In 2015, the Animas River in Colorado turned orange as three million gallons of water containing high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxins gushed from a site where the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was attempting to clean up an abandoned mine.
The agency’s immediate response was a near-complete failure: officials delayed disclosing the spill to the public for nearly 24 hours; they significantly underestimated the size of the spill; and they downplayed the potential harms. A year later, a House Natural Resources Committee report lambasted the agency’s handling of the massive spill, accusing it of failing to take reasonable precautions, not responding adequately, and obstructing Congress’ efforts to investigate.
New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation sued EPA to recoup their costs of mitigating the spill’s ill effects. Last month, a federal court in New Mexico rejected the agency’s effort to dismiss that suit, holding that the agency can be liable for the spill, just as any private party would be.
Although the prospect of EPA paying for the damage may seem fair in this case — especially if the congressional report’s accusations are true — the court’s rationale underscores why so little progress has been made in cleaning up abandoned mines. The court did not cite EPA’s alleged negligence in determining the agency’s potential liability. Instead, the agency could be on the hook for the mere fact of trying to clean up the mine in the first place.
Read the full article in the Salt Lake Tribune.