Utah asks the EPA to pay $1.9 billion for mine-waste spill

As the White House proposes budget cuts, a new lawsuit over the 2015 Gold King Mine spill is putting additional pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency’s coffers.

Utah is asking the EPA to pay $1.9 billion in damages to account for the cost of cleanup and long-term maintenance of the San Juan River, which was impacted by the breach, and Lake Powell, where most of the sludge was deposited, among other areas affected by the accident.

The leak containing high concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead, was accidentally triggered by an EPA team working at the defunct Colorado gold mine. Their goal was to slow seepage of pollutants from the mine but they inadvertently breached a tunnel wall and unleashed a torrent of wastewater that had built up behind the mountainside.

Three-million gallons cascaded into a creek that feeds Colorado’s Animas River and later poured downstream into the San Juan River in New Mexico, across Native American lands, until it reached Utah’s waterways.

According to Dan Burton, a spokesman for Utah’s attorney general who was interviewed by AP, the state filed the claim in February but didn’t say anything about it to avoid creating a media stir.

"It’s a function of looking at the damages," Dan Burton, spokesman for Utah's attorney general.

Word of the suit surfaced after the environmental agency referenced it in a news release.

Utah’s $1.9 billion claim adds up to a pile of legal actions that includes the Navajo Nation’s $162 million claim, the one by the state of New Mexico for $130 million, and other 144 claims introduced by government agencies, businesses and individuals who want compensation for lost wages and income, crop damage, and other losses.

But even though it accepted responsibility for the spill, the EPA said in January that federal law prevented it from paying any damage claims.

In attention to this legal loophole, Utah filed a second lawsuit in July 2017 for the ongoing environmental and social impacts of the spill. However, in this case, the state didn’t target the government institution but the contractor, subcontractor and mine owner, namely Kinross Gold, Sunnyside Gold, Gold King Mines, Environmental Restoration, and Harrison Western Corporation.