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New Mexico settles mine spill claims with contractors

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Eric Vance/EPA

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico has reached a $5 million settlement with two contractors involved in a 2015 mine spill that polluted rivers in three Western states.

Thursday's announcement marks the end of all litigation involving the state of New Mexico related to the spill at the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado. About 3 million gallons of wastewater were released, sending a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals south to New Mexico, through the Navajo Nation and into Utah.

In all, New Mexico has won $48 million in settlements, including $32 million from the federal government and $11 million from mining company defendants.

“Today marks the conclusion of years of hard work to hold accountable those responsible for this spill, which was devastating to the communities and environment in northwest New Mexico,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “As a result of our efforts, the state and the communities affected are receiving the resources and compensation they deserve.”

Under the latest settlement, Environmental Restoration, LLC and Weston Solutions, Inc. will each make cash payments of $2.5 million to the state. Of that, $3 million will be allocated to the state attorney general's office to cover costs associated with the litigation, to address damage and to enhance law enforcement efforts to prevent and prosecute environmental contamination.

The remainder will go to the Office of the Natural Resources Trustee for natural resource damage claims arising from the spill.

Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins said the office has been working with communities in northwestern New Mexico to identify and fund restoration projects as well as efforts that will benefit farming and outdoor recreation.

The office is evaluating 17 proposals that have been submitted for funding from the settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and expect to have a plan available for public comment by March 1.

On Aug. 5, 2015, contractors attempting cleanup work on behalf of the EPA triggered a release of millions of gallons of acid mine drainage and tons of toxic metals. The release forced communities along the river to close intakes for drinking water systems, prompted many farmers to stop irrigating crops and curtailed recreation.

Although state officials say the rivers are now safe for irrigation and other uses, the stigma associated with the event has had lasting effects on the region’s economy.