SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – When companies or governments harm New Mexico’s natural environment, many of those situations end up in court. Since 2000, New Mexico has received more than $43 million in lawsuit settlements tied to pollution, or what’s often called “natural resource damages.”

The most recent settlement, in June of this year, adds $10 million to the state’s fund. While the state is now trying to decide how to spend the funds, some lawmakers are worried the money might not reach those affected.

The latest $10 million is a payout from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) related to the Gold King Mine spill north of Farmington. In 2015, the EPA and its contractors accidentally released around 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage — which contained heavy metals and acidic water — that ultimately flowed into the Animas and San Juan Rivers, according to a report prepared for the state’s Office of the Natural Resources Trustee.

Now that the funds have been paid out, it’s up to the New Mexico Office of Natural Resources Trustee to pick restoration projects to apply the funds towards. The idea is to use the funds to make up for environmental damages.

“We are responsible for returning any affected natural resources to their pre-contamination condition,” Maggie Hart Stebbins, the natural resources trustee from the Office of Natural Resources Trustee, told a committee of legislators on Tuesday. When it’s not possible to completely restore the environment, the Natural Resources Trustee tries to compensate damaged communities for the losses, Hart Stebbins says.

The window for submitting proposals for the funds is now open. But several lawmakers expressed concerns about the bureaucratic selection process.

“Anytime I hear of the litigation . . . none of it goes to the peoples that are directly affected,” says Rep. Anthony Allison (D-San Juan). “Has any of this money ever been thought to be given to the people that actually suffered the loss of crops, the loss of the joy of farming, and just things like that?”

Environmental restoration funds certainly have gone into projects intended to benefit the public. For example, the Office of Natural Resources Trustee is currently working on a $3.5 million restoration project in the Village of Questa, New Mexico. Those funds are going towards a drinking water well, extended sewer infrastructure, and a Red River Aquatic Habitat project, according to the Office of Natural Resources Trustee. But, funds cannot go directly to individuals.

“The state’s Anti-donation Clause prohibits my office from giving funding directly to individuals,” explains Hart Stebbins. “But what we do intend to do is fund programs with broad public impact that benefit farmers, people engaged in the outdoor recreation industry, [and] any of the communities that were affected by the Gold King Mine.”

The Gold King Mine settlement with the EPA is the second largest settlement the Office of Natural Resources Trustee has received in the last two decades, according to a presentation to state legislators. The largest settlement payout was over $12.7 million related to groundwater contamination in Freeport-McMoRan mines southwest New Mexico.

To ensure that the latest settlement funds help those affected, Hart Stebbins asked legislators to engage their community to submit proposals. “We cannot fund projects that we don’t receive,” Hart Stebbins says.

To be eligible for the $10 million from the Gold King Mine, projects must have some sort of connection to the Animas or San Juan Rivers. The Office of Natural Resources Trustee will have a webinar on proposals August 24th, 2022. More information can be found here.