In EJ Win, Navajo Nation Settles Lawsuit Over 2015 Oil Spill

Photo: Riverhugger, Wiki CC

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

In an environmental justice win, last week the Navajo Nation settled a lawsuit it brought against mining companies resulting from a destructive oil spill in 2015 that poisoned rivers in three western states. The spill dumped 3 million gallons of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, and when the EPA attempted to clean it up, the river became contaminated with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. Under the settlement, Sunnyside Gold Corporation will pay the tribe $10 million. Lawsuits are still pending against the EPA.  

Why this Matters:  This spill was devastating, contaminating 200 miles of river on Navajo lands — farmers and water utilities had to stop drawing from those rivers. The Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement: “The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation. We pledged to hold those who caused or contributed to the blowout responsible, and this settlement is just the beginning.”  The federal government should now own up to its obligation to make up for the suffering its contractor caused the Navajo Nation and its people.

A Long Legal Battle

After the spill, the EPA declared Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. Sunnyside Gold Corp. denied liability for the accident, arguing that it didn’t own the Gold King Mine when it was in operation, and therefore it didn’t cause the waste spill. The settlement did not force the corporation to admit liability or wrongdoing for the spill, but Sunnyside agreed to it “as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation,” the company’s director of reclamation operations told the Associated Press. In addition to the $10 million, Sunnyside will continue to work with the local community to purify the region’s water.

The tribe also made claims against the EPA and its contractors, but these claims remain pending. In addition, 300 individual tribal members also have pending claims for a separate lawsuit. The EPA argued that the water quality returned to pre-spill levels, but New Mexico officials and tribal leaders alike found that heavy metals had coagulated in the river sediment. During heavy rains or snowmelt, this sediment got stirred up and seeped back into the water.

The mining companies also reached a settlement with the state of New Mexico. This agreement will allocate $10 million to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue, and it will also allocate $1 million to the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee to cover the damage the spill caused to to New Mexico’s natural resources.  Hopefully, this bodes well for potential settlements with the EPA. The state of Utah sued the EPA for damages from the spill, and the U.S. government settled, allocating $3 million to Utah clean water projects while spending $220 million to clean up abandoned mine sites in Colorado and Utah.  Though this is only a fraction of what the state demanded, it seems that the EPA is taking responsibility to clean up after this still-devastating spill. Jonathan Nez continued, “We pledged to hold those who caused or contributed to the blowout responsible, and this settlement is just the beginning.

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