EPA: No review of mine spill claims from tribe, New Mexico

Decision comes days after pledge to reconsider damage claims

Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds after the Gold King Mine spill outside Silverton in 2015. Enlargephoto

Associated Press file

Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds after the Gold King Mine spill outside Silverton in 2015.

DENVER — Days after the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to reconsider damage claims it previously rejected after a mine spill, the agency said Monday it could not review multimillion-dollar requests from the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation because both have sued the agency.

In a written statement, the EPA said the law prevents it from reconsidering claims from anyone who has filed suit.

That could rule out a review of the two largest claims from the 2015 spill in Southwest Colorado, which the EPA inadvertently triggered.

More than 70 governments, businesses and individuals sought about $420 million in damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which is a way to settle without a lawsuit. The Navajos filed claims for $162 million and New Mexico for $130 million.

New Mexico and the Navajos sued the EPA for damages in federal court.

State and Navajo officials didn’t immediately return emails seeking comment Monday. Phone calls were not returned or went unanswered.

An EPA-led contractor crew triggered the release of 3 million gallons (11.3 million liters) of wastewater laden with heavy metals from the inactive Gold King Mine in August 2015. Wastewater was already leaking from the mine, and the crew was doing excavation work ahead of a possible cleanup when it breached a pile of debris holding back water inside the mine.

The spill tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, turning stretches an eerie yellow-orange and prompting farmers and utilities to stop drawing water. The Navajo reservation and other Native American lands were also affected.

The EPA said the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

In January, near the end of the Obama administration, the EPA said federal law prohibited it from reimbursing any claims for property damage or personal injury, angering members of Congress and local officials.

President Donald Trump’s appointee to head the agency, Scott Pruitt, pledged during his confirmation hearing he would review that decision. On Friday, the second anniversary of the spill, he announced a new course.

“A new review is paramount to ensure that those who have, in fact, suffered losses have a fair opportunity to have their claims heard,” he said.

Monday’s EPA statement appeared to narrow the scope of the review considerably.

“EPA won’t be able to reconsider a claim once the claimant has sued the U.S. in court, which the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have done,” it said.

The EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund district and is reviewing options for a cleanup.