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Utah reimbursed for Gold King Mine spill's initial costs; lawsuit weighed

FILE - Hydrologic Technician Ryan Parker gathers water samples from the San Juan River, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in Montezuma Creek, Utah.
FILE - Hydrologic Technician Ryan Parker gathers water samples from the San Juan River, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in Montezuma Creek, Utah.
Matt York, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — State environmental regulators said Tuesday they have been fully compensated for their initial costs incurred during the response to the 2015 Gold King Mine spill, but a lawsuit against the federal government remains under consideration.

Overall, reimbursement payments from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency come to about $464,000, fully compensating the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for its initial response.

Utah lawmakers set aside $500,000 during the session that ended earlier this month to pay for litigation, if necessary, against the federal agency.

"We are currently investigating and evaluating the options available to the state, including ongoing negotiations with the EPA," said Daniel Burton, a spokesman with the Utah Attorney General's Office.

Burton added that $500,000 has been set aside as the office continues to review potential legal action.

Last month, attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice asked a federal judge to dismiss lawsuits brought by New Mexico and the Navajo Nation as a result of the spill, which sent 3 million gallons of water contaminated with heavy metals into three states, including Utah.

An EPA-contracted work crew breached the Gold King Mine, sending a release of mustard-colored sludge into the Animus River near Silverton, Colorado. From there, the sludge — filled with lead and arsenic — spread out into a plume that sparked an intense response by states. The spill contaminated the San Juan River after it entered Utah and ended at Lake Powell, where the full impact of the sediment deposited is being evaluated.

In response to the lawsuits, Justice Department attorneys argued that the EPA had immunity from the spill, which New Mexico and other critics insist has been minimized by the federal agency in terms of the environmental impact and duration of the remediation.

The spill required Utah water quality scientists to return to the San Juan River in 2016 to monitor how much metals-laden sediment might be churned up with spring runoff. Additional monitoring is expected to be carried out this spring.

Congress passed legislation that directs up to $4 million to be paid to states and tribes and other entities for longtime monitoring of impacted waterways. The law went into effect in 2016.

Other entities receiving reimbursement via the Utah Department of Environmental Quality include San Juan County and the Utah Department of Natural Resources.