By Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— The Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice announced Wednesday it has settled with mining companies to resolve claims stemming from a 2015 spill that resulted in rivers in three western states being fouled with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.
Under the settlement with the Navajo Nation, Sunnyside Gold Corp. — a subsidiary of Canada’s Kinross Gold — will pay the tribe $10 million.
The spill released 3 million gallons (11 million liters) of wastewater from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado. A crew hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency triggered the spill while trying to excavate the mine opening in preparation for a possible cleanup.
The wastewater made its way into the Animas River and eventually down to the San Juan River, setting off a major response by government agencies, the tribe and private groups.
Water utilities were forced to shut down intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the plume moved downstream.
The tribe said the toxic water coursed through 200 miles (322 kilometers) of river on Navajo lands.
“The Gold King Mine blowout damaged entire communities and ecosystems in the Navajo Nation,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement announcing the settlement. “We pledged to hold those who caused or contributed to the blowout responsible, and this settlement is just the beginning.”
The tribe’s claims against the EPA and its contractors remain pending. About 300 individual tribal members also have claims pending as part of a separate lawsuit.
Nez added: “It is time that the United States fulfills its promise to the Navajo Nation and provides the relief needed for the suffering it has caused the Navajo Nation and its people.”
The EPA under the Obama administration had claimed that water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.
But New Mexico officials, tribal leaders and others continued to warn about heavy metals collecting in the sediment and getting stirred up each time rain or snowmelt results in runoff.
The state of New Mexico also confirmed Wednesday that it has reached a settlement with the mining companies. Under that agreement, $10 million will be paid to New Mexico for environmental response costs and lost tax revenue and $1 million will go to Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for injuries to New Mexico’s natural resources.
Sunnyside Gold Corp. didn’t own the Gold King Mine when it was in operation, and it had nothing to do with the waste spill, said Gina Myers, the company’s director of reclamation operations.
The settlement was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing, but Sunnyside agreed to it “as a matter of practicality to eliminate the costs and resources needed to continue to defend against ongoing litigation,” Myers said in an email.
Sunnyside has worked with local authorities to improve water quality in the region, Myers added.
In August, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Utah for a fraction of what that state was initially seeking in damages.
In that case, the EPA agreed to fund $3 million in Utah clean water projects and spend $220 million of its own money to clean up abandoned mine sites in Colorado and Utah.
After the spill, the EPA designated the Gold King and 47 other mining sites in the area a Superfund cleanup district. The agency still reviewing options for a broader cleanup.