Officials urge EPA to hasten Gold King response

Brett Berntsen
From left, Farmington City Council members  Linda Rodgers, Sean Sharer and Nate Duckett, Farmington Mayor Tommy Roberts, San Juan County Chief Executive Officer Kim Carpenter and city of Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein participate in a Gold King Mine meeting on Tuesday at the Sycamore Park Community Center in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – Local, state and tribal officials gathered at the Sycamore Park Community Center gym in Farmington today for a roundtable discussion aimed at prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address lingering concerns from the Gold King Mine spill.

The meeting was convened by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who billed it as an opportunity to combine voices and "hold the EPA accountable for damages." Topping the list of grievances for most parties was the struggle to secure compensation for response efforts and losses in the wake of the spill.

“To this day, many farmers haven’t been reimbursed,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said. “That’s been an ongoing battle.”

Triggered last August by an EPA crew working to clean up abandoned mines near Silverton, Colo., the blowout released a toxic plume of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers. The crisis forced the closure of irrigation ditches, resulting in widespread losses for local farmers. Begaye said the image of a "yellow river" has also left a lasting stain on the area's agricultural reputation.

"People are still leery," he said.

Farmington officials also noted that the city has not received full compensation for the $516,000 it spent on spill response measures, including the purchase of a $260,000-sensor system to protect the city’s drinking water supply from lingering contamination in the Animas River. Mayor Tommy Roberts said the city has received $110,000 so far.

Alexis Strauss, acting director of the EPA’s Region 9 office, represented the agency via a video feed. She said the EPA has allocated $3 million to states and tribes for emergency response costs. She said additional claims are currently under review and handled by the U.S. Justice Department rather than the EPA's regional offices.

“Those decisions are imminent and will be announced very soon,” Strauss said.

According to a retrospective report compiled by the agency for the one-year anniversary of the spill, the EPA has dedicated a total of $29 million toward response measures. Costs include $7.3 million for sampling and analysis, and $5 million for agency personnel. The report states that the EPA is currently in the process of awarding $2 million in grant money to states and tribes for water quality monitoring.

From left, Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye participate in a round table discussion on the Gold King Mine on Tuesday at the Sycamore Park Community Center in Farmington.

Funding such programs has become a divisive subject between the state and the federal agency. The New Mexico Environment Department has criticized the scope of the EPA’s long-term monitoring plan, pushing for funding to develop its own.

Bruce Yurdin of the NMED's Surface Water Quality Bureau told officials at the meeting that the department has only received 10 percent of what it considers necessary to study the impact of contaminants released during the spill.

Such disparities prompted the recent lawsuits filed by New Mexico against the EPA, the state of Colorado and several mining companies. Begaye said today that he supports the string of legal actions, and the Navajo Nation is considering filing litigation of its own.

In addition to the issue of restitution, the discussion also delved into methods to address future incidents.

“There’s a large possibility that this could happen again,” San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said.

Aside from the Gold King site, the EPA has identified dozens of surrounding mines in the Silverton area with the potential to leach toxic water into the Animas River. This analysis has sparked renewed interest in designating the historic mining district as a Superfund site, which would provide funding and resources for cleanup efforts.

Nevertheless, local officials stressed the importance of a backup plan.

Carpenter said that during emergency situations downstream communities could utilize a pipeline running to Lake Nighthorse, a reservoir that draws from the Animas River near Durango. Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said the city has "theoretical" rights to the reservoir, however no direct access. The city would receive the water through the Animas River.

"But if the river is contaminated none of that matters," Mayes said.

Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein mentioned the possibility of connecting communities to the San Juan River upstream of its confluence with the Animas.

Another concern revolved around communication barriers between federal, state and tribal agencies.

State Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, said that the mine spill spanned multiple jurisdictions, making it difficult to disseminate information.

“That was the area that was most frustrating,” Clahchischilliage said.

She suggested that lawmakers look into drafting legislation that would help different government bodies communicate during emergencies.

As the meeting drew to a close, Rep. Luján asked officials to compile a list of their concerns for submission to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. He said the spill has captured the attention of congress, and efforts to fund response programs have drawn bipartisan backing.

"There's broad support across the country," Luján said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.