Interior Department will review Gold King Mine spill

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that the federal Department of the Interior will lead an independent review of the Gold King Mine spill that released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River from an abandoned mine north of Silverton, Colo., earlier this month.

The review's goal is to provide the EPA an analysis of the incident and any contributing causes, according to an EPA press release. The Interior Department's assessment is expected to be released in about 60 days.

Also in response to the spill, San Juan County lawmakers sent a letter to the New Mexico Congressional Delegation asking for federal legislation to address damage caused by the mine spill.

The letter, dated Tuesday, is signed by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque; Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec; Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington; Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland; and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.

Several of the lawmakers are expected to speak about the letter during a 1 p.m. press conference today at the Farmington Civic Center.

In the letter, the representatives state they want legislation requiring an independent environmental impact study on the immediate and long-term effects of the spill and to investigate the EPA's action before, during and after the incident. They also ask the EPA to compensate those affected by the spill and to create a plan for monitoring the spill's effects in both northern New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation.

The letter adds that such legislation would not be unprecedented. It points out that after the Los Alamos Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 devastated northern New Mexico, legislation was passed to create a Federal Emergency Management Agency office to process claims to compensate victims.

The blaze stemmed from a National Park Service prescribed burn that spread out of control, destroying hundreds of homes and causing nearly $1 billion in damages.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also released statements Tuesday afternoon thanking the Senate Indian Affairs Committee for agreeing to hold an oversight hearing on the impact of the mine spill.

Earlier in the day, the senators sent a letter asking the chairman of the committee, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and the vice chairman, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to hold a hearing on both the spill and other EPA activities, including the "cleanup of Cold War era uranium mining."

After touring the mine site and the Animas River from a helicopter, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson made a campaign stop in Durango, Colo. In a statement, Carson said the EPA, which has taken responsibility for the spill, needs to be accountable to the impacted residents and businesses.

"For too long, the EPA has used coercion instead of consensus; fines instead of finesse; penalties and punishments instead of pragmatism," he said in a statement. "If we want a better environment for our children, these practices must stop. Our environment needs solutions, not scolding and scapegoating."

Meanwhile, restrictions along the San Juan River remain in effect on the Navajo Nation.

The tribe's Office of the President and Vice President continued on Tuesday to advise tribal members against using water from the river for livestock watering, crop irrigation or recreational purposes, said a spokesman for the office, Mihio Manus.

Officials do not have an estimate for when the restrictions will be lifted, but Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye is expected to address that after more data is released by both the U.S. EPA and the tribe's EPA, Manus said.

"I cannot give you a date or time," he said.

The city of Aztec announced Tuesday it will start pumping water from the Animas River to its water treatment plant on Thursday. Aztec and Farmington stopped drawing from the river after the mine spill released pollutants into the Animas and then the San Juan rivers.

Aztec City Manager Josh Ray said officials felt comfortable pumping from the river after water testing results were released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New Mexico Environment Department and the city of Farmington.

"We made sure to check the headgate and river pump to make sure neither of those are contaminated," Ray said.

As previously reported, Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes announced Monday that the city plans to resume piping river water to its treatment plant on Thursday if independent tests conducted Monday confirm that is safe.

Water from city municipal water systems remains safe to drink.

Reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this report.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.