EPA says it can't pay damages from Gold King Mine spill

DENVER -- The Environmental Protection Agency will not repay claims totaling more than $1.2 billion for economic damages from a mine waste spill the agency accidentally triggered in Colorado, saying the law prohibits it.

The EPA said Friday the claims could be refiled in federal court, or Congress could authorize payments.

But attorneys for the EPA and the Justice Department concluded the EPA is barred from paying the claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.

An official announcement is planned later Friday. The Associated Press was provided the outlines of the decision in advance.

A total of 73 claims were filed, some by farmers who lost crops or had to haul water because rivers polluted by the spill were temporarily unusable for irrigation and livestock. Rafting companies and their employees sought lost income and wages because they couldn't take visitors on river trips. Some homeowners sought damages because they said their wells were affected.

The August 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado released 3 million gallons of wastewater tainted with iron, aluminum, manganese, lead, copper and other metals. Rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah were polluted, with stretches of waterway turning an eerie orange-yellow.

Some of the affected rivers pass through Indian reservations.

An EPA-led contractor crew triggered the spill while doing exploratory excavation work at the mine entrance in advance of a possible cleanup. The Gold King is one of hundreds of inactive mines in the Colorado mountains that continuously spew polluted water into rivers or have the potential to do so.

The EPA has designated the area a Superfund site to pay for a broad cleanup. Initial research is underway.

State, federal and tribal officials have been harshly critical of the EPA for causing the spill and for its handling of the aftermath, including the costs. The Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico have already sued the agency in federal court, and other lawsuits are likely after Friday's announcement.

Last month, the EPA said it would pay $4.5 million to state, local and tribal governments to cover the cost of their emergency response to the spill, but the agency rejected $20.4 million in other requests for past and future expenses, again citing federal law.

Two members of Colorado's congressional delegation criticized that decision, saying Congress passed a law in December that removed some of the legal obstacles the EPA cited in turning down the $20.4 million.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-elliott.

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