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New Mexico allocates grants from $32M mine spill settlement

Kayakers talk with a group as they get out of the Animas River north of Durango on Aug. 6, 2015. the river was tainted by mine waste that flowed from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Aztec, Farmington will get six-figure settlement

ALBUQUERQUE – Six entities impacted by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill will share roughly $4 million in grants from a settlement, according to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

Outgoing Attorney General Hector Balderas announced earlier this month that nearly $4.3 million will be divided among multiple municipalities and agencies.

The cities of Aztec and Farmington in San Juan County, the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, the state tourism department and the New Mexico State University Extension Service will all receive six-figure grants.

To be recipients of the grant program, they submitted a proposal to the New Mexico Attorney General's office.

"Out of tragedy comes hope, and I am honored to award these amazing applicants and their ideas to invest in their own communities,” Balderas said in a statement.

The grant funds come from the overall $32 million settlement reached in June between New Mexico and the U.S. government over the spill that polluted rivers in three western states. The spill released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine near Silverton, sending a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals south to New Mexico, through the Navajo Nation and into Utah through the San Juan and Animas rivers.

Water utilities were forced to scramble and shut down intake valves – and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the contaminants moved downstream.

Under the New Mexico agreement, the federal government will make cash payments for response costs, environmental restoration and efforts to mitigate negative perceptions about the area’s rivers following the spill. Money also will go toward monitoring water quality and other cleanup activities.

In 2021, the state also received $11 million in damages from the mining companies.

Under that agreement, $10 million will be paid to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue and $1 million will go to Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for injuries to New Mexico’s natural resources.

New Mexico has reached a $5 million settlement with two contractors involved in a 2015 mine spill that polluted rivers in three Western states.

In all, New Mexico has won $48 million in settlements, including $32 million from the federal government and $11 million from mining company defendants.

“Today marks the conclusion of years of hard work to hold accountable those responsible for this spill, which was devastating to the communities and environment in northwest New Mexico,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday in a statement. “As a result of our efforts, the state and the communities affected are receiving the resources and compensation they deserve.”

Under the latest settlement, Environmental Restoration, LLC and Weston Solutions, Inc. will each make cash payments of $2.5 million to the state. Of that, $3 million will be allocated to the state attorney general's office to cover costs associated with the litigation, to address damage and to enhance law enforcement efforts to prevent and prosecute environmental contamination.

The remainder will go to the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for natural resource damage claims arising from the spill.

Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins said the office has been working with communities in northwestern New Mexico to identify and fund restoration projects as well as efforts that will benefit farming and outdoor recreation.

The office is evaluating 17 proposals that have been submitted for funding from the settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and expect to have a plan available for public comment by March 1.

A worker walks around one of five retentions ponds constructed in August below the Gold King Mine to collect sediment before the water enters Cement Creek. The state of New Mexico sued the state of Colorado over the Gold King Mine spill.