Almost five years to the day after its own employees’ and contractors’ negligence caused 3,000,000 gallons of toxic waste to spill out of an abandoned mine and into the Animas River, the Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to a $360 million settlement of a suit Utah filed against the agency. A February 2016 WLF Legal Pulse post discussed the accident and contrasted it to a waste spill in West Virginia of significantly less magnitude that led EPA to pursue criminal charges against the alleged perpetrators.
As discussed in our post, “evidence abounds that the Gold King Mine spill resulted from the negligence of EPA employees and contractors and the agency’s disregard of serious pollution risks” The post continues:
Prior to commencing work on August 5, the on-site EPA team failed to conduct a routine water pressure reading, the result of which would (or should) have forestalled further action. No such reading was taken, and contractors proceeded to dig into the mine’s floor with a backhoe, blowing out a plug and triggering the deluge of yellow sludge into Cement Creek, which feeds the Animas and San Juan Rivers.
EPA’s on-site coordinator, Hays Griswold, remarked at the time of the spill that “nobody expected [the water in the mine] to be that high.” Once the spill occurred, the agency delayed informing the governments of downstream states for nearly a full day. New Mexico’s environmental secretary remarked that EPA “[was] really downplaying the issue.”
Local media reported that “Utah will reap million of dollars’ worth of environmental cleanup and monitoring benefits in a ‘landmark’ agreement”— as if the settlement provided a windfall benefit to the state and its residents. The $360 million is less than a quarter of what Utah demanded to cover cleanup and remediation.
And five years later, not a single criminal charge has been filed against responsible agency or contractor employees for the type of conduct and resulting harm that routinely inspires the federal government to prosecute private businesses. We’re gratified that EPA took some responsibility for its actions, but the fact remains that federal regulators are continuing, as our 2016 blog post’s title declared, to demand accountability for thee but not for me.