EPA, Utah settle Gold King Mine spill lawsuit

20150814 In this Aug. 14, 2015, photo, water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo. Colorado officials are disputing a key claim by federal agencies about a massive spill of toxic wastewater from an inactive mine.

In this Aug. 14, 2015, photo, water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo. The EPA and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Wednesday that a settlement agreement has been reached over the Gold King Mine spill. | AP

Spill happened five years ago Wednesday

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Wednesday that a settlement agreement has been reached over the Gold King Mine spill that happened five years ago on Wednesday.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Deseret News the agreement is a “win win for the environment,” and will help Utah resolve high priority water quality challenges.

“Our partnership with Utah will be strong as we work to improve water quality needs in the state,” he said.

The announcement was made from EPA headquarters with Reyes in attendance.

Wheeler said of the multiple states impacted by the massive Gold King Mine spill, Utah’s claims were the most significant and the first to be resolved.

“We are hopeful with the progress we have made here it will show the other litigants that we are serious about settling,” he said.

The agreement legally absolves EPA and its contractors from liability over the Gold King Mine spill, which happened when contractors breached the mine near Silverton, Colo., unleashing 3 million gallons of wastewater and an estimated 540 tons of mustard colored pollution containing heavy metals.

Colorado, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah were among those impacted, with the pollution snaking its way through tributaries into Lake Powell.

Hundreds of claims have been filed against the federal agency, which has worked with states to set up long-term monitoring plans tracking water quality impairment.

As part of the agreement, Wheeler said the federal agency will directly fund the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s application of $3 million in Clean Water Act funding to address multiple state projects, including development of water quality criteria for Utah Lake, septic density studies, nonpoint source pollution reduction and nutrient management plans for agricultural activities.

The EPA will also initiate Superfund site assessments at several abandoned mine sites in Utah by the end of next year.

Additionally, Wheeler said the agency will continue its work on other abandoned mine sites in Utah that have the ability to impact downstream waters. Those include the Rico Argentine Mine, the Camp Bird Mine, and the Carribeau Mine.

“We are working proactively with the state to better understand their water quality challenges,” Wheeler said.

The agreement calls for Utah to have “substantial and meaningful involvement” in remediation at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site — the place of the Gold King Mine spill — as the agency works to ensure no future contamination is released.

EPA has spent more than $75 million at the site to date and expects to spend more than $65 million over the next several years.

Wheeler said the Obama-era spill was the biggest mine release of contaminants in the agency’s history.

Last month, the agency released for public comment a plan on a mine waste repository at the site to store mining-related waste as well as acid drainage from the Gold King Mine.

In addition to work there, the agency said it expects to spend more than $220 million in cleanup work on other abandoned mine sites with the potential to improve Utah’s water quality.

Amy Joi O’Donoghue

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