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)
New Mexico is accepting applications to help it spend $10 million in settlement money from the Gold King Mine Spill, which turned rivers yellow in 2015 and caused immense economic and environmental damage in the region.
But some lawmakers in Northwest New Mexico on Tuesday questioned during a legislative meeting why the funds can only be given to governments or nonprofits on behalf of those affected, not directly to farmers or others affected by the spill on an individual basis.
State officials charged with administering the settlement cited the state’s anti-donation clause as reason. But they said the programs they hope to fund will help restore the watershed and commerce in the region.
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 and San Juan River watersheds and turned their waters bright yellow. The tailings contained heavy metals like cadmium and lead, plus other toxic elements like arsenic, iron and copper.
The communities in the Four Corners suffered in major, measurable ways while the plume floated down the river. Farmers on the Navajo Nation and areas around Farmington couldn’t irrigate. No one used the river for recreation or fishing.
Since the spill in 2015, tribal and state leaders in Colorado andNew Mexico brought several lawsuits seeking compensation from the mine owners, the EPA contractors and the EPA. In June, state leaders gathered in Farmington to announce a $32 million settlement with the EPA.
The water is now safe for agricultural or recreational use, but state leaders say a stigma remains that continues to hurt to farmers and keeps tourists away.
Under the settlement agreement announced in June, the United States will reimburse New Mexico $18.1 million for costs in responding to the emergency, $10 million for restoration of natural resources and $3.5 million more to enhance state water quality and cleanup. The Navajo Nation also got a separate $31 million settlement.
Of the state’s windfall, the $10 million for restoration is being overseen by New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins.
The money is available to local governments and state agencies for restoring or replacing natural resources or services they provide, including outdoor recreation and farming. Non-governmental entities are encouraged to partner with public agencies, according to a release Aug. 12 from Stebbins office.
The New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee has also already identified four projects with $1 million it received from an $11 million settlement with mining companies whose tailings caused the mess. Those projects are for soil health restoration in San Juan County, an irrigation system project in Tse Dáá K’áán Chapter, a new boat ramp on the Animas River and a farmer’s market pavilion in Farmington.
At a legislative hearing about the settlement this week, Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) said he hears from individual farmers and families all the time who are suffering, and he wondered why the settlement money could not just go directly to them.
“Has any of this money ever been thought of to be given to the people that actually suffered? The loss of crops? The loss of the joy of farming?” he said. “I know it went through the coffers of the state of New Mexico, but the individuals out there are still suffering.”
Stebbins, in response, said the state’s anti-donation clause prohibits that type of individual compensation. The clause is an anti-corruption measure meant to ensure state appropriations go for public uses, not to enrich private entities or individuals.
“But what we do intend to do is fund programs with broad public impact that benefit farmers, people engaged in the outdoor recreation industry, any of the communities that were affected by the Gold King mine in the way that you have described,” she said.
Allison suggested there should be an exception made to the anti-donation clause specifically for farmers affected by the spill. Such a change would require an amendment to the state Constitution, which would need to be approved by both chambers of the Legislature and also voters.
Allison previously pushed for another amendment to the anti-donation clause earlier this year to allow the state to connect individual homes to electricity and other utilities. The measure passed both chambers of the Legislature and is now heading to voters on Nov. 8.
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