Colorado Approves Major Settlement For Natural Resources Damages at Superfund Site

A $5 million settlement with the federal government was approved May 11 by the Colorado Natural Resources Trustees to resolve natural resource damages claims at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site, which included damages from the 2015 Gold King Mine blowout, according to an announcement. 

According to a press release from the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, the U.S.’s alleged liability stemmed from two different sources. The release noted the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management manage federal lands in the Bonita Peak Mining District, where mining activity has historically occurred, and federal law imposes liability for natural resources injuries on owners of the site when they happen. The trustees also alleged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was partially liable for the Gold King Mine release.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety began reclamation efforts at Gold King Mine in 2008 and in 2014, the EPA initiated superfund response activities focused on assessing a blockage in an adit at the Gold King Mine, the press release continued. 

On Aug. 5, 2015, when EPA contractors were scraping away material from the blockage, acidic pressurized water started leaking from the mine, the press release added, and the flow quickly increased in volume releasing 3,000,000 gallons of acidic mine-impacted water, which had been impounded behind the blockage. 

That contamination then released into downstream waters including the Animas and San Juan rivers as the EPA immediately conducted an emergency response to address the discharging Gold King mine with an interim water treatment plant, the press release said.

The EPA listed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site encompassing several dozen abandoned mines on the National Priorities List in September 2016 and is currently taking responsive actions to assess and respond to releases of hazardous substances into surface water from historic mining activities at the site, the press release continued. The release added the EPA has spent more than $75 million on response efforts there.

The $5 million settlement with the federal government will allow the trustees to fund projects to restore damaged natural resources from the spill and other releases of hazardous substances within the superfund site, the press release said, adding that the trustees will consult with regional stakeholders to solicit proposals and allocate the funding for environmental restoration projects.

“The damage to Southwestern Colorado natural resources remains a matter of great concern. In this action, we are securing valuable funds to address these damages and invest in the restoration of natural resources in this part of our state,” Attorney General Phil Weiser, chair of the Colorado Natural Resources Trustees, said in a press release. “We have vigilantly pursued claims for natural resource damages and will work hard to invest the funds we have recovered to best serve the affected communities.”

Colorado’s Natural Resources Trustees have recovered natural resource damages many times in the past for the site, according to the press release:

  • The trustees approved a $1.6 million settlement agreement with Sunnyside Gold Corporation in 2021 to resolve claims the company caused or contributed to releases of acidic, metals-laden wastewater into the Upper Animas River watershed; SGC had operated the Sunnyside Mine from 1986-1991.
  • The state settled with Blue Tee Corporation in 2018 for $468,000 which could go toward superfund cleanup within the mining district or to restoring injured natural resources.
  • Trustees received about $230,000 in natural resource damages from a 2011 claim against Standard Metals Company regarding its operations in the mining district.

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