N.M. seeking ideas for how to spend Gold King Mine settlement, but no direct cash to individuals

New Mexico is accepting requests to help disburse $10 million in settlement funds from the 2015 Gold King Mine spill that yellowed rivers and caused immense economic and environmental damage to the region.

However, some lawmakers in northwest New Mexico questioned why the funds can only be given to governments or nonprofits on behalf of those affected, not directly to farmers or others individually affected by the spill, during a legislative session on Tuesday.

State officials tasked with administering the settlement cited the state’s anti-donation clause as the reason. But they said the programs they hope to fund will help restore the watershed and trade in the region.

On August 5, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency contractors monitored seepage at the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. They excavated an area over a mine opening, and the bedrock collapsed, releasing 3 million gallons of waste into a tributary of the Animas River.

NM Reaches $32M Settlement for 2015 Gold King Mine Spill That Yellowed Animas River

The water, contaminated by tailings from gold mining that ended in the 1990s, flooded the Animas River and San Juan River watersheds, turning their waters bright yellow. The residues contained heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, as well as other toxic elements such as arsenic, iron and copper.

The communities in the Four Corners suffered in big, measurable ways as the cloud drifted down the river. Farmers on the Navajo Nation and in areas around Farmington could not irrigate. No one used the river for recreation or fishing.

Since the 2015 oil spill, tribal and state leaders in Colorado and New Mexico have filed multiple lawsuits seeking damages from the mine owners, EPA contractors, and the EPA. In June, world leaders gathered in Farmington to announce a $32 million settlement with the EPA.

The water is now safe for farming or recreational use, but leaders say a stigma remains that continues to hurt farmers and keep tourists away.

Under the settlement agreement announced in June, the United States will reimburse New Mexico $18.1 million for emergency response costs, $10 million for natural resource restoration, and an additional $3.5 million for improvement of state water quality and purification. The Navajo Nation also received a separate $31 million settlement.

Of the state funds, the $10 million restoration will be overseen by Maggie Hart Stebbins, New Mexico Trustee of Natural Resources.

The money is available to local governments and state agencies to restore or replace natural resources or services they provide, including outdoor recreation and agriculture. According to an Aug. 12 press release from Stebbins’ office, non-governmental organizations are encouraged to work with public authorities.

The New Mexico Natural Resources Trustee has also already identified four $1 million projects it received from an $11 million agreement with mining companies whose backlogs caused the chaos. These projects include soil restoration in San Juan County, an irrigation system project in the Tse Dáá K’áán Chapter, a new boat ramp on the Animas River, and a farmers’ market pavilion in Farmington.

At a legislative hearing on the settlement this week, Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland) said he keeps hearing about individual farmers and families who are suffering and wonders why the settlement money isn’t just going directly to them could.

“Has it ever been thought of giving some of this money to the people who have actually suffered? The crop loss? The loss of the joy of farming?” he said. “I know it passed through the coffers of the state of New Mexico, but people out there are still suffering.”

Stebbins then said the state’s anti-donation clause prohibits this type of individual compensation. The clause is an anti-corruption measure designed to ensure that government funds are used for public purposes and not for the enrichment of private entities or individuals.

“But we intend to fund programs with broad public impact that will benefit farmers, people who are involved in the outdoor recreation industry, any communities that have been impacted by the Gold King mine in the ways you describe,” said you .

State and federal officials announce the $32 million settlement in June. Pictured from left are Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe, Attorney General Hector Balderas, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham snf NM Environment Secretary James Kenney on Thursday June 16, 2022 in Farmington, NM (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM )

Allison suggested making an exception to the anti-donation clause specifically for farmers affected by the oil spill. Such a change would require an amendment to the state constitution, which would have to be approved by both chambers of the legislature and also by the electorate.

Allison earlier this year pushed for another change to the anti-donation clause to allow the state to connect individual homes to electricity and other utilities. The measure passed both houses of the legislature and will now go to voters on November 8th.

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