Supreme Court wants feds’ view on mine spill lawsuit

Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 6:02 PM
A temporary road crossing near the Gold King Mine north of Silverton shows the extent of contaminated water that blew through the mine’s adit on Aug. 5, 2015. This photo was taken Aug. 6, 2015.
Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from Gold King Mine wastewater. The treatment system was set up by the Environmental Protection Agency after an EPA-contracted crew accidentally sent 3 million gallons of heavy-metal laced mine wastewater into the Animas River on Aug. 5, 2015. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the Justice Department to weigh in on New Mexico’s lawsuit against Colorado over the Gold King mine waste spill, which eventually polluted rivers in both states and in Utah.

DENVER – The U.S. Supreme Court asked the Justice Department on Monday to weigh in on New Mexico’s lawsuit against Colorado over a mine waste spill that polluted rivers in both states and in Utah.

The court asked the Office of the Solicitor General to submit the Obama administration’s views on the lawsuit. The solicitor general represents the executive branch in Supreme Court cases.

The federal government has a stake in this case because a work crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered the 3 million-gallon spill from the Gold King Mine while doing preliminary cleanup work north of Silverton in August 2015.

The EPA estimates that 880,000 pounds of metals flowed into the Animas River in Colorado, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. It turned the water bright orange-yellow.

The chemicals flowed into New Mexico and Utah and passed through the Navajo and Southern Ute Indian reservations. The EPA said water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

New Mexico sued Colorado in June, saying Colorado should be held responsible for the contamination as well as decades of toxic drainage from other mines.

New Mexico and the Navajo Nation also sued the EPA. Those lawsuits are pending.

Utah officials are considering a lawsuit against the EPA. Dan Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, said Monday that they haven’t reached a decision.

Mark Pino, a spokesman with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, said New Mexico state officials hope for a quick resolution to their lawsuit against Colorado.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was pleased the justices asked the solicitor general to present the government’s view because of the EPA’s involvement, spokeswoman Annie Skinner said.

The EPA has added the Gold King and other nearby mine sites to the Superfund list and is researching cleanup alternatives. A temporary water-treatment plant has been removing pollutants flowing from the Gold King Mine since October 2015.