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DENVER The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
on Friday denied $1.2 billion in claims for economic losses
stemming from a 2015 toxic wastewater spill accidentally
triggered by the agency at a defunct Colorado mine, that fouled
waterways in three states.
The EPA said in a statement that it was “not legally able to
pay” damage claims over the discharge from the century-old Gold
King Mine, located near the town of Silverton in southwestern
Farmers, ranchers and river-running raft companies, among
others, filed the claims seeking compensation for lost business
or wages from the spill.
The agency said federal law grants immunity to government
agencies if something goes awry from “discretionary” action
taken by its employees.
“Therefore, the circumstances surrounding the Gold King Mine
incident unfortunately do not meet the conditions necessary to
pay claims,” the statement said.
In August 2015, an EPA contractor hired to slow seepage of
pollutants from the mine breached a tunnel wall, unleashing a
torrent of wastewater that had built up behind the mountainside.
The discharge sent some 3 million gallons of orange-colored
water containing 900,000 pounds of heavy metals, including
arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, cascading into a creek that
feeds the Animas River.
The plume of contamination then poured downstream into the
San Juan River in New Mexico and across Native American lands
before reaching Lake Powell in Utah days later.
The EPA decision, which the agency said can be appealed to
the federal court system within six months, drew angry responses
from elected officials in the affected states.
“We are outraged at this last-ditch move by the federal
government’s lawyers to go back on the EPA’s promise to the
people of the state of New Mexico – and especially the Navajo
Nation – that it would fully address this environmental
disaster,” three Democrats from New Mexico’s congressional
delegation – Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and
Representative Ben Ray Luján – said in a joint statement.
Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and
Republican Cory Gardner, vowed to introduce legislation to
ensure EPA will pay any legitimate claims.
“It is extremely disappointing that the EPA has
categorically rejected every single claim filed under the
Federal Tort Claims Act,” Bennet said.
In October 2016, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General and
federal prosecutors in Denver said there would not be any
criminal charges filed against an agency employee over the
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