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. The agency said the work being done at Gold King Mine did not meet the conditions necessary to allow a federal agency to compensate people and businesses for damages.
The problem of toxic waste from abandoned mines flowing into rivers isn’t limited to just the Gold King Mine.
In Colorado alone, more than 200 abandoned mines collectively leak over a million gallons of wastewater every day. The pollution includes things like heavy metals, arsenic and sulfuric acid.
Last week, the Denver Post reported that EPA officials are trying to stop contamination of the Animas River from the abandoned Red and Bonita Mine, which currently discharges 300-gallons per minute of wastewater into the Animas River.
Thousands of people in Colorado, New Mexico, Navajo country and Utah await action to clean up the Animas watershed. San Juan and La Plata county commissioners went to Washington last week and say Trump Administration officials promised that deep Environmental Protection Agency budget cuts won’t hit the work above Silverton.
But turning a valve and closing that bulkhead could trigger toxic leaks elsewhere, potentially spreading harm along already-contaminated headwaters. The EPA’s latest water data show widespread aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc contamination from mining and natural sources at levels too high for fish to survive.
Earlier this month, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources met to discuss funding for dealing with abandoned mines.
According to a story in the Durango Herald:
The Inactive Mine Reclamation Program estimated more than 6,000 of the estimated 23,000 abandoned mine lands in Colorado have been reclaimed since the program’s start in 1980.
Rob Rice, chief of the Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation in West Virginia, said the lack of funding means officials must decide between doing a complete reclamation of a few sites, or addressing only specific high-risk problems and hoping lower priorities don’t manifest into bigger issues.
During that hearing, Rice said, “The problem with abandoned mines is that they’re everyone’s problem but no one’s responsibility.”
There are more than 15,000 abandoned mines across New Mexico, according to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
According to that agency’s website, “The numbers of abandoned mines in the state are so numerous that one can only guess at the quantity. Some of them are small and not considered dangerous. Others are extremely dangerous.”
James Hallinan, spokesman for New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, emailed a statement:
“The Supreme Court’s ruling only limited the venue in which the State of Colorado can be sued for the harm done to New Mexico children, families and businesses. Attorney General Balderas will continue to fight for economic, social and environmental justice until New Mexico is compensated appropriately by all parties responsible for the horrific impacts of the Gold King Mine Spill.”
Update: We added a statement from the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General to our original post.