EPA: Water sent to Navajo Nation met standards

Dan Elliott
The Associated Press
The Animas River flows on Aug. 7 near the Colorado-New Mexico line after the Gold King Mine spill released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the river.

DENVER — New tests on water sent to Navajo Nation farmers after millions of gallons of waste spilled from a Colorado mine indicate that the emergency supply met federal and tribal standards for livestock and irrigation, federal officials say.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the results Tuesday, two months after farmers and Navajo officials said the water delivered by a contractor contained oil and was not suitable for use. The new results were consistent with earlier tests, the agency said.

The water was delivered in tanks after mustard-yellow wastewater laced with heavy metals spewed from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado on Aug. 5, polluting the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, including on the Southern Ute Reservation and the Navajo Reservation.

It was sent for Navajo farmers who use water from the San Juan for irrigation. An EPA-led crew inadvertently triggered the 3 million-gallon spill while doing cleanup work at the mine.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Thursday that he was glad the EPA released the test results, but he again said a number of the tanks contained petroleum residue, rust and other contaminants.

“Navajo farmers and ranchers could not use the water without further assurances,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “All told, Navajo farmers were left without water for over two weeks while the (Navajo) Nation awaited preliminary test results from the tanks.”

Separately, the EPA said a temporary treatment plant is ready to start cleansing metals from wastewater still draining from the mine.

Megan Oller, an assistant engineer associate with Western Solutions Inc., measures water flowing out of Gold King Mine on Aug. 10, 2015.

The $1.8 million plant is expected to begin operating Friday, EPA spokesman Christie St. Clair said. It will run for up to 42 weeks and cost $20,000 a week to operate, the agency said.

Before the spill, wastewater was flowing from the mine at 12 to 250 gallons per minute. Afterward, the rate was about 560 gallons per minute, the EPA said. For comparison, the federal standard for residential showerheads is a maximum of 2.5 gallons per minute.

The EPA said it has been discussing possible long-term cleanup plans with Colorado and local officials. The mountains around the mine are riddled with inactive mines, many of them spilling polluted water for decades, so finding a solution is complicated, the EPA said.

Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner asked the agency three weeks ago to put a high priority on a permanent treatment plant. Bennet has not received a response, a spokesman said.

Gardner’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.