The Animas River heads from Durango, Colorado, toward New Mexico in June 2022. About seven years earlier, it was bright yellow after contamination from an old mine upriver in Silverton. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
It’s been more than seven years since the Animas and San Juan Rivers turned various shades of yellow from toxic waste runoff in the Gold King Mine that was released by federal contractors into the streams.
In that time, New Mexico has won in court about $48 million in damages from companies and the federal government responsible for the spill. That includes a recent $5 million settlement with the contractors hired to do mine clean up in the area, who sparked a chain of events that led to bedrock collapse in 2015, spilling 3 million gallons of mine wastewater and toxic metals.
The final agreement went into effect Dec. 21 between the New Mexico attorney general, N.M. Office of Natural Resources Trustee and the contractors, Environmental Restoration LLC and Weston Solutions. It ends the state’s yearslong litigation efforts seeking compensation for damage from the pollution.
While the state awaits a court order to receive this new round of money, the settlement shuts down any further legal action or lawsuits the state could’ve taken against the contractors.
The agreement also covers any potential future harm or damage caused by the spill that the state could find in the future.
This latest settlement comes after New Mexico agencies reached a $32 million settlement with the federal government in early 2022, and another $11 million settlement with mining companies in late 2021.
After the spill contaminated drinking water, halted irrigation and decreased recreational activity in northwestern New Mexico, the state’s Environment Department and Attorney General’s Office sued the EPA, specific mine owners and contractors in 2016.
Some repair work is already underway with the older settlement dollars. For instance, former Attorney General Hector Balderas awarded nearly $4.3 million in grant funding in December for natural resource recovery, and the Office of Natural Resources Trustee has committed $1 million to farming and outdoor recreation projects in northwestern New Mexico.
In the most recent settlement, the contractors will give $3 million to New Mexico’s AG’s Office. Attorney General Raúl Torrez will be responsible for allocating the money to communities recovering from damage, according to a December news release. The release says the funding will also go toward boosting law enforcement that prevents environmental contamination or prosecutes those responsible.
The settlement dollars will cover legal costs that the state has accumulated in its litigation efforts related to the spill, too, according to the release.
Office of Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins will oversee the other $2 million, which will be used to restore or replace damaged natural resources, such as rivers and watersheds.
Natural Resources staff are also going through 17 project proposals seeking funding from the $10 million EPA settlement pot allocated to the office in 2022. A plan should be available for public comment by March, according to the news release.
“There is more work to be done, and we will continue to seek public input so that funding decisions reflect the needs of residents along the San Juan and Animas Rivers,” Hart Stebbins said in a statement.
New Mexico lawmakers have voiced concern that none of this money is going straight to the individuals affected by the spill. Allocating dollars to them would’ve previously violated the state’s anti-donation clause, but voters passed a constitutional amendment that now allows the state to invest in essential services like water.
AG spokesperson Lauren Rodriguez said the settlement funding will still indirectly help individuals, though she didn’t say that any of the funds would be given head-on to them.
“The settlement restricts those funds to be used in the area of the spill,” she said.
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