ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico became the first state to sue the federal government and the owners of two mines over the release of 3 million gallons of wastewater from a southern Colorado mine, seeking tens of millions of dollars Monday for environmental and economic damage caused by the spill.
The federal lawsuit says the environmental effects of the August 2015 spill are far worse than claimed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. New Mexico wants to be paid back for its immediate response to the disaster and receive funding for long-term monitoring, lost revenue and a marketing campaign to undo the stigma left behind by the bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals that fouled rivers in three Western states.
"The liability is crystal clear. The facts speak for themselves, and EPA for whatever reason is unwilling to resolve this outside of court," New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Associated Press. "We're going to do what we need to do to make sure New Mexicans are protected and compensated for the harm caused."
The move comes days after New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas fired off warning letters to the EPA and the state of Colorado over the response to the Gold King Mine spill.
Balderas said the spill has had a devastating effect on communities and that the federal agency should be held to the same standards it would impose on private interests accused of polluting.
"Remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water," Balderas said. "They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy."
The EPA typically declines to comment about pending litigation but a spokeswoman said last week that the agency was taking responsibility for the cleanup.
An EPA contractor triggered the spill. The wastewater — laden with arsenic, copper, lead, mercury and other dangerous pollutants — rushed down a Colorado mountainside and into two rivers, setting off a major response by government agencies and private groups.
During the spill, water utilities shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the yellow plume moved downstream.
The EPA said the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels, but New Mexico officials and others warn about heavy metals collecting in the sediment and getting stirred up each time rain or snowmelt results in runoff.
The state Environment Department received numerous calls just last week about the discoloration of the Animas River following a round of storms, Flynn said.
A notice sent this month to the EPA outlined the damage and argued that heavy metals in the Animas and San Juan rivers remain at levels that "present unacceptable risks to health and the environment."
Attorneys for New Mexico argue that the spill was preventable and that the EPA had been warned about a potential blowout nearly a year before the incident.
The state also contends its offers to lead a regional long-term monitoring project to better understand the damage and the prospects of future contamination flowing down the river system have been repeatedly rebuffed by the EPA.
The agency offered $2 million to states and tribes affected by the spill for monitoring, but New Mexico officials say that's only a fraction of the more than $6 million that would be needed for adequate monitoring in the state.
New Mexico also estimates the spill is costing the state $130 million in lost income taxes, fees and revenue. Officials have pointed to reduced tourism, fishing and land use throughout the region.