Judge: EPA is liable in Gold King Mine disaster

A federal judge has denied the EPA’s request to escape liability for the Gold King Mine blowout near Silverton, Colorado, a massive spill of three-million gallons of toxic mining waste in August 2015 that contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Chief Judge William P. Johnson of the U.S. District Court for New Mexico denied the EPA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits filed by the states and private parties, rejecting EPA’s arguments that it was immune from liability for the cleanup and damages caused by the blowout.

The EPA sought dismissal despite its prior public announcements that it accepted responsibility for the blowout and had promised to work with the states to repair the damage. The court pointed to Utah’s showing that EPA has taken no cleanup action in Utah to date and has no timetable to do so. EPA caused one of the largest inland pollution events in the nation’s history, causing hazardous wastes to be spread along the Animas and San Juan rivers and in Lake Powell.

“This is a great victory for the environment and the communities affected by the Gold King Mine blowout,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. “Protecting the health of our families and the precious environment of Utah should be our shared goal with EPA. We would much prefer the EPA to focus now on cleanup efforts rather than continuing to litigate.”

Sean D. Reyes, Utah Attorney General, said “The court is sending a strong message that EPA must be held as equally responsible as other polluters to clean up its contamination. I understand these events occurred during a prior administration. But the current administration, rather than litigating, can resolve this by working with us to restore a clean environment, which is our legacy for the next generation of Utahns. Utah is only enforcing the type of environmental laws EPA is duty bound to uphold—the same type of laws the EPA would be aggressively prosecuting if the polluters were private parties.”

The court’s ruling on Feb. 28 came on the same day as the senate confirmed Andrew Wheeler as EPA’s administrator.