New Mexico’s U.S. senators blasted as “outrageous” the Environmental Protection Agency decision Friday to dodge claims totaling more than $1.2 billion for economic damages from a mine waste spill the agency accidentally triggered in Colorado.
The EPA said Friday the claims could be refiled in federal court, or Congress could authorize payments.
Attorneys for the EPA and the Justice Department concluded the EPA is barred from paying the claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said the “EPA is revictimizing our state and the Navajo Nation with its reckless refusal to take full responsibility for the toxic Gold King Mine spill. Our families and farmers rely on this water, and I will continue to aggressively pursue litigation to obtain justice for our culturally unique population and fragile economy.”
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján denounced the decision, vowing to continue pushing for legislation that would hold the EPA accountable even though the EPA has admitted responsibility.
The delegation members made the following joint statement:
“We are outraged at this last-ditch move by the federal government’s lawyers to go back on the EPA’s promise to the people of the state of New Mexico — and especially the Navajo Nation — that it would fully address this environmental disaster that still plagues the people of the Four Corners region.
“Over a year ago, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy assured both the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and all of us individually that her agency would do the right thing, and see to it that the spill was cleaned up properly. While the agency has taken steps to clean up the mine, no farmer has received a dime of compensation over a year later, and distrust in the government has deepened.
“The Navajo people have been the victims of terrible and deadly environmental injustice over many years. They have good reason to be skeptical now of the government’s honesty about environmental quality. The government’s lawyers made this legal maneuver in the face of lawsuits from the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.”
An official announcement is planned later Friday. The Associated Press was provided the outlines of the decision in advance.
A total of 73 claims were filed, some by farmers who lost crops or had to haul water because rivers polluted by the spill were temporarily unusable for irrigation and livestock. Rafting companies and their employees sought lost income and wages because they couldn’t take visitors on river trips. Some homeowners sought damages because they said their wells were affected.
The August 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado released 3 million gallons of wastewater tainted with iron, aluminum, manganese, lead, copper and other metals. Rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah were polluted, with stretches of waterway turning an eerie orange-yellow.
Some of the affected rivers pass through Indian reservations.
An EPA-led contractor crew triggered the spill while doing exploratory excavation work at the mine entrance in advance of a possible cleanup. The Gold King is one of hundreds of inactive mines in the Colorado mountains that continuously spew polluted water into rivers or have the potential to do so.
State, federal and tribal officials have been harshly critical of the EPA for causing the spill and for its handling of the aftermath, including the costs. The Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico have already sued the agency in federal court, and other lawsuits are likely after Friday’s announcement.
Last month, the EPA said it would pay $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments to cover the cost of their emergency response to the spill, but the agency rejected $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses, again citing federal law.