Agency head: 'It pains me to see this happening'
FARMINGTON — EPA officials offered little new information Tuesday afternoon on pollution levels in the Animas River after agency workers accidentally released an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater contaminated with heavy metals into the river a week ago.
Also on Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye signed a declaration late in the evening allowing the tribe to seek funding for response efforts, according to the president's spokesman. The tribe's Commission on Emergency Management voted Sunday to declare a state of emergency.
In a 30-minute media conference call Tuesday where follow-up questions were not allowed, EPA officials said testing results from samples of polluted water spilled from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas and San Juan rivers would be released Wednesday.
In her first public comments about the mine spill, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday that the release of the mustard-colored wastewater containing arsenic, lead and other heavy metals was a "tragic and unfortunate incident."
McCarthy said the EPA is taking responsibility and working to clean it up.
"EPA is an agency whose core mission is ensuring a clean environment and protecting public health, so it pains me to see this happening," McCarthy said. "But we are working tirelessly to respond and have committed to a full review of exactly what happened to ensure it cannot happen again."
David Ostrander, director of the EPA's emergency preparedness program, said during a media call Tuesday afternoon that EPA workers continue to treat mine wastewater in four retention ponds at the Colorado mine before releasing it into a tributary that feeds into the Animas River. Ostrander said that McCarthy will tour the mine and speak Wednesdayin Durango, Colo., and Farmington.
Ostrander said analyses of water samples taken from the Animas River in Durango on Aug. 7, 8 and 9 were being "validated." He said the water quality was returning to "pre-incident" levels in Durango, compared to samples taken before the toxic plume passed through the river. But when asked for details on what specific measurements officials were using to make that evaluation, the team provided no further details.
In previous press briefings, EPA officials have confirmed that toxic sediment drops out of the plume as it moves, but have declined to speculate on what kind or level of pollution will remain. They have also said that the Animas River already has pollution from previous releases.
The New Mexico Environment Department's Water Quality Bureau released results Tuesday that showed the plume of toxic mine waste caused little to no change in the Animas and San Juan rivers' pH levels.
Before the plume arrived in Farmington, the bureau collected baseline data from three locations — two on the Animas River near Aztec and Farmington and one on the San Juan in Kirtland. The pH level before the plume arrived in Farmington was about 8.06. After the plume passed through the city, the pH ranged between 7.84 and 8.08 at those locations, according to the department.
The bureau on Friday started testing pH levels at the three sites every 15 minutes and will continue for a two-week period.
In a public meeting at the Farmington Civic Center Tuesday evening, Dennis McQuillan, a hydrologist with the state Environment Department, shared news about private domestic water wells, stating the department has tested about 40 wells located about 500 feet from the Animas River valley.
Water samples from the wells were sent to a laboratory in Albuquerque, and results are expected in about three days.
In areas where the water level of the private wells was measured and compared to the Animas River, McQuillan said the groundwater was about two feet higher than the river, and groundwater was discharging into the river, protecting the well.
He also said the state Environment Department received about 420 samples Tuesday at the water testing station at the San Juan County Sheriff's Office substation in Lee Acres in Farmington.
Also at the Civic Center meeting, EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry stressed the agency's commitment to the affected areas.
"We are doubly committed to getting the solutions that make this community feel safe and comfortable in your homes and on the farms," Curry said.
He announced a toll-free number — 1-844-607-9700 — operated by EPA staff who speak English, Spanish and Navajo who can answer questions related to the contaminated water.
Curry said four teams of EPA workers tested 14 water wells in the area on Monday and three more on Tuesday.
Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for EPA's Region 9, said the agency is making efforts to assist people who rely on well water.
"We've now contacted about 75 percent of the Navajo (people) who take their water from private wells along the San Juan River," he said.
Because of requests the EPA had received from the Lake Powell area, Blumenfeld said the agency established 12 monitoring stations along the San Juan River between Lake Powell and Farmington.
Also on Tuesday, Sharon Wirth, a Santa Fe-based Audubon New Mexico freshwater program manager who has 15 years of experience in environmental assessment and cleanup, said toxic pollution from the mine spill poses health dangers that have the potential to linger for decades.
"We will likely be witnessing the long-term, negative effects of this spill for decades to come, the full extent of which is still a big unknown," Wirth said. "This spill highlights the vulnerability of our river ecosystems and communities that depend on healthy rivers and the very real risks they face when that health is imperiled."
Late on Tuesday, San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said that after returning from a flyover of the Colorado mine, the Animas River appeared to be turning a strange shade of green.
"It's inexplicable. It really is," Carpenter said in a phone interview. "It's coming this direction."
Colorado environment department officials could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
State Attorney General Hector Balderas, Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts, Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge, Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein and San Juan County officials will address the mine spill at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the entrance to Berg Park, near San Juan Boulevard and Scott Avenue in Farmington.
Then, at 2 p.m., Balderas will also speak with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes at Rotary Park in Durango.
Ostrander said that updates on water testing will be posted at epa.gov/goldkingmine.
Reporters Joshua Kellogg and Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this story.