New Mexico is accepting applications to spend $10 million in settlement funds from the Gold King Mine spill that turned rivers yellow in 2015 and caused immense economic and environmental damage to the region.
But some lawmakers in northwestern New Mexico, at a legislative meeting Tuesday, questioned why the money could only be given to governments or nonprofits, not directly to farmers or others affected by the spill on an individual basis.
State officials charged with administering the settlement cited the state’s anti-donation clause as the reason. But he said the programs he hopes to fund will help restore watersheds and commerce in the region.
On August 5, 2015, an Environmental Protection Agency contractor was monitoring a leak at the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. They excavated the area above the mine opening and the bedrock collapsed, releasing 3 million gallons of waste into a tributary of the Animas River.
NM reaches $32M settlement for 2015 Gold King Mine spill that turned Animas River yellow
Contaminated water from gold mining, which ended in the 1990s, flooded the Animas River and San Juan River basins, turning their waters bright yellow. Tailings contain heavy metals such as cadmium and lead and other toxic elements such as arsenic, iron and copper.
Communities in the Four Corners suffered in important, measurable ways, but the plume floated down the river. Farmers in the Navajo Nation and the surrounding areas of Farmington were unable to irrigate. No one used the river for recreation or fishing.
Since the spill in 2015, tribal and state leaders in Colorado and New Mexico have brought numerous lawsuits seeking compensation from mine owners, EPA contractors and the EPA. In June, state leaders gathered in Farmington to announce a $32 million settlement with the EPA.
The water is now safe for agricultural or recreational use, but state leaders say a stigma remains that hurts farmers and keeps tourists away.
Under the settlement agreement announced in June, the United States will reimburse New Mexico $18.1 million for emergency response costs, $10 million for natural resource restoration and $3.5 million to improve the state’s water quality and cleanup. The Navajo Nation also received a separate $31 million settlement.
In a state windfall, $10 million for the restoration is being overseen by New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins.
Funding is available to local governments and state agencies to restore or replace the natural resources or services they provide, including outdoor recreation and agriculture. Nongovernmental entities are encouraged to partner with public agencies, according to an Aug. 12 release from Stebbins’ office.
The New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee has already identified four projects with $1 million in $11 million settlements with mining companies. Those projects are to restore soil health in San Juan County, an irrigation system project in the Tse Da Con Chapter, a new boat ramp on the Animas River and a farmers market pavilion in Farmington.
At a legislative hearing on the settlement this week, Rep. Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) says he hears all the time from individual farmers and families who are suffering and wonders why the settlement money shouldn’t go directly to them.
“Is this money meant to be given to people who have actually suffered? Crop loss? Loss of the joy of farming?” He said. “I know it went through New Mexico state coffers, but the guys out there are still suffering.”
Stebbins, in response, said the state’s anti-donation clause prohibits that type of personal compensation. The clause is an anti-corruption measure to ensure that state appropriations go to public use, not to enrich private entities or individuals.
“But what we intend to do is fund programs with a broad public impact that benefit farmers, people involved in the outdoor recreation industry, any communities affected by the Gold King mine in the way you described,” he said. .
Allison suggested that farmers affected by the spill should be specifically exempted from the anti-donation clause. Such a change would require an amendment to the state constitution, which would have to be approved by both houses of the legislature and voters.
Allison earlier this year pushed for another amendment to the anti-donation clause, which would have allowed the state to connect individual homes to electricity and other utilities. The measure has passed both houses of the Legislature and now goes to voters on Nov. 8.