Lawsuit against EPA contractors responsible for Gold King Mine spill allowed to proceed

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

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge rejected efforts by Environmental Protection Agency contractors to avoid responsibility for their role in causing the Gold King Mine Blowout, a massive spill of 3 million gallons of toxic mining waste in August 2015 that contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

This 2015 file photo shows the Animas River shortly after the toxic spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, August 2015 | Photo courtesy of Riverhugger via Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

The contracting companies – Environmental Restoration LLC and Weston Solutions – were EPA’s contractors at the Gold King Mine, who participated in planning and performing the work that triggered the spill, according to a press release from the office of Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

Chief Judge William P. Johnson of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico denied the companies’ motions to dismiss lawsuits filed by the states and private parties, rejecting the companies’ arguments that they should not have to pay for the cleanup and environmental damages.

Reyes said that Utah’s role in the lawsuit was about “holding them responsible.”

“EPA and its contractors must obey the rule of law that the ‘polluter pays,’” Reyes said in the release. “The impact of their hazardous release may last for generations and cannot simply be abandoned in Utah. If they want to resolve this, they should immediately begin environmental remediation, instead of arguing in court to escape their responsibilities.”

The court granted an uncontested portion of the motion related to claims by New Mexico and Navajo Nation for joint and several liability.

The lawsuits allege that EPA and its contractors caused the blowout and its release of hazardous waste into the Animas and San Juan Rivers and in Lake Powell, resulting in one of the largest inland pollution events in the nation’s history.

The court rejected the contractor’s arguments to evade responsibility, followed its similar decision on Feb. 29 to deny the EPA’s motion to dismiss.

“The Court’s decision is an important step towards restoring our environment and protecting the communities impacted by the Gold King Mine disaster,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in the press release. “It’s time for the EPA and its contractors to accept responsibility and do what is right. Instead of wasting time and money on litigation, let’s turn attention and resources to cleaning up the contamination from the blowout.”

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