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Gold King Mine funds not spent on affected farmers, lawmaker says

Fort Lewis College alumnus Brandon Francis was one of the researchers monitoring the soil health along San Juan River in 2017 after the Gold King Mine Spill. (Courtesy of Brandon Francis)
Leaders say a stigma remains that continues to hurt farmers and tourism

State agencies will soon accept bids to spend millions in settlement money from a contaminant spill that turned northern New Mexico rivers yellow in 2015, but two state lawmakers expressed concerns that the money won’t reach people who need it most.

It’s still early in the process for millions in settlement funds to be paid to those affected by the Gold King Mine spill that happened in August 2015.

Contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency were monitoring seepage in the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. They accidentally released 3 million gallons of waste like cadmium, lead and arsenic into a tributary of the Animas River.

The water is now safe for agricultural or recreational use, state officials say, but state leaders say a stigma remains that continues to hurt farmers and tourism in the area.

Since the spill, tribal and state leaders in Colorado and New Mexico brought several lawsuits seeking compensation from the mine owners, the federal contractors and the EPA.

In June, state leaders gathered in Farmington to announce a $32 million settlement with the EPA, of which $10 million will be for restoration of natural resources.

That $10 million, given to the National Resource Trustee, can only be given to nonprofits or governments due to the state’s anti-donation clause, state officials have said.

Hydrologic technician Ryan Parker gathers water samples from the San Juan River in Montezuma Creek, Utah, where levels of metals arose after the Gold King Mine spill in 2015.
Richard Charley, right, and Melvin Jones deliver water to a ranch along the San Juan River on the Navajo Reservation in 2016 in Shiprock. Toxic wastewater spilled from the Gold King Mine last August in Silverton contaminated the San Juan River in northern New Mexico. (Associated Press file photo)

Separately, the Navajo Nation settled its Gold King Mine spill lawsuit against the federal government for $31 million.

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office will soon issue a request for proposals for $4 million it received from an $11 million settlement it reached with the mining companies that initially left the tailings in the Silverton mountain. That money can be awarded to nonprofits or government agencies.

On Monday, the Indian Affairs Committee of the New Mexico legislature heard an update on the settlement and lawsuits. Cholla Khoury, chief deputy attorney general for civil affairs, told lawmakers that the agency would accept bids in about a month.

Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) said he hears frequently from farmers who say they are still encountering fallout from the spill, even potentially seeing yellow flakes swirling in eddies along irrigation ditches.

“They just want to know why the rest of New Mexico or the rest of the Navajo Nation is benefiting while they, the direct victims, are still waiting for some kind of word that they’re going to get compensated,” Allison said.

Rep. Linda Garcia Benavidez (D-Albuquerque) echoed Allison’s concerns and asked how much input from the affected community went into the bid proposals the AG’s office will soon issue. Khoury had no immediate answer, but she did say the AG’s office was doing its best within the law to make sure the $4 million goes to where it’s most needed.

The money could go to help governments or nonprofits rebuild the pre-spill economy, do soil and water tests or help restore faith in the agriculture that relies on the rivers.

“That’s what we are attempting to do is to get every penny that we have, and that we can, back into the community to that they can start rebuilding from that damage,” she said.

The AG’s office is pursuing another lawsuit against the EPA contractors who caused the spill, which could mean even more settlement money for the state. That litigation might soon end up in court, Khoury said.

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