Utah Joins Throng Suing EPA Contractors Over Mine Spill

SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 11: Cement Creek, which was flooded with millions of gallons of mining wastewater, is viewed on August 11, 2015 in Silverton, Colorado. The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released approximately three million gallons of wastewater into the creek from the Gold King mine, polluting the larger Animas River downstream. (Photo by Theo Stroomer/Getty Images) Theo Stroomer/Getty Images

Utah announced this week that it is suing contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency, and several mine owners, for a large spill of toxic metals accidentally unleashed on August 5, 2015. The EPA, along with contractors, accidentally breached a flooded mine near Silverton, Colorado, containing 3 million gallons of contaminated water. The incident sent a plume of yellowish waste containing lead, arsenic and other heavy metals rushing down the Animas river. The plume followed the Animas into New Mexico, merging with the San Juan river, and flowing into Utah and Lake Powell, the major storage reservoir in the upper Colorado basin.

Utah hasn't come up with a damages amount because it's still estimating cleanup costs for the nearly 1 million tons of metals that the spill spread throughout the three state region, Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Dan Burton told Colorado Public Radio.

The incident also brought suits from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. All parties are seeking reparations for damages related to the spill and what is perceived to be a lack of remediation. "After one of the most significant environmental catastrophes in history, the Nation and the Navajo people have yet to have their waterways cleaned, their losses compensated, their health protected or their way of life restored," the Navajo Nation suit alleges. All of the cases are currently pending, and it's safe to say there is no easy resolution in sight.

Treatment ponds below the Gold King mine, where water is treated to remove contaminants before flowing into Cement Creek, which then runs into the Animas River. Doug Main

Some locals in Silverton think that the Gold King spill was blown out of proportion, in part because of the dramatic photos of discolored water flowing down the river. The spill also fed into resentments that some hold toward the EPA, which caused the spill along with its contractors. According to the EPA, the Animas and San Juan have long since returned to pre-spill conditions, and the water is safe for agriculture, drinking and recreation.

Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a group that seeks to "clean up the environmental damage caused by abandoned mines," says the Gold King spill wasn't the disaster it was made out to be. Unlike several other recent spills, it didn't cause the death of large numbers of fish, and the river seemed to quickly bounce back, he says.

But it did lead to a gulf of mistrust between states and communities, and toward the EPA. "That damage will last for years," Butler says.

However, many others disagree strenuously. Members of the Navajo Nation, for example. "The river has always been a source of life, of purification, and of healing," Ethel Branch, Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, told CNN "Now it's been transformed into something that's a threat. It's been pretty traumatic in changing the role of the river in the lives of the people who rely on it."

Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, points out the treatment ponds for water coming out of the Gold King mine. Doug Main

And many people are unwilling to talk about it, because of pending legislation. One Navajo hydrologist interviewed for this story declined to comment, because of the suit.

To be sure, the Gold King mine is not the only site leaking contaminated water into nearby rivers. Indeed, many dozens of mines—nearly 50, by some counts—in the Silverton area alone leach toxic minerals dissolved in sulfuric acid into the Animas. More than a year after the August 2015 incident, the EPA incorporated Gold King and about three dozen others into the Bonita Peak Mining District, a Superfund site. (Superfund is a federal program designed to investigate and clean up hazardous waste sites that threaten public health and the environment.)

On Friday, August 4, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt toured the Gold King site. "EPA should be held to the same standard as those we regulate," Pruitt said, following an earlier announcement that he would reconsider claims made by those along the Animas and San Juan impacted by the Gold King.

Editor's Note: Some reporting for this story was made possible by a trip to Colorado organized by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.