Udall, Heinrich Pass Bipartisan Measure to Expedite Gold King Mine Spill Recovery

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced that their bipartisan measure to speed up reimbursements to Tribal, local and state governments for the costs they incurred responding to the Gold King Mine spill has passed the Senate as an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The measure will expedite the process of reimbursing governments, which spent millions of dollars responding to the devastating Aug. 5, 2015, spill. It also emphasizes to the EPA that it must move faster to respond to the claims from famers and other individuals who were harmed by the disaster.

In addition to Udall and Heinrich, the amendment was cosponsored by Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The Senate voted 95-3, and the bill now must be reconciled with a House version of WRDA before being signed into law.

"This amendment continues our work to hold the EPA responsible for the Gold King Mine spill, and ensure it makes things right with the Navajo Nation and the communities of Northwestern New Mexico," Udall said. "This measure does three main things to help repair some of the many mistakes that have been made. It directs the EPA to reimburse Tribal and other governments for their emergency response efforts. It makes it clear to the EPA that it must move faster to address the claims filed by individual farmers who were devastated by the spill. And it ensures that the EPA will coordinate with Tribal, state, and local governments and pay for water quality monitoring. I will keep working -- many Navajo farmers and others across the region have not seen a dime to compensate them for their losses, and we must ensure everyone impacted by the spill gets the help they need."

"It's been over a year and families are still recovering from of the Gold King Mine spill. The pace of reimbursement to those impacted by this terrible incident is unacceptable. This measure ensures that state, local, and tribal governments will be fully reimbursed for their emergency response costs, and establishes a long-term water quality monitoring program in cooperation with local stakeholders," Heinrich said. "We must also take action to reform outdated policies in order to clean up the hundreds of thousands of similarly contaminated mines across the West and Indian Country that are leaking toxins into our watersheds. And we shouldn’t wait for more disasters to strike. Western communities deserve full and complete protection of their water, land, and livelihoods. Our nation owes it to these communities to clean up these sites once and for all."

To date, the state of New Mexico has submitted claims for approximately $1.5 million in emergency response costs and monitoring, and the Navajo Nation has submitted approximately $3.8 million, but the EPA has reimbursed only a fraction of those amounts. The Udall-Heinrich amendment directs the EPA to process those and other government claims for reimbursement within 90 days. The measure also specifies that the EPA must process claims for costs that were incurred through Sept. 9, 2016, when the Gold King Mine district in Colorado officially became a Superfund site. Previously, the EPA had determined that it would reimburse claims only through Oct. 31, 2015, the date that the agency ended its emergency response work. The amendment further requires the EPA to pay out all costs eligible for reimbursement.

In addition to directing the EPA to process reimbursements to governments, the Udall-Heinrich amendment includes a Sense of Congress that the agency should receive and process individual claims for damages under the Federal Tort Claims Act. So far, the EPA has not reimbursed any residents harmed by the spill.

Finally, the amendment authorizes the EPA to implement a water quality monitoring program in conjunction with state, Tribal and local governments, and to reimburse them for their expenses so far. Udall, the lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the EPA's budget, successfully included an amendment in the fiscal year 2016 budget directing the EPA to fund independent water quality monitoring, and he has included a similar provision for FY 2017. So far EPA has dedicated $2.6 million towards this effort but more is needed in future years.  The Udall-Heinrich amendment will set the policy in stone and lay the groundwork for further funding to ensure these efforts are continued as long as necessary to protect drinking water, irrigation water, and public health downstream of the Gold King Mine spill.