The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Friday it isn't allowed to repay damage claims filed against it following a 2015 mine waste spill in Colorado.
In a statement, the agency said it consulted with the Justice Department on the question of the claims, which total more than $1.2 billion.
Attorneys determined that the EPA cannot pay for damages because of a legal principle called sovereign immunity, which prohibits lawsuits against the government.
The agency said individuals and businesses who filed claims against the agency can appeal Friday’s decision in federal court.
“[The law] does not authorize federal agencies to pay claims resulting from government actions that are discretionary – that is, acts of a governmental nature or function and that involve the exercise of judgment,” the agency said in a statement.
“The circumstances surrounding the Gold King Mine incident unfortunately do not meet the conditions necessary to pay claims.”
According to The Denver Post, the EPA fielded at least 73 claims totaling $1.2 billion following the August 2015 incident in which a team of agency contractors triggered a waste spill while assessing the condition of the shuttered Gold King Mine. The spill sent 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into Colorado’s Animas River.
Conditions in the region have since returned to normal. Even so, the spill incensed local landowners, farmers, tourism officials and tribes, who filed for damages against the agency.
In a separate report released on Friday, the EPA listed 10 steps it could take to bolster its response efforts following incidents like the mine waste spill, including establishing a formal response team and developing new emergency training methods.