Top EPA official observes water testing in Farmington

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said Wednesday evening at an EPA field office in Farmington that the problems of Colorado's Upper Animas Mining District extend far beyond the Gold King Mine.

In a one-on-one interview, McCarthy told The Daily Times the mines that pockmark the mountains surrounding Silverton, Colo., leaking toxic waste into the Animas River watershed need to be evaluated.

McCarthy pointed out the EPA has been asking for two decades for a Superfund designation in the region, which would make federal funds available for controlling the pollution.

However, some Silverton residents and former mine operators, who fear it may discourage tourism and future mining projects, have opposed the designation.

"There is a concern that it's a visible stain on the community," McCarthy said. "But could anything be a bigger stain than this?"

McCarthy was in Farmington Wednesday evening with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., to observe the testing of river water at the EPA Region 8 field office located on Apache Street.

Asked why it has taken so long to release water-quality testing results, McCarthy said the EPA does not want to make a determination that the river water is safe for use before reaching a consensus on the matter with local, state and Navajo Nation officials.

"We just want to be sure that we are sure," she said, adding later. "We don't want the states to say, 'We disagree.'"

McCarthy is also expected to speak in Farmington today and to meet with Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and his administration.

Luján joined Colorado and New Mexico congressmen, including U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., in calling for the creation of a water treatment plant in the Upper Animas River. The water treatment plant would remove toxic metals such as lead and cadmium that are leeching from the mines near Silverton.

A water treatment plant previously operated on the Animas River near Silverton, but shutdown in 2003.

Luján said Wednesday evening local and federal officials need to have a serious discussion about what they will do about the pollution in the region.

"There needs to be a long-term conversation about the immediacy of what needs to be cleaned up for all of the other mines,"Luján said. "Where this issue can be pending still (a similar accident) could have the same, detrimental impact on our communities."

Luján also mentioned the additional resources that could be made available through a Superfund designation.

The congressmen on Wednesday also asked President Barack Obama in an open letter to address the lack of potable water in the many affected communities along the Animas and San Juan rivers.

McCarthy said at the testing site in Farmington that the EPA needs to focus on the immediate problems plaguing the area, but still needs to take "a long-term view."

Heavy metals and other pollutants fell out of the waste plume as it slowly moved downstream creating a yellow sediment on the river beds and irrigation ditches that could be stirred up by storm runoff and other events for years to come.

"We are not just working on short-term clean up," she said.

McCarthy said Wednesday afternoon at a press event in Durango the agency takes "full responsibility" for the spill last week at the Gold King Mine.

An EPA on-scene coordinator, explaining how the spill happened, said Monday his crew was working to drain the mine of acidic, polluted water, but underestimated the water pressure in the mine.

Three million gallons of heavy-metal laden mine waste burst forth from the mine's mouth and drained into the Animas River, where it was carried downstream into the San Juan River.

McCarthy said at the press event both independent and internal reviews of the incident are underway and mine remediation operations are under increased scrutiny throughout the country to ensure a similar event does not happen.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said at a separate press conference in Durango, also attended by the attorneys general of Colorado and Utah, that he was "pleased" to hear McCarthy acknowledge culpability.

Balderas said his office would use the independent review to determine whether to take legal action against the federal government. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she thinks it is too early to say whether litigation is necessary or appropriate.

"I have some reassurance by the fact the EPA has acknowledged responsibility and said they are going to respond to claims. I think the federal government deserves an opportunity to do that," she said.

The attorneys generals said each one is reviewing information as it becomes available.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said she was visiting Durango to see what is happening to the Animas River and to hear from residents. Coffman said she visited the river Wednesday morning and noticed orange sediment on its banks, bottom and rocks.

She attributed the orange sediment to the plume that carried toxic metals from the mine. Despite its clear appearance, officials have not released information about the spill's long-term effects, she said.

"This is not the end of the story, this is the beginning," Coffman said.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also was in Durango Wednesday and reportedly drank river water — after it was treated with iodine to kill giardia and E. coli — to show it was safe.

During a meeting held at the Farmington Civic Center Wednesday evening to update residents on the impacts of the spill, New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said no one should be drinking river water under the best of circumstances and that Hickenlooper's actions could send the wrong message to parents and children.

"If it's true, it's a reckless and irresponsible act by a public official," Flynn said. "He might as well stick 15 cigarettes in his mouth and light them all at the same time and take a picture about how that's good for you."

At the attorneys general press conference, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced that Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had declared a state of emergency in response to the Gold King Mine contamination, which was expected to flow down the San Juan River into Lake Powell.

Utah joins Colorado, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe and other governmental entities in making that declaration.

Reyes said the attorneys generals hope to visit the mine site and talk face-to-face with McCarthy. Those requests have not been answered, they said.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said during the conference that he met with mayors, commissioners and emergency responders in San Juan County.

"At this time, I'm very concerned that they have limited water resources and that they are managing those water resources by sharing ... because there is a fear and confusion (about) the data in terms of how safe the river is currently today, so I was glad to hear the administrator is going to be providing an update," Balderas said.

However, as of late Wednesday night, no testing data had been posted on an EPA website created to provide information on the spill.

He added that his office will monitor the federal claims system to make sure federal funding is accessible to residents and municipalities. He said the federal government needs to provide complete transparency.

Earlier in the day, Balderas visited Farmington to get a first-hand look at how local leaders are responding to the toxic mine waste plume that hit the Animas and San Juan rivers.

During a visit at Berg Park, he spoke with Aztec Mayor Sally Burbridge, Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein, Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts and Kirtland Mayor Mark Duncan.

Reporter Joshua Kellogg contributed to this report.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.