Gov. Martinez announces long-term task force, Sen. Heinrich says mining laws need reform
FARMINGTON — Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday announced that she is forming a long-term impact review team to monitor the effects of contaminants released last week into the Animas and San Juan rivers from the Gold King Mine in Colorado.
In a press conference at Berg Park, the governor said the team will include members of local communities and officials from several state departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, Environment Department, Department of Game and Fish, and Office of the State Engineer.
"This team will conduct research, collaborate with local communities, federal officials and, of course, members of the public," Martinez said.
The team will learn and share information about the potential long-term impact of the spill to the rivers, she said.
"As the river begins to clear up, there are still many questions that are left unanswered by the EPA. New Mexicans deserve to know the long-term effects (of) this environmental catastrophe we have experienced in our communities," she said.
Martinez said she hopes the Environmental Protection Agency will be more cooperative and forthcoming as it addresses the situation. She has said the first notification of the spill came nearly 24 hours after the incident from Southern Ute Tribe officials.
"Make no mistake, we will hold the EPA accountable and keep the EPA honest when they say they intend to hold themselves accountable to an even higher standard than a private business," she said.
If necessary, the governor said her administration is prepared to take legal action against the EPA, in conjunction with others affected by the spill.
"We are leaving all options on the table," Martinez said. "The EPA has admitted that they are responsible for the contamination."
Monitoring of both rivers continues, the governor said, adding that updates and resources can be found at nmedriverwatersafety.org.
Early Friday, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich helped fill troughs used to water livestock as local farmers and ranches relied on stored and transported water and waited for word on whether they could reopen irrigation ditches that were closed to prevent contamination from the plume of toxic wastewater.
Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, are working on legislation they believe would help prevent future spills.
That legislation, Heinrich said, "tries to reform 140 years of mining policy" by requiring hard rock mining companies to pay royalties that will help fund the remediation of abandon mines.
The Gold King Mine, spilled more than 3 million gallons of heavy-metal laden, mustard-colored wastewater into the Animas River last week after Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally breached a plug in its entrance.
"We have many, many abandoned mines that could do this again," Heinrich said as he met with emergency response teams and reporters at the San Juan County Fire Operations Center in Aztec.
Heinrich told The Daily Times in an interview that the legislation would reform the General Mining Law of 1872.
Opponents argue the act, signed into law by former President Ulysses S. Grant, allows mining companies to acquire the right to mine mineral-rich public land at little cost and to operate without government oversight.
Heinrich said the federal government has treated "hard rock minerals as a give away."
In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring mining companies to pay royalties, as is required of oil, gas and coal producers, but a similar bill died in the Senate. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is from a state with a strong mining industry, was majority leader at the time.
A bill recently introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., would create royalty payments for mining companies and levy a relatively small reclamation fee.
Heinrich said the Senate bill would be similar to Grijalva's, possibly with smaller royalty payments, but may also add language that protects well-intentioned individuals involved in environmental clean up from liability — a so-called "Good Samaritan" law.
Joe Ryan, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said Thursday such a law is long overdue.
Currently, Ryan said environmental groups risk liability by becoming involved in clean up efforts at abandoned, polluted sites.
Ryan said local groups, such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, could have taken a more active role in cleaning up the river before the spill if they were protected.
Heinrich told The Daily Times he has also been attempting to meet with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to discuss an EPA Superfund designation for the Upper Animas Mining District.
The EPA has attempted to gain a Superfund designation for the high-mountain area north of Silverton, Colo., that includes the Gold King Mine for two decades, but the agency has been blocked by local residents and former mine operators, who fear it may hurt tourism and future ming projects.
"Why this happens over and over and over again is because we don't have the funding to clean it up," Heinrich said, adding later. "We have evidence that Superfund doesn't scare tourists away. What does scare tourists? Having Tang-yellow water running through the river."
The designation would allow the EPA to perform long-term remediation of toxic sites and also seek compensation from parties liable for causing the damage.
Heinrich joined Martinez in criticizing the EPA's initial response to the spill.
He said he has been informed that the delay may have been caused by miscommunication between EPA contractors working at the site and agency officials.
"Some people on the ground didn't inform their superiors fast enough," Heinrich said, indicating it was a breach of protocol.
He said the contractors also may have tried unsuccessfully to impound the pollution in Cement Creek before it escaped into the Animas River, further slowing communication with agency officials.
"I am glad (EPA officials) called for an independent investigation," Heinrich said.
Heinrich also addressed criticism of the EPA's claim form. Navajo Nation officials have warned tribal members against using the form, which the tribe's attorney general has said will preclude claimants who receive a settlement from making future claims. In a media conference call on Friday, EPA officials said the form allows two years to file a claim, but when asked what they would do for hardscrabble farmers and ranchers who can't wait that long, they said they did not have the legal expertise to answer specific questions about the form.
Heinrich said he would like something in writing from the EPA that he can deliver to his constituents, including San Juan County and the Navajo Nation, that says if something goes wrong, they can come forward and file another claim.
After his visit to the county fire operations center, Heinrich joined fire crews taking water to a small farm between Cedar Hill and Center Point north of Aztec.
Farm owners, Jarod Ray and Levi Bridge, had shut off water to one of their fields 10 days before the plume came in because they were preparing to cut the grass and clovers before the clover could go to seed.
When they heard a plume of acid mine waste was coming down the Animas River and that the irrigation ditches they depend upon would be shut, they filled up all the troughs and buckets they had with water.
"It got us almost through the week," Ray said.
Ray and Bridge have pigs, a bull, chickens and several horses that needed water on Friday and Heinrich helped fill troughs with water from a fire truck.
Heinrich, whose family raised cows when he was a child, said he understands the frustration farmers and ranchers are feeling.
"Anyone who irrigates knows that you have a limited window," he said, adding that every day the water is off means a loss in production.
He said it is important to make policies ensuring this does not happen again.
"We've got to find a way to start cleaning up these mines and start preventing these spills before they happen," Heinrich said.