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Udall Talks Gold King Mine Spill Compensation

Marisa Demarco / KUNM
The San Juan River in Shiprock on the Navajo Nation shortly after the spill in August 2015

It’s been almost two years since an Environmental Protection Agency contractor released millions of gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas and San Juan Rivers. A plume of contaminants and heavy metals stained the rivers yellow and flowed from Colorado into New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

The EPA at the time said they’d clean up the spill and compensate communities for damages. Claims totaled over a billion dollars, but so far the agency hasn’t followed through.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the EPA this week demanding the agency fully address what they call an environmental disaster and requesting a meeting with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. KUNM spoke with Senator Tom Udall about the spill. 

UDALL: I was very troubled last year when the government broke its promise to the Navajo Nation and New Mexicans. The EPA promised that it would fully address the damage it caused from the Gold King Mine Spill—that they would do the right thing and see to it that the spill was cleaned up properly.

While the EPA has taken steps to clean up the mine, no farmer has received a dime of compensation over a year later. And people are very distrustful. We’re ready to work with the EPA to explore all options for compensation.

People of New Mexico on the Navajo Nation have already waited far too long for the EPA to keep its promise and compensate them for the harm this spill caused.

KUNM: Earlier this year, the EPA announced that it wasn’t liable for these Gold King Mine spill claims. Now, I know that you’re talking about how you worked into appropriations report that the EPA has to try and compensate people for damages caused by the spill. How likely do you think it is that that could happen if they’re already saying they’re not liable for those claims?

UDALL: Well, the EPA initially said that they were responsible for all claims, and we’re going to hold them to that. We put those provisions in the omnibus bill, which passed a week ago, and we told the EPA to come up with options for payment within 60 days and give us a timeline here. And we’re working with other Senators, and we’re going to make this happen, working as a team to keep the pressure on EPA to do the right thing.

KUNM: So do you think congressional pressure will be enough?

UDALL: We’re going to work on every angle we have.

KUNM: The EPA supposed to get $4 million for water monitoring in the spill area. Is there a specific way that you’d like to see that money spent?

UDALL: Oh, you bet. Well this $4 million for water monitoring has to do with the state of New Mexico setting up water monitoring, which they’re already working on and putting money into, and now what it’ll do is supplement the effort that’s there, so people can know that the they’re utilizing meets the standards.

KUNM: People who use the San Juan River and who live near it in New Mexico have said spring snowmelt will swell the river and maybe stir up heavy metals lying on the bottom of the river. Are you concerned that we still don’t know the full extent of the impact out there?

UDALL: Well, I think it’s very important that we have a water-monitoring program in place so that we can specifically find out what happens in a storm like you’ve mentioned or other circumstances where you have an increase in water flow maybe stirring things up. If you have a good monitoring program in place, you can tell immediately what’s happening, you can warn people, and then when the situation settles down, you can give them additional information so they can change their behavior however they wish.

KUNM: So there’s also some talk of testing aquatic life after the spill but only in Colorado. Do you think downstream communities like New Mexico and the Navajo Nation are being treated fairly?

UDALL: We’re trying to treat them as fairly as we can, yes.

KUNM: So a cleanup plan is expected in June, and cleanup could begin in August or September. But this spill happened in August of 2015. What is taking so long?

UDALL: The immediate action that was taken was firm and strong, where people went out after they got themselves organized and put in place. And we’ve now managed to pull together on this omnibus appropriation and put in very specific directions. It’s been way too long, and we’re going to try to speed it up here. 

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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