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Bill would allow lawsuits after Gold King Mine spill north of Durango

Rep. Coram hopes to address issues stemming from federal tort law
The Animas River flows through the Animas Valley in early August – showing the temporary discoloration of the river caused by the spill from the Gold King Mine. Legislation has been drafted to potentially allow lawsuits against the federal government. The EPA has admitted accidentally causing the mine blowout during remediation work.

DENVER – State legislation has been drafted in an effort to pressure the federal government into quickly settling damage claims stemming from the Gold King Mine spill.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said he will carry the bill at the start of the legislative session, which begins next month.

The bill would allow the state to file lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of individuals financially impacted by the Gold King Mine spill.

“It’s authorizing the state of Colorado to sue the EPA in case they renege on their obligation,” Coram said.

He added, “The idea behind the bill is that it encourages them to settle this in a gentlemanly manner.”

The legislation is directed at the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue the United States in federal court for damages caused by federal employees acting on behalf of the country. With Coram’s legislation, the state would be allowed to sue on behalf of individuals.

He stressed that the bill was in its initial drafting stages and that the language would become more specific.

For its part, the EPA has acknowledged fault in the Aug. 5 Gold King incident, in which an estimated 3 million gallons of mustard-yellow mining sludge poured into the Animas River, shutting the river for eight days. The event impacted a range of businesses, including rafting companies and farmers.

Internal and independent investigations following the incident revealed that the EPA should have drilled a hole into the mine to determine water pressure before launching excavation work as part of the reclamation effort.

As of last Friday, the EPA had received 41 individual claims stemming from the disaster.

“The EPA’s claims officer is carefully reviewing the findings and conclusions of existing reports and investigations, and will continue to assess additional information as it becomes available,” an EPA spokeswoman told The Durango Herald.

Federal law requires consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice for any claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. No award, compromise or settlement in excess of $25,000 may be provided without the prior approval of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.

The EPA also cannot settle claims that have the potential to “set precedent, involve policy or control disposition of related claims,” without input from the Department of Justice.

“Upon reviewing the relevant facts, the EPA claims officer, together with officials in the Department of Justice, will determine whether the FTCA provides a means of compensating claims for money damages arising from the Gold King Mine incident,” the EPA spokeswoman said.

Victims have expressed frustrations with delays in the claims process. Some in Congress are working on a possible relief fund to speed it along.

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office has monitored the EPA’s process since the early stages. Her office is reviewing Coram’s legislation. On Wednesday, the office declined to comment on the bill.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, Coffman said she was looking into all legal remedies, including possible lawsuits.

Negligence claims against the federal government can be tricky. It can be much more difficult to sue the federal government under tort claims law than to sue a private citizen.

Generally, an individual can’t sue the government unless the government approves the lawsuit. The law, however, allows certain lawsuits against federal employees who are acting within the scope of their employment.

“You’ve got to skirt your way, very carefully, around it,” Coram said. “You’re supposed to get the approval of the federal government to sue the federal government.”


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