SILVERTON–A no-fault settlement of lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico against the Sunnyside Gold Corporation (SGC) has been reached over the 2015 Gold King mine disaster near Silverton that was caused by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
SGC agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $10 million and New Mexico $11 million to dispose of all claims against the company and its parent companies Kinross Gold Corporation and Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc.
On August 5, 2015, contractors working for the EPA tampered with a bulkhead and plug in the lowest-level adit (tunnel) of the Gold King mine, where the EPA was “evaluating long-term options and solutions for sludge management” from three settling ponds constructed by the EPA to control discharge of acid mine waste from the tunnel.
A buildup of water behind the plug that the EPA contractors didn’t know about blew it out, releasing some 3 million gallons of contaminated mine waste into the Animas River, causing a panic in downstream users from Durango to Lake Powell, Utah for nine days as the slug of ugly orange water flowed downstream and was diluted to harmless levels.
“The Gold King Mine release was equivalent to four to seven days of ongoing GKM acid mine drainage,” says the EPA. “The total amount of metals entering the Animas River following the 9-hour release was comparable to the amount of metals carried by the river in one to two days of high spring runoff.”
Downstream water users and the EPA quickly tried to blame SGC for the water levels in the Gold King mine even though SGC’s mine has no direct connection to it, and is more than half a mile away at its closest. SGC has steadfastly denied any responsibility for the EPA’s disaster.
Gina Myers, Director of Reclamation Operations for SGC told Complete Colorado in a January 13 email that the lawsuits were “settled as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation.”
In a January 13 press release New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said SGC “oversaw the construction of bulkheads that caused the Gold King Mine and nearby mines to fill with acidic mine water,” but neglected to mention that the bulkheading project and the filling of SGC’s Sunnyside mine with water and tons of lime, completed in 2004, was approved by both the EPA and the State of Colorado.
Despite being involved in remediation work in the area since the early 1990s and having knowledge of the plan, the EPA denies approving the project.
But in a 1996 letter to the director of the Colorado Water Control Division Director J. David Holm, Assistant Regional Administrator for the EPA commended the state and SGC for its “innovative approach to problems encountered in the final closure” of the mine.
Over the past 30 years SGC has spent more than $40 million on remediation of its mine, which closed in 1991, as well as voluntary efforts to help remediate the damage caused by mines it never worked.
“SGC never owned or operated the Gold King mine and was not at fault for the August 2015 EPA-caused spill,” said Myers. “In fact, there is ample scientific evidence that shows the Company has improved water quality in the Animas River. We have also been an active participant in local efforts to improve water quality.”
Thanks in part to SGC’s remediation efforts as well as EPAs installation of a treatment plant for Gold King mine waste, zinc levels in the Animas River just below Silverton have been in compliance with state standards since the blowout. Zinc is used as an indicator of mine waste contamination levels.
Myers said that SGC, “operated and closed its Sunnyside mine in full compliance with the law and its permits. The Sunnyside and Gold King mine workings are not connected and the Sunnyside mine was not the cause of the Gold King spill.”
The EPA ordered SGC to conduct a $5 million exploratory drilling program and groundwater investigation that appears aimed at blaming the blowout on SGC due to percolation of groundwater through a half-mile of fractured rock between the Sunnyside and Gold King mines.
SGC has refused to undertake the project, accusing the EPA of a conflict of interest and of issuing of an “illegal” order.
The EPA declared the entire Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) a Superfund site September 9, 2016 and is spending upwards of $220 million on cleanup at the BPMD as well as other abandoned mine sites as part of a settlement of a $1.9 billion claim by the state of Utah.
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