SANTA FE, NM (AP) – A catastrophic eruption at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado released tons of toxic metals and acidic waste into the Animas and San Juan Rivers in 2015, resulting in a settlement with the state of May 11 Million dollars led New Mexico.

One open pit worked so hard on Questa’s surface and groundwater that it was placed on a federal superfund list, which recently resulted in a $ 2.3 million payout to cover water improvements.

And the State Department of the Environment recently sued the US Department of Energy for alleged slow and inadequate efforts by the agency to clean up nuclear waste generated during the Cold War and the Manhattan Project.

These cases are examples of how New Mexico is stepping up its environmental stewardship – one of the promises Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham made when she took office, the Santa Mex New Mexican reported.

The Natural Resources Bureau, which played a key role in the Gold King and Questa cases and pursues even greater pollution claims, has full staff and funding for the first time in years. It is an independent agency that works with the Environment Department and the Attorney General to assess the damage contaminants are causing to natural resources and then seek compensation from polluters.

Funding for the Natural Resources Bureau and Department of the Environment has improved, but officials at the agency believe more money is needed to address the state’s pollution issues.

“I think we will need more staff in the future,” said Maggie Hart Stebbins, trustee for natural resources. “At the moment we recognize the financial constraints of the state and get by with what we have.”

Hart Stebbins was appointed in December 2019. Before that, the position had been vacant for nearly a decade, and the environmental secretaries did the best they could.

Under former Governor Susana Martinez, a fund used to assess environmental damage and create cases against polluters shrunk to about $ 17,000, Hart Stebbins said. She said this fund would bring legal action to a standstill, even for big cases like the Gold King’s spill. “All work that was in progress has been brought to a halt.”

At the request of Lujan Grisham, Hart Stebbins said, lawmakers pumped $ 2.5 million into the valuation fund.

Having a trustee dealing with environmental damage is critical to settling cases like Gold King, and the valuation fund is critical to making a legally reasonable estimate of the damage, she said.

In the Gold King case, the damage was estimated at $ 1 million, so part of the settlement will be paid for to restore the contaminated area. The remaining $ 10 million will go to the Attorney General and the Department of the Environment to aid state enforcement.

Current plans include disbursing future Gold King settlement funds to affected local governments to aid farmers and economic development, said Matt Baca, a attorney general’s spokesman.

He also said the attorney general is using teams of scientists, economists and other experts to bolster the state’s cases and hold polluters accountable.

In the meantime, the Ministry of the Environment is making some gains in funding and staffing.

The agency’s budget has been cut by 42% over the past three years Martinez was in office. It has recovered about 22% of its spending, department officials have said.

“We have been in decline for many years,” said Environment Secretary James Kenney. “We do better, but we’re deep in a hole and we’re trying to get out of a hole.”

Last year, the agency’s funding increased 4%, much less than the governor’s proposed 14.5% increase, Kenney said. He’s now calling on lawmakers to add $ 3.7 million to his agency’s general fund. He believes a 28% increase is needed to properly monitor occupational safety and the environment.

The agency is understaffed and has to make tough decisions, Kenney said. When companies spill chemicals or haggle with Los Alamos National Laboratory over hazardous waste disposal, they are forced to forego other violations.

“You don’t want to choose one community over another,” said Kenney. “Our job is to protect all communities equally. But we can’t. “

Hart Stebbins said the $ 2.5 million allocation so far has been sufficient. However, your office is preparing to step into more complex cases that are likely to require more resources.

For example, she plans to study areas around Grants and Milan that are contaminated by uranium mining. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies have investigated these areas, so their office will examine the data for possible effects on natural resources.

In the meantime, a consultant for her office is investigating the widespread contamination of the laboratory in Los Alamos. Some of the laboratory waste reached Lake Cochiti.

The investigation into contamination of the off-site laboratory began years ago and there is no way of predicting when it will be completed, Hart Stebbins said.

Your agency will also look into the state’s cases against two air bases releasing toxic chemicals known as PFAS – short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

The environmental department is investigating PFAS pollution in Cannon near Clovis and Holloman near Alamogordo. Hart Stebbins said her office will use this data to assess how badly PFAS has damaged the natural resources of these areas.

The roles of the agencies in such collaborative actions are clearly defined, she said.

In this case, the environmental department’s job is to make sure the water is purified according to health standards, she said. The attorney general may seek to compensate those who have suffered economic losses, such as: B. Farmers.

Your office would be working on projects to replace the contaminated water and protect other water sources.

In Questa, for example, they are paying settlement money for a new drinking water well and the expansion of the sewer pipes to prevent future nitrate contamination, she said.

Assessing the areas contaminated by PFAS could cost their agency $ 750,000, underscoring why the agency will need more money in the years to come, Hart Stebbins said.

“So $ 2 million seems like a lot,” she said, “but for a complicated case it can be absorbed pretty quickly.”