Utah’s $1.9 billion claim from Gold King Mine spill offers no specifics on estimated costs

Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo., Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Utah’s $1.9 billion claim against the Environmental Protection Agency for a multi-state mine waste spill says Utah’s water, soil and wildlife were damaged, but it offers no specifics.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office provided a copy of the claim to The Associated Press Wednesday.

The claim stems from the release of 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado in August 2015. An EPA-led contractor crew inadvertently triggered the spill.

The spill polluted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and turned some waterways an orange-yellow color. Indian lands were also affected.

Farmers and utilities temporarily stopped drawing water from the rivers, and rafting companies had to suspend operations. The EPA said water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

Utah’s claim from the spill is believed to be the largest of 144 filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows people to seek government compensation without a lawsuit. The claims seek payment for lost crops, livestock, wages and income and other damages.

The Navajo Nation filed a claim for $162 million and the state of New Mexico for $130 million. Both have also filed lawsuits against the federal government.

Utah also filed suit, but it named mine owners and EPA contractors as defendants, not the government.

The EPA said January it was prevented by law from paying any of the damages under the Tort Claims Act, angering many. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who took over after President Donald Trump assumed office, has said the agency will reconsider at least some of the claims.

Utah’s claim cites damage to the San Juan River and Lake Powell, a vast reservoir on the Colorado River which the San Juan feeds into. It also cites damage to other waterways, underground water, soil, sediment, wildlife and other, unspecified natural resources.

It does not say how state officials arrived at the $1.9 billion figure.

Dan Burton, a spokesman for Attorney General Sean Reyes, said the state’s lawyers came up with the number after consulting with Utah Department of Environmental Quality scientists and others.

“We’ve looked at other environmental claims across the country and throughout history to identify what has happened in those situations and what the costs were,” Burton said.

“We can always lower it,” he said. “We just can’t raise it.”

Burton said state officials have been negotiating with the EPA on a settlement but he declined to offer details.

In a Monday, Aug. 10, 2015 photo, environmental restoration employees work at a temporary water treatment holding facility at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo. Local officials in towns downstream from where millions of gallons of mine waste spilled into the San Juan River are demanding answers about possible long-term threats to the water supply. The 3 million gallons of mine waste included high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. Workers with the EPA accidentally unleashed the spill Wednesday as they inspected the abandoned mine site. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP)

Donna Kemp Spangler, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the state is still trying to assess the damage from the spill.

“I don’t think we know the extent yet,” she said.

The state has said previously it detected elevated levels of aluminum and other metals in the San Juan River. Officials have also said they expect river flows to deposit some of the metals from the spill in Lake Powell.

The EPA-led crew was using heavy equipment to excavate the mine opening in preparation for a possible cleanup when a worker breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater in the shaft. The water flowed into Cement Creek and then the Animas River in Colorado. The Animas joins the San Juan River in New Mexico before the San Juan crosses into Utah.

The EPA estimates that nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals reached the Animas, mostly iron and aluminum.

After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund district and is reviewing options for a broad cleanup.