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New Mexico Sues ‘Grossly Negligent’ EPA Over Mine Disaster

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor
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A lawsuit filed by New Mexico state officials charges that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its contractor broke three federal laws and was “grossly negligent” for their role in poisoning drinking water with 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals.

New Mexico filed suit against the EPA, its on-site contractor and Colorado mine owners Monday nearly 10 months after an agency crew spilled toxic waste from the facility into the Animas River, which provides drinking water for residents in three states and the Navajo Nation. (RELATED: New Mexico Sues EPA For Gold King Mine Disaster)

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants violated the federal Superfund law, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Clean Water Act by spilling the waste and failing to clean it up immediately and thoroughly. The EPA typically plays a pivotal role in enforcing all three statutes.

Additionally, New Mexico alleges that EPA’s contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, is liable for negligence, even though the crew was working under EPA orders and plans.

“Environmental Restoration’s negligence, gross negligence and intentional misconduct caused or contributed to the release of hazardous substances from the mines,” making them liable for the spill, court documents show.

Polluters can be charged for criminal negligence under the Clean Water Act, yet no one at EPA or the contractor has been punished for the spill. (RELATED: Here’s Why EPA Could Face Criminal Charges For Gold King Mine Blowout)

Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis denied land access to the EPA in 2010 due to his concerns that the “EPA would create a ‘pollution disaster,’” court documents show. Hennis allowed the agency on his property only after federal officials threatened to fine him $35,000 per day. (RELATED: Gold King Mine Owner Fears EPA’s ‘Limitless Legal Budget’)

That was only one of many warnings to the EPA that there was a significant chance of a blowout, New Mexico alleges. Meanwhile, the poisoned rivers are still unsafe for humans, according to New Mexico officials.

“Public health officials have discovered heavy-metal laden sediment in affected irrigation ditches in New Mexico, both immediately after the spill and in recent months,” court documents state.

The New Mexico Environment Department has “provided EPA with evidence that” contaminants still reappear in the state’s rivers after high-flow events, but the federal agency “has consistently discounted or ignored this evidence,” according to the documents. (RELATED: Feds Say River They Polluted Is Safe, But Won’t Test Drinking Water)

Since its initial response to the spill, the EPA “is taking no further remedial actions related to the solid or hazardous waste” in New Mexico, “despite its awareness of … a risk to human health or the environment,” according to court documents. “EPA’s actions at the Gold King Mine site do not address the imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment in New Mexico.”

New Mexico officials remain concerned that the EPA will abandon downstream cleanup now that the agency has proposed designating the Gold King Mine region a Superfund site.

The proposed area “excludes downstream reaches of the Animas River affected by the heavy metals, mine-dump runoff and other hazardous substances deposited by the Gold King Mine release,” court documents state.

Additionally, the lawsuit’s allegations closely reflect findings from previous Daily Caller News Foundation investigations and a House Committee on Natural Resources report.

Such findings include the EPA’s odd conclusion that drainage pipes were installed above, rather than at the bottom of the mine’s entrance, despite Colorado records that show otherwise, and the agency’s abnormal decision to forgo water pressure tests. (RELATED: Here Are EPA’s Mistakes That Poisoned Western Rivers)

The EPA crew also disregarded orders from an agency supervisor to wait to dig until water draining equipment was on-site when he came back from vacation, both New Mexico, TheDCNF’s investigation, and House committee investigations found.

Those findings are also the basis for New Mexico’s claim that Environmental Restoration was negligent.

Regardless, the EPA has made preparations for some spillage at Gold King, even though the agency claims breaching the mine was unintentional. But state officials said EPA didn’t even attempt to plug the leak after the mine was penetrated.

The crew, in fact, backed its equipment away from the mine entrance, pictures obtained by the Natural Resources committee reveal.

Utah and the Navajo Nation have also filed intents to sue, while Colorado Democrats killed a bill to make a lawsuit easier.

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