (EPA) are clearly at fault. At the end of the day the law is on our side. EPA is now on the other side of the law it has been fighting to enforce for so many years.”