U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham announced on Dec. 10th that a bipartisan measure to expedite reimbursements to Tribal, local and state governments for costs incurred in responding to the Gold King Mine spill has passed both Houses of Congress as an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The amendment — authored by Senators Udall and Heinrich on the Senate side and introduced by Luján on the House side, and supported by all four of the lawmakers — forces the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to extend the date to reimburse governments for their emergency response efforts, directs the EPA to quickly address claims filed by individual farmers, and authorizes the EPA to coordinate with governments and pay for water monitoring efforts.
“The Gold King Mine blowout has had devastating consequences for Navajo Nation and Northwestern New México, spilling millions of gallons of toxic, contaminated wastewater and leaving these communities with millions of dollars in bills for critical emergency response, environmental cleanup efforts, and lost income,” said Udall, the incoming vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
“We must also take action to reform outdated policies in order to clean up the hundreds of thousands of similarly contaminated mines across the West and Indian Country that are leaking toxins into our watersheds,” stated Heinrich.
“In addition, this bill authorizes vital long-term water quality monitoring,” explained Luján. “I am proud to work with Senators Udall and Heinrich on this issue, and I remain committed to holding the EPA accountable and ensuring our communities are made whole.”
Congresswoman Luján Grisham added, “I appreciate the leadership in the delegation for ensuring the EPA is held accountable for helping these communities recover from this disaster.”
On August 5, 2015, an EPA-supervised crew released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into Cement Creek while working at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, contaminating the water in both the Animas and San Juan rivers that flow into New Mexico and across Navajo Nation. While the EPA notified the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation on Dec. 8 of claims that it is reimbursing and denying, the state and Tribal governments now have the option of challenging the denials and can also argue for claims made after the Oct. 31, 2015, date that the EPA used as a cut-off for eligible reimbursements. The provision allows for claims through Sept. 9, 2016, when the Gold King Mine District in Colorado officially became a superfund site. The delegation will also review any claims denied for lack of documentation and urge the EPA to reimburse reasonable claims. Previously, the EPA had determined that it would reimburse claims only through Oct. 31, 2015, the date that the agency ended its emergency response work. The amendment further requires the EPA to pay out all costs eligible for reimbursement.
In addition to directing the EPA to process reimbursements to governments, the amendment includes a Sense of Congress that the agency should receive and process individual claims for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. So far, the EPA has not reimbursed any residents harmed by the spill.
Finally, the amendment authorizes the EPA to implement a water quality monitoring program in conjunction with state, Tribal and local governments, and to reimburse them for their expenses so far. Udall, the lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the EPA’s budget, successfully included an amendment in the fiscal year 2016 budget directing the EPA to fund independent water quality monitoring, and he has worked to ensure funding for such projects going forward. So far, the EPA has dedicated $2.6 million towards this effort but more is needed in future years. This new measure will set the policy in stone and lay the groundwork for further funding to guarantee these efforts are continued as long as necessary to protect drinking water, irrigation water, and public health downstream of the Gold King Mine spill.