EPA rejects $20.4 million in requests for mine spill costs

FILE--In this Aug 11, 2015, file photo, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred walks along the San Juan River in Montezuma Creek, Utah, near where a spill containing lead and arsenic from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo., leaked into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River on Aug. 5, 2016. The Navajo Nation is the latest to pursue legal action against the federal government over a massive mine waste spill that tainted rivers in three Western states. (AP Photo/Matt York, file)

DENVER (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it will pay $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments for their emergency response to a mine spill that the EPA triggered, but the agency turned down $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses.

The EPA provided the figures to The Associated Press a day after informing two Indian tribes and more than a dozen state and local agencies in Colorado and New Mexico.

An EPA-led crew accidentally triggered a 3-million-gallon spill from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado while doing preliminary cleanup work in August 2015. The wastewater carried arsenic, lead, metal and other heavy metals and polluted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

The spill prompted utilities, farmers and ranchers to temporarily stop drawing from the rivers. The EPA said the water quality returned to pre-spill levels quickly.

Reimbursements for emergency response costs have been contentious. Some governments complained the EPA is rejecting legitimate expenses or taking too long.

Two bills before Congress are aimed at speeding up the reimbursement process.

The EPA said in a statement Friday it is following federal law that dictates what it can pay.

Separately, the Navajo Nation filed a claim with the federal government last week seeking $162 million in costs from the spill, including $3.1 million for unreimbursed expenses and $159 million to develop alternative water supplies, future monitoring and other costs.

One of the rivers affected by the spill, the San Juan, crosses the Navajo Nation. In addition to agriculture and drinking uses, the tribe considers the river sacred.

The EPA said the Navajo Nation had requested $1.4 million and would be reimbursed $603,000. The difference in the EPA and Navajo figures couldn’t immediately be reconciled.

Navajo Nation officials had no immediate comment Friday on the EPA’s reimbursement decisions.

Among the Navajos’ costs that EPA rejected was more than $250,000 to haul drinking water to replace supplies taken from the San Juan. The EPA did agree to pay more than $90,000 to transport water to two areas until early September 2015 but said the river quality had returned to pre-spill levels by then.

The EPA turned down requests from several local and tribal governments to be repaid for such spill-related expenses as attorney fees, future water quality monitoring and travel to testify before Congress.

The EPA agreed to pay New Mexico $1.1 million but rejected $236,000 in requests. The reimbursements are for the San Juan County cities of Aztec and Farmington, and 11 state agencies.

State Environment Secretary Butch Tongate said he was pleased the EPA was repaying the costs and said the state will pursue reimbursement for long-term monitoring as well.

The EPA’s reimbursement decisions can be appealed. None of the governments reached Friday had decided whether to do so.

La Plata County, Colorado, may decide next week, County Manager Joe Kerby said.

“We are extremely disappointed in their response,” Kerby said. “Disappointed but not surprised.”

EPA rejected some of the county’s costs because they came after Oct. 31, 2015, the day the EPA closed down its incident command center. But Kerby said the county kept accumulating response costs after that.

Kerby said the EPA has repaid the county about $377,000, and he believes the agency owes it another $29,000 in expenses.

“It’s not a huge amount, but it’s actual cost that we incurred and that our taxpayers paid for because of the spill, through no fault of our own,” he said.

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