Utah’s $1.9 billion claim from mine spill reveals no details


Associated Press

Utah’s $1.9 billion claim against the Environmental Protection Agency for a multi-state mine waste spill says Utah’s water, soil and wildlife were damaged, but it offers no specifics.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office provided a copy of the claim to The Associated Press Wednesday.

The claim stems from the release of 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado in August 2015. An EPA-led contractor crew inadvertently triggered the spill.

The spill polluted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and turned some waterways an orange-yellow color. Indian lands were also affected.

Farmers and utilities temporarily stopped drawing water from the rivers, and rafting companies had to suspend operations. The EPA said water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

Utah’s claim from the spill is believed to be the largest of 144 filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows people to seek government compensation without a lawsuit. The claims seek payment for lost crops, livestock, wages and income and other damages.

The Navajo Nation filed a claim for $162 million and the state of New Mexico for $130 million. Both have also filed lawsuits against the federal government.

Utah also filed suit, but it named mine owners and EPA contractors as defendants, not the government.

The EPA said January it was prevented by law from paying any of the damages under the Tort Claims Act, angering many. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who took over after President Donald Trump assumed office, has said the agency will reconsider at least some of the claims.

Utah’s claim cites damage to the San Juan River and Lake Powell, a vast reservoir on the Colorado River which the San Juan feeds into. It also cites damage to other waterways, underground water, soil, sediment, wildlife and other, unspecified natural resources.

It does not say how state officials arrived at the $1.9 billion figure. Dan Burton, a spokesman for Attorney General Sean Reyes, said he was looking into the details in response to questions from the AP.

Donna Kemp Spangler, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the state is still trying to assess the damage.

“I don’t think we know the extent yet,” she said. She referred other questions to Erica Gaddis, director of the state Division of Water Quality. Gaddis didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message.

The state has said previously it detected elevated levels of aluminum and other metals in the San Juan River. Officials have also said they expect river flows to deposit some of the metals from the spill in Lake Powell.

The EPA-led crew was using heavy equipment to excavate the mine opening in preparation for a possible cleanup when a worker breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater in the shaft. The water flowed into Cement Creek and then the Animas River in Colorado. The Animas joins the San Juan River in New Mexico before the San Juan crosses into Utah.

The EPA estimates that nearly 540 U.S. tons (490 metric tons) of metals reached the Animas, mostly iron and aluminum.

After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund district and is reviewing options for a broad cleanup.


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