Victims still awaiting payment 3 years after Gold King mine spill

In this August 2015 file photo, wastewater flows through a retention pond built to contain and remove heavy metals from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton, Colo., Aug. 12, 2015 | Associated Press photo by Brennan Linsley, St. George News

DENVER (AP) — Three years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered a massive mine spill that polluted rivers in three states, the federal government still has not repaid any of the victims for the millions of dollars in economic damage they claimed.

The EPA said this week it is making progress on reviewing about 380 claims for lost income, fallen property values and other losses from the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado.

But the agency has not said when it might finish the review or when anyone might be paid.

Some business owners say they feel misled and doubt they’ll ever be compensated. Lawmakers are impatient.

“The EPA’s response to the Gold King Mine spill has been unacceptable,” New Mexico Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Lujan said last Friday. “This spill had devastating consequences for Navajo Nation and northwestern New Mexico, spilling millions of gallons of toxic, contaminated wastewater.”

An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the Gold King near Silverton, Colo., Aug. 5, 2015, when workers inadvertently unleashed 3 million gallons of wastewater pent up inside the mine.

In this August 2015 file photo, Dan Bender of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo., after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered a spill of 3 million gallons of wastewater from the mine. The Obama administration said it could not legally repay any of the claims for damage from the spill, but the Trump administration promised last year to reconsider. As of Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, no claims had been paid, but the agency said it is continuing to review them. | Photo by Jerry McBride /The Durango Herald via The Associated Press, St. George News

The water sent a yellow-orange plume of pollution into rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The Navajo Nation and other tribal lands also were affected. The EPA estimated the water carried nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals, mostly iron and aluminum.

Farmers, rafting companies, fishing guides, homeowners and others filed for about $318 million in economic losses, according to EPA documents reviewed by The Associated Press. State, tribal and local governments said their losses were higher.

“We weren’t asking for the sky. We were asking for what we lost,” said John Flick, co-owner of Duranglers, a fishing guide service and store in Durango, about 50 miles downstream from Silverton.

Flick and his partner, Tom Knopick, filed a claim for about $98,000 in lost income from guiding and retail sales when authorities put the rivers off-limits for several days.

“Even if we’d got half of that, we’d have been happy. We got nothing,” Flick said.

The EPA paid out millions of dollars to state, tribal and local governments for the cost of responding to the spill and for water tests. But the Obama administration, which was in charge at the time of the spill, said in January 2017 it could not pay for any economic damages. The administration cited sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.

That provoked a furious political backlash, and the new Trump administration said it would reconsider. One year ago, then-EPA chief Scott Pruitt visited the Gold King mine and promised to review all the claims.

“As far as I can tell, that was just talk,” said Alex Mickel, co-owner of Mild to Wild Rafting, which offers float trips and four-wheel-drive tours in Durango and in Moab, Utah.

Mickel filed a claim but declined say how much. He said the EPA has never acknowledged getting it.

He said he feels misled by both the Obama and Trump administrations. Under Obama, the EPA promised to compensate for the damage.

“‘We’re going to make people whole,’ that was their words,” Mickel said.

Pruitt resigned amid a storm of ethics scandals in July, and the EPA is regrouping under acting chief Andrew Wheeler. But the review is making headway, agency spokesman James Hewitt said.

The EPA sent letters in June to 54 people who filed claims, or to their attorneys, asking for clarification or more information, Hewitt said in an email to the Associated Press last Thursday. Only a few have responded, he said.

John Swartout, a policy adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said he has been brief by the EPA on the review and believes the agency is making progress, but “it’s slow going.”

The compensation requests were submitted under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows people and businesses to ask the federal government to repay them for economic losses and injuries caused by negligence or wrongful action by federal employees.

Separate from the tort claims, at least four lawsuits have been filed against the EPA over the spill. Utah is seeking $1.9 billion, the Navajo Nation $162 million and the state of New Mexico $130 million. About a dozen New Mexico residents also sued, seeking a combined $120 million.

The lawsuits are pending in federal court in Albuquerque.

Written by DAN ELLIOT, Associated Press

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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13 Comments

  • John August 5, 2018 at 11:07 am

    This is par for the course when dealing with the federal government. People wait much longer than that for a decision on social security disability. No news here, just business as usual!

  • ladybugavenger August 5, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Ridiculous!

  • hiker75 August 5, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    More of our public lands are being opened up for exploration. Will necessary safeguards be put in place to protect the environment so the taxpayers do not have to pay for cleanups in the first place?

    • tcrider August 5, 2018 at 3:11 pm

      Its called deregulation in general, the more deregulation you see,
      the more bankrupt mining companies and then the owners are not
      responsible for what they did. pos trumps america at its finest.

      • John August 5, 2018 at 9:28 pm

        Put some more cards in your spokes, I still can hear you crying!

    • Craig August 5, 2018 at 4:58 pm

      This was caused by the EPA, if I understand correctly.

      • bikeandfish August 6, 2018 at 10:30 am

        No, it was an abandoned mining claim that sat for decades filling up with toxic water and leaching into the local environment slowly. Yes, it was an EPA contractor who accidentally caused the bigger purge but they were doing their best to clean up a SuperFund site. Ever been to the region? There are a ton of these mines in that area that were abandoned once profits dried up.

  • comments August 5, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    When the payout is good everybody wants to be a “victim”($$$). LOL

  • Striker4 August 5, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    Well keep waiting because they won’t see it anytime soon

  • Craig August 5, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    EPA creates and severely abused its power.

  • comments August 6, 2018 at 10:45 am

    All the loony right-wing whiners come out of the woodwork whenever this is mentioned. Yup, time to disband all regulation and just let extraction industry “self regulate”, huh?

    • John August 6, 2018 at 3:37 pm

      You mean the “LOONY LEFT”!

      • comments August 6, 2018 at 4:04 pm

        nope, with this particular one it’s right-wing loons who seem to believe no regulation should be put on extraction industry. “Self regulation” is what caused the problems in the first place with these old mines. Yup, this EPA-hired contractor screwed up big time, and it’s the taxpayers that are on the hook–still not at all a good argument to do away with EPA and all regulation. Only loons and nutters believe that it is. Too bad these old mine operations didn’t clean up after themselves in the first place. Wasn’t a priority back then and would’ve cut into profits. And the same sort of idiots want to open ALL of utah’s public lands to extraction and turn the whole thing to s***. Wonderful idea, huh?

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