EPA to pay state, Navajos combined $63 million for Gold King spill

·3 min read

Jun. 16—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to pay the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation a combined $63 million for the disastrous 2015 Gold King Mine blowout.

Under the settlements, the EPA will pay the state $32 million and the Navajo Nation $31 million for the toxic spill that released massive amounts of heavy metals and acidic waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers, turning the waters a bright yellow as they coursed through Colorado and New Mexico.

The payout is what communities and watersheds affected by the spill deserve, given the federal government's role in the disaster, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Thursday announcing the deal.

"While the San Juan and Animas rivers have healed from the spill, it's time for communities like Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec to do the same," Lujan Grisham said. "The funds will help to make these communities whole once again and protect the river now and for future generations."

The San Juan carried the giant toxic plume through several New Mexico communities and the Navajo Nation, which depends on the river for irrigation and cultural practices.

The disaster compelled municipalities to close intakes for drinking water systems, prompted many farmers to stop irrigating and discouraged recreation on the rivers. The state, local governments and tribes incurred hefty costs cleaning up the contamination.

"The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation," President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We pledged to hold all those [accountable] who caused or contributed to the spill. I am thankful that the Biden-Harris administration acknowledges the devastation that it caused and took the steps necessary to reach this settlement."

To date, the Navajo Nation has received $41 million from responsible parties and will seek damages from two EPA contractors — Environmental Restoration LLC and Weston Solutions Inc. — in a trial set for November.

State and federal officials gathered Thursday in Farmington to announce the EPA's settlement with New Mexico.

They hailed the end to legal wrangling with the EPA, which began in 2016 and dragged on to a third presidential administration before the agency announced earlier this year it would seek a resolution.

The state plans to use $18.1 million of its money to bolster the area's agriculture and outdoor recreation, monitor water quality, dispel the negative perceptions of the two rivers that have persisted since the spill occurred, and identify and clean up pollution to protect drinking water.

About $10 million will go toward funding projects to restore or replace damaged natural resources and the services they provide. Officials will seek public input in developing a restoration plan.

State and tribal leaders blamed the EPA because its workers and contractors caused the spill near Silverton, Colo., while trying to drain ponds near the mine's entrance.

The state accused the agency of gross negligence, nuisance and trespassing, as well as violations of federal environmental laws.

State and tribal officials also sued Sunnyside Gold Corp., which oversaw construction of the bulkheads that led to mines filling with acidic water.

In January 2021, Sunnyside Gold agreed to pay $10 million to the Navajo Nation and $11 million to New Mexico.

The state will use $1 million of that settlement to fund four restoration projects and $10 million to cover environmental response costs and lost tax revenue, among other things.

At Thurday's news conference, EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe said it was important for state and federal agencies to get on the same side in addressing a serious environmental incident as well as ongoing threats to public health.

"When we work in partnership with one another, we can better address complex challenges and deliver the environmental benefits of water protection that the communities and tribes of New Mexico deserve," McCabe said. "Without that partnership, we will not be able to achieve those goals."