Utah, EPA reach settlement worth at least $220 million over Gold King Mine spill

(Matt York | AP file photo )In this Aug 11, 2015, file photo, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred walks along the San Juan River in Montezuma Creek, Utah, downstream from a spill containing lead and arsenic from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo.

Utah will reap million of dollars’ worth of environmental cleanup and monitoring benefits in a “landmark” agreement arising from the disastrous 2015 Gold King Mine spill.

On Wednesday, officials announced a deal to settle Utah’s claims against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency associated with the massive spill from the breach that washed tons of toxic waste out of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and into the Beehive State via the San Juan River.

The Aug. 5, 2015, disaster sparked dozens of claims against the federal government, with Utah’s the largest at $1.9 billion. In the suit filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes alleged the spill deposited tons of toxic metals in the state’s waterways and Lake Powell, resulting in a costly cleanup and disrupting the lives of San Juan County residents.

In the deal announced five years to the day since the spill, at least $220 million will be provided toward the cleanup of the historic Bonita Peak Mining District and other abandoned mine sites, including many in Utah. Reyes called the settlement “cooperative federalism,” representing a true partnership between the state and federal governments.

“After years of intense litigation and negotiations, we are very pleased that millions of dollars can now be spent towards mitigation, remediation and assuring water quality in Utah rather than years of more litigation, trial and appeals,” Reyes said in a statement.

The state had two goals in the case.

“First, get the federal government to clean up massive amounts of waste still lurking in many historic mining districts, including the one that caused the Gold King Mine blowout,” Reyes said. The second goal was to get the feds to pay for any damages caused by the spill.

“We are highly encouraged,” the attorney general said, “the EPA has stepped up and committed hundreds of millions of dollars toward cleaning up several dangerous mining districts containing billions of gallons of potentially harmful substances that threaten Utah if they are released.”

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton, Colo. The U.S. government settled a lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, brought by the state of Utah over a mine waste spill caused by federal workers that sent wastewater downstream to several states from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado five years ago. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

The disaster unfolded when EPA contractor Environmental Restoration and its subcontractors inadvertently unleashed a 3 million-gallon torrent of mine waste while conducting cleanup work at Gold King outside Silverton, Colo. The waste turned the Animas River an alarming shade of orange and contaminated the San Juan as it flowed through New Mexico and into Utah, terminating at Lake Powell.

Utah officials are elated with the federal government’s pledge to address abandoned mines and give Utah a voice the remediation of upstream sites in another state.

“It is a large commitment, given the level of damages the state couldn’t prove in a legal case. That was one of the challenging things going into this,” said Scott Baird, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “We always projected a worst-case scenario to come up with something reasonable for a lawsuit. Dredging Lake Powell isn’t a practical approach to this.”

The Gold King spill was a catastrophic event, but the 540 tons of metals it released into the environment pales in comparison with what has gradually leaked from the Bonita Peak district, not to mention dozens of other historic mining districts, over the years, Baird noted. Monitoring has shown that Utah’s waterways were not that badly damaged by Gold King because much of the harmful sediments settled out of the water before reaching Lake Powell.

The bigger threat to Utah’s water quality is from hundreds of retired mines, not just Gold King, that have gone unreclaimed, and Wednesday’s settlement dedicates resources to address that threat, according to Baird.

The EPA has so far put out $75 million toward reclaiming the Bonita Peak district since the spill and will spend another $65 million there over the next several years, according to Reyes. The settlement obligates the agency to spend $80 million to $100 million remediating other sites affecting Utah water quality.

“While not related to [the Gold King] incident, it is related to the issue of abandoned mines,” Baird said. “The other point is we have a seat at the table in the final remediation of this whole [Bonita Peak district] so we can make sure, as the downstream partner, we have a say. If other issues come up, it allows us to come back to the table.”

In the 10-page settlement agreement, Utah dismisses its legal claims against the federal government as well as the EPA contractors involved, but not its claims against the owners of Gold King and neighboring mines, namely the Harrison Western Corp., Kinross Gold USA, Sunnyside Gold Corp. and Gold King Mine Corp.

While Colorado opted to not sue over the spill, Native American tribes and New Mexico filed suits against the EPA, which are still pending.

The EPA had already reimbursed the $500,000 Utah spent on its initial response to the disaster. But Wednesday’s settlement also secures $3 million in funding for the Utah Division of Water Quality for a variety of projects that have little to do with mine waste, such as monitoring harmful algal blooms, reducing agricultural and septic runoff and protecting underground drinking water sources.

Also in the settlement, the EPA agreed to initiate and pay for waste removal evaluations at three historic mine sites in Utah. They include Mill D or Cardiff Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon outside Salt Lake City, a uranium-tainted site in San Juan County’s Lisbon Valley and the Bauer tailings dump at Tooele County’s Ophir Mining District. These evaluations can cost up to $200,000 each and would not likely happen were it not for the settlement.

Correction: Aug. 7, 9:50 a.m. • This story was corrected to reflect the accurate value of the settlement.