SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Wednesday that a settlement agreement has been reached over the Gold King Mine spill that happened five years ago.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Deseret News the agreement is a “win-win for the environment” and will help Utah resolve high-priority water quality challenges.
“Our partnership with Utah will be strong as we work to improve water quality needs in the state,” he said.
The announcement was made from EPA headquarters with Reyes in attendance, as well as Scott Baird, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Wheeler said of the multiple states impacted by the massive Gold King Mine spill, Utah’s claims were the most significant and the first to be resolved.
“We are hopeful with the progress we have made here it will show the other litigants that we are serious about settling,” he said.
The agreement legally absolves EPA and its contractors from any Utah liability over the Gold King Mine spill, which happened when contractors breached the mine near Silverton, Colorado, unleashing 3 million gallons of wastewater and an estimated 540 tons of mustard-colored pollution containing heavy metals.
Colorado, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah were among those impacted, with the pollution snaking its way through tributaries into Lake Powell.
Hundreds of claims have been filed against the federal agency, which has worked with states to set up long-term monitoring plans tracking water quality impairment.
As part of the agreement, Wheeler said the federal agency will directly fund the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s application of $3 million in Clean Water Act requests to address multiple state projects, including development of water quality criteria for Utah Lake, septic density studies, nonpoint source pollution reduction and nutrient management plans for agricultural activities.
Baird said “$3 million is a lot, especially in the current funding environment.”
The EPA will also initiate Superfund assessments at several abandoned mine sites in Utah by the end of next year, including the Mill D Fork and Cardiff Fork areas of the Big and Little Cottonwood Mining District, the Bauer Dump and Tailings area of the Ophir Mining District in Tooele County and a release associated with legacy uranium mining operations in the Lisbon Valley area of San Juan County.
“It is fantastic news, honestly,” Baird said, stressing that litigation going forward would have been difficult because monitoring has shown no impairment to Utah’s water quality from the spill, even though the agency knows there have been deposits of the heavy metals that have settled into the beds of waterways.
We are working proactively with the state to better understand their water quality challenges.
–Andrew Wheeler, EPA administrator
“Ultimately our water quality has been safe for health and the environment,” he said.
The settlement means Utah will be able to address some of its most pressing water quality issues, such as nutrient pollution at Utah Lake and addressing concerns that have been raised in the Cottonwood canyons over legacy mining in those areas which could potentially contaminate the Salt Lake Valley’s chief drinking water source.
“They recognize that abandoned mines and historic mining are an issue,” he said.
Beyond the Cottonwood canyons, Wheeler said the agency will continue its work on other abandoned mine sites in Utah that have the ability to impact downstream waters. Those include the Rico Argentine Mine, the Camp Bird Mine and the Carribeau Mine.
“We are working proactively with the state to better understand its water quality challenges,” Wheeler said.
According to the EPA, Utah will have “substantial and meaningful involvement” in remediation at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site — the place of the Gold King Mine spill — as the agency works to ensure no future contamination is released.
EPA has spent more than $75 million at the site to date and expects to spend more than $65 million over the next several years as part of a total $220 million for cleaning abandoned mine sites in the U.S.
Last month, the agency released for public comment a plan on a mine waste repository at the site.