All week long, we track environment news around the western United States, ferreting out the most important stories and new studies you need to read to understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around New Mexico. Then Thursday morning, you get that news in your Inbox. For a while, we’ve been posting those New Mexico Environment Review emails on our website, too. But to be honest, the emails don’t translate well to stories on the website. So instead we’re asking you to subscribe if you want to read that news each week.
Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will not issue final regulations requiring mining companies to prove before beginning work that they have the financial means to clean up pollution from their mines. The agency has decided the regulations are not “appropriate.”
According to a statement from the agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt said the requirements were unnecessary. “After careful analysis of public comments, the statutory authority, and the record for this rulemaking, EPA is confident that modern industry practices, along with existing state and federal requirements address risks from operating hardrock mining facilities,” Pruitt said. “Additional financial assurance requirements are unnecessary and would impose an undue burden on this important sector of the American economy and rural America, where most of these mining jobs are based.”
Last year, the Obama administration issued a draft rule, which garnered more than 11,000 public comments. Hardrock mines include metals like copper, iron and lead.
The New Mexico Gold King Mine Spill Citizens’ Advisory Committee will meet Monday evening in Farmington. According to the New Mexico Environment Department, the committee includes 11 citizen volunteers from northern New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation, and works with New Mexico’s Long-Term Impact Review Team to monitor and understand the long-term impacts of the 2015 Gold King Mine accident. While conducting exploratory cleanup work of an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado, federal contractors hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency caused 3 million gallons of wastewater to spill from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River. That river, which flows into the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico, was contaminated with lead, arsenic and cadmium. The mine, like about 400 others in the area, was owned by a private company before being abandoned.
The U.S. Supreme Court denied New Mexico’s petition to hold Colorado responsible for the 2015 Gold King Mine spill Monday, on the court’s last day in session this term. While conducting exploratory cleanup work of an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado, federal contractors caused 3 million gallons of wastewater to spill from the Gold King Mine. The mine, like hundreds of others in the area, was owned by a private company before being abandoned. The Supreme Court decision to not hear the case was the latest blow to New Mexico’s attempts to hold someone responsible for the spill into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose contractors caused the breach, said that under the Federal Tort Claims Act it was not legally able to pay the claims of economic damages caused by the 2015 spill.
After the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 contaminated the Animas River, farmers, local residents, businesses and the Navajo Nation filed claims against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Contractors with the agency caused the spill of mining waste into the river. At the time, claimants pegged their economic losses at $1.2 billion. According to the AP, which filed Freedom of Information Act requests to view the claims, the total is now $420 million, not $1.2 billion:
A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million. It’s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.
By 11 a.m. Central Time on Jan. 20—Inauguration Day—Ron Curry had cleared out of his Dallas office at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “You know when you walk in the door that if you serve the full term, you’re expected to walk out the door when the new president is inaugurated,” said Curry, who served as EPA’s Region 6 administrator for just over four years. “I’ve known all along that would be the case.”
Before his time with the EPA, Curry served as secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) under Gov. Bill Richardson. A political appointee, Curry left his positions knowing, in both cases, the incoming administrations had a bone to pick with environmental regulators.
The big environment story last week was an announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying that it can’t pay claims of more than a billion dollars in economic damages caused by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. As the AP reported on Friday:
A total of 73 claims were filed, some by farmers who lost crops or had to haul water because rivers polluted by the spill were temporarily unusable for irrigation and livestock. Rafting companies and their employees sought lost income and wages because they couldn’t take visitors on river trips. Some homeowners sought damages because, they said, their wells were affected. Tribes, including the Navajo Nation, were also affected.
Today, Gov. Susana Martinez presided over a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico. The underground nuclear waste repository is officially back in action, nearly three years after two fires shut down operations. According to a story in last week’s Carlsbad Current-Argus, the facility’s employees started moving waste into the salt caverns last Wednesday:
Rick Fuentes, president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers Union and waste handler at the site, confirmed that two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were emplaced near Room 5 in Panel 7 at 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. “It went great,” Fuentes, who did not assist in the waste emplacement, said. “We’re excited to be back to work.”
The U.S. Supreme Court wants the Department of Justice to weigh in on a lawsuit the state of New Mexico filed against the state of Colorado over the Gold King Mine spill that occurred in 2015. The Call for the Views of the Solicitor General, as the order is known, was part of orders released Monday. The Supreme Court did not grant any new cases. The call asks for the Solicitor General to weigh in on the case, though the federal government is not involved in the lawsuit. According to The Hill, the request likely will not be fulfilled before Jan.
The Navajo Nation announced they are suing the federal government over the Gold King Mine spill last year. The spill sent a sickly orange plume of pollution down the Animas River, from an abandoned mine in Colorado through the Four Corners area of New Mexico and into Utah. A contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency caused the blowout. This included the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest reservation. According to the Associated Press, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the EPA, “We’re holding your feet to the fire.”
In all, an estimated 3 million gallons of polluted water was released into the water.