FARMINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today that it will not pay more than $1.2 billion in claims filed against it in response to the Gold King Mine spill.
The EPA says the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents the agency from paying claims the result from “discretionary” government actions. Congress passed the law to allow government agencies — and in this case, contractors working on their behalf — to act “without the fear of paying damages in the event something went wrong while taking the action,” according to a press release from the EPA.
An EPA agency official said paying the claims would discourage such cleanup efforts in the future.
The EPA says the work conducted at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., is considered a “discretionary function” under the law. Contractors on Aug. 5, 2015, breached the mine, which released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary that feeds the Animas River, which ultimately flows into the San Juan River and Lake Powell.
Federal lawmakers representing New Mexico decried the announcement, calling it a “shameful legal interpretation of liability.”
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a joint statement saying they would continue pushing for legislation to hold the EPA accountable. They also said it would be up to the courts to determine whether the EPA’s defense is legitimate.
“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,” the statement reads.
The statement points out that while the EPA has taken steps to clean up the mine, “no farmer has received a dime of compensation over a year later.”
An EPA official says 73 claims related to the mine spill were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Four were from governmental agencies and the rest were from individuals and companies.
The claims totaled more than $1.2 billion, though the official said the federal agency did not evaluate the legitimacy of the claims and some were vague and for “extraordinarily” large sums.
Included in that total is about $154 million in tort claims that are part of a lawsuit filed by the state of New Mexico, the EPA official said. She said the EPA’s defense will be used in court to deny payment of those claims.
“New Mexico’s children, families and economy have already been devastated by the EPA’s horrific actions, and now 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,” said New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas in an emailed statement. “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.”
The EPA official acknowledged the length of time it has taken the agency to make its announcement, adding “we spent a lot of time trying to see if there was any other way to address this because this is obviously an answer that leaves a lot of people unhappy who have been hurt.”
Those who filed claims have six months from the date of denial to challenge the decision with the U.S. District Court.
San Juan County Chief Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said he’s outraged by the decision.
“It’s utterly ridiculous, it’s ludicrous,” he said. “It’s just another problem with a corrupt system, when the federal government has no accountability and no sensitivity about something that takes place on the other side of the country. It’s a heartless act to not take care of people, and I’m appalled.”
Carpenter said he finds it hypocritical for the EPA to be so quick to lower the hammer when others cause an accident, but refuse to take responsibility when they’re the guilty party, and said he hopes the new U.S. administration will display more sensitivity.
“I hope this will send a message to Trump and the White House,” said Carpenter. “I want them to come out and talk to people and see what we went through. This is just another reason why the American people are fed up with the federal government.
Carpenter said San Juan County did receive payment from the EPA in the amount of $73,000 approximately a year ago as compensation for the spill.
Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said the city also received $371,000 as reimbursement from the EPA for emergency response expenses.
“I’m not sure the city has a relevant comment on the EPA statement, as I think this has more to do with private sector claims,” said Mayes in a written statement. “I’m not personally aware of any claims filed by city of Farmington residents, but I am very concerned on behalf of those citizens negatively affected and hope that ultimately the EPA will be held accountable as they assured us they would be.”
Magdalena Wegrzyn is The Daily Times city editor. She can be reached at 505-564-4632.
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