Environmental Law

New Mexico sues EPA, seeking cleanup of toxic mine spill and damages

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Ordinarily, when there’s a dispute about claimed environmental damage due to corporate operations, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that sues to get it cleaned up.

But a lawsuit filed Monday by the state of New Mexico in federal court in Albuquerque names the EPA as a defendant, along with an EPA environmental contractor and owners of the Gold King Mine in Colorado. It contends that the federal agency hasn’t done enough to rectify a toxic release last year of a flood of waste water contaminated with some 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into local rivers, according to the Associated Press, the Farmington Daily Times and Reuters.

Although primarily focused on waste from the 100-year-old mine and disputed damages, the suit also seeks the court’s help in cleaning up other sites, too.

The waste water plume release Aug. 5 by an EPA cleanup contractor, Environmental Restoration, turned the rivers a golden brown color. The spill occurred when workers for the contractor accidentally released 3 million gallons of old waste water as they were trying to clean out the mine. An EPA web page provides more details.

New Mexico’s suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the contractor and mine owners violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, as well as compensatory and punitive damages for alleged negligence and gross negligence, the Daily Times reports.

New Mexico also is asking for a declaratory judgment against all defendants under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Although the suit does not specify damages, attorneys for New Mexico said communities are owed at least $7 million for emergency response costs and third-party monitoring of water quality. They said the defendants should pay another $140 million in damages for estimated economic harm. This calcuation estimated the harm that was done to rivers that are critical for agricultural and ranching use; to the Navajo Nation, which owns a tract of land the size of a small state that was affected; and to recreation that provides a significant amount of New Mexico’s income, according to the Denver Post.

An EPA spokesman declined to discuss the lawsuit specifically but said the agency took responsibility for the spill, and has already paid New Mexico over $1.3 million, Reuters reports.

Representatives of the agency’s cleanup contractor and the mine owners Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and Sunnyside Gold Corp. could not immediately be reached by news media for comment.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has said that the state of Colorado also needs to step up to address the damage done by the spill, but hasn’t yet sued the neighboring state.

Meanwhile, both Colorado and Utah have said they are considering suing over the spill, too, Reuters reports.

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