Justice Dept. to look at Gold King spill lawsuit - Albuquerque Journal

Justice Dept. to look at Gold King spill lawsuit

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s lawsuit against neighboring Colorado over the fallout of a massive mine spill could be affected by the pending presidential transition, after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday asked the federal Department of Justice to weigh in on the case.

Since President-elect Donald Trump will take place in less than two months, it’s possible the federal agency will wait until after Trump takes office to act on the request.

Top-ranking state officials indicated Monday that they are taking a wait-and-see approach to the request for the federal government’s legal opinion – even if that means a drawn-out court saga.

“We will be interested to read the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General’s opinion of our lawsuit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court against the state of Colorado,” state Environment Secretary-designate Butch Tongate said in a statement.

New Mexico’s lawsuit, filed in June, contends Colorado was too lax in its oversight of water contaminated by decades of mining and should be held responsible for the fallout of the 2015 Gold King mine spill. It was filed by Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office and outside attorneys hired by the Environment Department.

The mine spill occurred when a crew of workers hired by the federal Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a containment wall, releasing a yellow-orange plume of waste out of the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colo., and into a tributary of the Animas River.

That plume of waste eventually carried more than 888,000 pounds of heavy metals – such as lead, arsenic, copper and mercury – into New Mexico. It forced 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 and prompted concerns about damage to high-profile trout habitat.

In addition to the lawsuit against Colorado, New Mexico has also filed a lawsuit in federal court against the EPA and the owners of a mine adjacent to the Gold King Mine. That lawsuit seeks more than $136 million in damages, which would be used to pay for economic losses the state attributes to the mine spill, specifically in the tourism, recreation and agriculture sectors.

The U.S. Supreme Court typically handles cases that involve one state suing another. And it’s common for the nation’s highest court to ask the solicitor general, a top attorney within the Justice Department, to weigh in on such cases by filing official court briefs. The briefs lay out the federal government’s views on the case, including its merits.


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