SANTA FE, N.M. – New Mexico officials are looking for ideas for restoration projects to repair damage caused by a 2015 spill that fouled rivers in three western states with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
The state Office of the Natural Resources Trustee said Wednesday that the projects would be funded through a proposed $1 million settlement with the defendants – Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent companies.
The spill released 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine above Silverton. A crew hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered the spill while trying to excavate the mine opening in preparation for a possible cleanup.
The trustee's office said the contamination flowed into the Animas and San Juan rivers and adversely affected New Mexico residents, the agricultural and recreational tourism industries, and natural resources along those waterways.
The state and the defendants in January reached a settlement that includes a payment of $1 million by the mining defendants to the trustee to implement natural resource restoration projects. Court approval of the settlement is pending.
Litigation against other parties – including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its contractors – is ongoing.
As for the restoration projects, they must benefit surface water, wildlife, agriculture, outdoor recreation or other industries that rely on a healthy river. The deadline for submitting ideas is Aug. 21.
The trustee's office plans to select the winning projects and publish a final restoration plan by January.
“Communities whose jobs, livelihoods and environment were directly affected by the Gold King Mine release will know best how this funding can be put to good use,” Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins said in a statement. “We recognize that this funding will not fully repair or restore all the injuries caused by the Gold King Mine release, but it represents a significant first step toward that goal.”
After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency is still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.