Sunnyside Gold Corporation will pay $ 1.6 million to settle environmental claims related to a 2015 Gold King Mine spill that sent a yellow plume of heavy metals into the Animas River, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office said Monday.
The agreement, which has not yet been finalized, stipulates that the money should be directed towards restoration projects within the superfund section of the Bonita Peak mining region, Attorney General Lawrence Pacheco said in a press release. It will also free the corporation from additional liability as the state moves forward.
The $ 1.6 million settlement is the latest in a series of similar agreements related to the Gold King Mine spill. Earlier this year, Sunnyside agreed to pay $ 10 million to the Navajo people and $ 11 million to New Mexico.
The recently announced settlement does not make much money compared to the millions already spent in the area, said Peter Butler, chairman of the Bonita Peak Mining Community Advisory Group. Most of that money went to lawyers and consultants trying to determine accountability, rather than actual cleanup efforts, he said.
“I think all parties have spent about $ 70 million in the last five years,” said Butler, a Durango resident. “But there is not much cleaning effort, almost all are studied. And the water quality has hardly improved. “
Butler added that he was not surprised the settlement was so small. In part, he said, this could be due to the fact that Sunnyside worked well with the cleanup efforts. Another part of this may be related to the complex liability issues associated with a spill at the Gold King Mine.
A cleanup team led by the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently triggered a 3 million gallon leak, and in 2016 The Denver Post reported that the agency’s official overseeing the work knew in advance of the dangers of the release.
The spill sent at least 880,000 pounds of metal into the Animas River across three states and the lands of two Indian tribes.
“It’s an interesting, tangled web of responsibility,” said Marcel Gaztambide, who is also on Butler’s advisory group.
Sunnyside Gold Corporation did not own the Gold King Mine and was not the corporation responsible for the 2015 spill, Gina Myers, the company’s director of reclamation, said in an email.
Rather, Butler said, Sunnyside installed concrete bulkheads downstream of the mine, which raised water levels in the area, exacerbating the spill.
For those in the area in August 2015, the spill was dire, Gaztambide said.
“The whole river turned bright orange,” said Gaztambide, who was not in town at the time. “There were many concerns about fish in the river system.”
Farmers living downstream, whose crops depend on the water, are of even greater concern, Gaztambide said.
“But for the people who knew the most about the Animas River, it was not a big surprise,” added Gaztambide. “We’ve known about the acid drainage problem for a long time.”
He described the 2015 explosion as a symptom of a much more serious problem with the abandoned mines in the area. Gaztambide added that studies on the environmental damage caused by the spill and other mines are ongoing, so it is difficult to say if $ 1.6 million is enough.
For context, Butler said the EPA is currently cleaning the drainage coming out of the mine, and it costs about $ 2.5 million a year to operate this treatment plant.
“So $ 1.6 million will not even be spent on it for a year,” he said.
Nonetheless, Gaztambide said the money could be put to good use, constituting a massive clean-up project that still has a lot of work to do.
In a statement, Attorney General Phil Weiser called the settlement “a step in the right direction to repair the damage done in southwestern Colorado and the Four Corners region.”
If the settlement is finalized, Colorado’s natural resource trustees will use the money for projects aimed at recovering damage from the 2015 spill and other hazardous emissions in the area, Pacheco said.
The agreement itself will be filed Monday in the US District Court in Denver, after which a 30-day public comment process will begin. The case judge will then review the agreements and comments presented before deciding whether to make a decision.