The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will finish the process of reviewing hundreds of damage claims related to the 2015 Gold King Mine spill in Colorado by the end of the month.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told The Denver Post about the timeline Monday, saying the agency will have reviewed about 400 claims from Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.
The Obama administration rejected about 70 of those claims, arguing that the government’s sovereign immunity means it cannot pay them, though the administration did pay millions of dollars to various parties injured by the spill. Pruitt promised early in his career to review the rejected claims.
“This agency, and particularly the U.S. government, caused harm to citizens in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and it had not taken steps to address that,” Pruitt told the Post.
In his time at the EPA since early 2017, Pruitt has frequently brought up Gold King Mine in public appearances and interviews to illustrate his argument that the Obama administration failed at the job of protecting the environment.
The claims were filed by businesses, individuals, local governments and others who said they suffered various harms from the August 2015 spill, including lost business and canceled trips.
A team led by the EPA accidentally caused about 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste to spill out of an abandoned mine and into a tributary of the Animas River, turning it and downstream bodies orange temporarily.
The EPA under former President Barack Obama quickly took responsibility for the spill. Reviews have found that workers could have known that the mine waste would spill, but that they acted legally and reasonably nonetheless.
Further, investigators concluded that the polluted river, which sees nearly constant leaks of mining waste, returned to its pre-spill quality days afterward.
Pruitt’s review does not mean money will come out any time soon. EPA is working with the Justice Department on the reviews, and any payment above $2,500 would have to come from a government-wide fund.
“It isn’t something exclusively that we can do on our own,” Pruitt told the Post. “We have a wide array of claims: recreation and business owners, those that were impacted from a vacation perspective, landowners, farmers and ranchers.”