States Affected By The Gold King Mine Spill Pressure EPA On Cleanup

Photo: Gold King Mine, Navajo Water
Melvin Jones, left, delivers water to rancher Timothy Curley along the San Juan River on the Navajo Reservation, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015, in Shiprock, New Mexico.

State and federal authorities are clashing over how best to respond to the Gold King Mine spill, which was triggered by a crew of Environmental Protection Agency contractors who were doing clean up at the long-unused mine last week.

But even as the agency takes full responsibility for what happened, it is coming under fire for what critics are calling its slow response.

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“No agency could be more upset about the incident happening or more dedicated in terms of doing our job and getting this right,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who traveled to the Durango on Wednesday to meet with local officials.

The spill was triggered Aug. 5. near Silvrton and the orange plume of wastewater laced with arsenic and lead was shocking to southwestern Colorado residents after it flowed down Cement Creek and contaminated the Animas River. It’s since flowed into the San Juan River in New Mexico headed toward Lake Powell.

The Animas and San Juan rivers have been closed to boaters and swimmers ever since. Rafting companies have been temporarily out of work. Farmers can’t use the water for their crops. In a bit of good news, McCarthy said water quality results in the Durango Colorado area were showing that levels have returned to conditions before the spill.

“So this is very good news. But I want to make sure you understand that there are additional steps that we are going to take,” she said.

McCarthy did not address the contaminants that experts say remain in the river beds.

Colorado and New Mexico residents have become frustrated with what they see as a slow EPA response, one that has left states to take matters into their own hands.

While the EPA said the rivers won’t reopen until next Monday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he thinks the river could open in a few days. And on Wednesday, Colorado gave the green light for Durango to start processing tap water from the Animas River.

“It is the type of response and communication that I am concerned about,” said Cynthia Coffman, the attorney general of Colorado. She, along with the attorneys general for Utah and New Mexico say they’re watching the EPA closely. And they won’t hesitate to apply legal pressure if it’s needed.

“It may take a lot of attention from citizens here and from the attorneys general to make sure that things are done, and done properly,” Coffman said.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says he was happy to hear that the EPA will seek independent oversight when it investigates the Gold King Mine incident. Balderas also says he’s evaluating whether the EPA plan to address environmental concerns after the spill is adequate for New Mexico.

“We would hope that they would welcome feedback in terms of whether additional resources will be needed,” he said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says his state hasn’t seen any acute effects from the spill. But it’s the orange sediment on the banks and at the bottom of the river that worries him.

“Who knows long term in terms of a chronic problem how that’s going to affect everyone. That’s our biggest concern probably right now,” Reyes said.

The attorneys general say they’ll be watching the effects over the next two to five years to ensure that land is restored and residents are compensated damages.

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