NM reaches $32M settlement for 2015 Gold King Mine spill that turned the Animas River yellow

Navajo Nation also reaches its own settlement for $31 million, President Nez announces

By: - June 16, 2022 11:14 am

The Animas River between Silverton and Durango in Colorado within 24 hours of the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by riverhugger via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

State officials on Thursday gathered in Farmington to announce a $32 million settlement with the federal government after its contractors caused nearly 1 million pounds of heavy metals to flood into the watershed serving parts of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation seven years ago.

On Aug. 5, 2015, contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency were monitoring seepage in the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. They excavated an area above a mine opening, and the bedrock collapsed, releasing 3 millions gallons of waste into a tributary of the Animas River. 

The water, tainted by tailings from gold mining that ended in the 1990s, flooded the Animas River watershed and turned its waters bright yellow. The tailings contained heavy metals like cadmium and lead, plus other toxic elements like arsenic, iron and copper.

The governor said the community around Farmington suffered in major, measurable ways while the plume floated down the river. Farmers couldn’t irrigate. No one used the river for recreation or fishing. Few tourists visited. 

“This community declined because we didn’t have access in the way we needed to,” the governor said at the news conference. “This announcement today… means that we’re investing through the community.”

The EPA will pay also the Navajo Nation $31 million, according to the Nation’s Department of Justice.

“When the spill occurred, we went to the Gold King Mine site and saw firsthand the impacts to the land and water. The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation,” President Jonathan Nez said in a news release. “This important settlement reflects the U.S. EPA’s recognition of the suffering it caused the Navajo Nation and our people.”

The San Juan River in Shiprock, N.M., a week after the spill in August 2015. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)

The settlement, announced Thursday at the Farmington Museum, comes after nearly six years of litigation between the states affected, the Navajo Nation, the federal government and the contractors and mining companies that caused the mess. 

Under the settlement agreement, the United States will pay New Mexico $18.1 million for costs in responding to the emergency, $10 million for restoration of natural resources and $3.5 million more for state water quality and cleanup. 

This is a breaking news story. We’ll update it with more information as it becomes available.

In January, the companies agreed to pay $40 million to the United States government and $4 million to the state of Colorado, and the EPA agreed to pay $45 million toward the cleanup in Colorado. 

Late last year, the state and the Navajo Nation reached a $11 million settlement with the companies that left the toxic metals in the mine: Sunnyside Gold Corporation, Kinross Gold Corporation and Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc.

New Mexico is still pursuing a lawsuit against the contractors that caused the spill: Environmental Restoration, LLC and Weston Solutions, Inc. 

The escaped metal tailings made their way through the Animas and San Juan Rivers through New Mexico and the Navajo Nation all the way to Lake Powell in Utah. The plume caused communities on and off the Nation to close irrigation canals and drinking water systems, and drastically reduce use of the rivers for farming, fishing and recreation. 

A lawsuit from the state in May 2016 also said some reaches of the Animas River became “sinks” that temporarily hold the toxic metals until rain, snowfall or other events carried them further downstream. 

The rivers are “now safe for irrigation and other uses,” according to the Governor’s Office, but “the stigma associated with the event has had lasting effects on the region’s economy.”

Announcing the Animas River disaster settlement (from left) Janet McCabe, deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, Attorney General Hector Balderas, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and N.M. Environment Secretary James Kenney on Thursday, June 16, 2022 in Farmington, N.M. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)


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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.