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Gold King Mine spill legislation drowns in Colorado Legislature

Measure sought to make it easier to sue federal government

DENVER – Southwest Colorado feels forgotten in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, state lawmakers heard Wednesday.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, expressed the sentiment to a House committee just before the panel killed his legislation that would have allowed the state to file lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of individuals impacted by the spill.

Coram was especially irked by the fact that the measure was assigned to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, a committee sometimes used by the majority party to kill legislation deemed unpopular by leadership. Democrats control the House.

The bill died on a 5-4 party-line vote.

“If this (Gold King spill) had happened in a metropolitan area, we would be doing something. But the fact is, in rural Southwest Colorado, we ... have the opinion that the Front Range does not care who suffers in rural Colorado,” Coram told the committee.

He brought no witnesses to testify on the bill, explaining that he did not want to have people make the seven-hour journey from Durango for legislation that was destined to die.

Democratic Rep. Su Ryden of Aurora, chairwoman of the committee, told Coram that he could have requested remote testimony, in which Durango interests would have been allowed to testify from Fort Lewis College.

Coram said he was unaware of that option, and then requested that Ryden delay action on the bill.

But Ryden denied the request, pointing to a busy committee calendar.

Coram proposed the legislation after the Environmental Protection Agency admitted fault in the Aug. 5 incident, in which an error during reclamation work at Gold King resulted in an estimated 3 million gallons of mining sludge pouring into the Animas River.

Victims’ claims against the EPA remain pending.

The EPA acknowledged that the spill could have been prevented by drilling into the mine before excavation, which would have given a better read on water pressure. An earlier plan outlining reclamation work at the Gold King Mine stated “conditions may exist that could result in a blowout.”

Coram’s bill was directed at the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows individuals to sue the United States in federal court for damages caused by federal employees. But negligence claims against the federal government can be tricky. Generally, an individual can’t sue the government unless the government approves the lawsuit.

Coram had hoped to make it easier to file lawsuits in an effort to pressure the EPA into quickly settling outstanding claims.

New Mexico earlier this month announced that it filed a notice of its intention to sue the EPA over the spill, becoming the first to do so.

The lawsuit also would target the state of Colorado and the owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines.

But Democrats worried about unintended consequences, adding that there were potential legal hurdles in making it easier to sue the federal government under tort law.

Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, whose caucus controls the calendar in the House, said the bill headed in the wrong direction. She said it is up to the governor’s office and state agencies to apply pressure on the outstanding claims.

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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