County officials say access to rivers is still closed until further notice
FARMINGTON — Days after a plume of mine toxic waste was released into the Animas River, government officials had many questions and few answers.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken responsibility for the spill, but New Mexico officials are upset with the agency's delay in getting the information to impacted communities.
"It's completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately," said Gov. Susana Martinez on Saturday after flying over the affected rivers and meeting with residents at Berg Park.
New Mexico Environment Department officials did not know about the spill until Thursday morning, when a representative from the Southern Ute Tribe in Colorado called them with the news, said the department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure, who attended Saturday's meeting.
"Once we got that, then we got on the phone," she said.
At Saturday's meeting, Martinez vowed to "do whatever it takes to make sure the EPA is held accountable." She also demanded the federal agency send a mobile lab to test water in San Juan County.
Martinez flew over the river in a helicopter before the meeting.
"I can't even describe it to you," she said. "It is devastating to see."
San Juan County has closed access to the Animas River and the San Juan River downstream of the confluence of the two rivers until further notice. County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter signed a declaration of emergency for the river on Friday evening.
"They will not open up again until I get a green light from the EPA or the state environment department," he said when reach by phone on Saturday.
Before access to the river is reopened, Carpenter said he needs to know contact with the water is safe.
At Saturday afternoon's meeting, Martinez and state Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn also reiterated that residents who use wells in the Animas River floodplain or the San Juan River floodplain below the confluence should not drink the water or use it to bathe or cook.
"Boiling the water will not remove the contaminants," Martinez said.
On Monday, state Environment Department staff will collect samples from houses with wells that could be contaminated, Flynn said. Department employees will also offer water testing at the San Juan County Fair on Monday.
But officials also stressed that residents who get water from city water systems should not be concerned.
"If you get a water bill every month, your water is safe," Flynn said.
However, livestock owners should use potable water for their animals. Majure said the state is also looking at other sources of water for livestock.
The Bureau of Reclamation on Friday morning released water from Navajo Dam, and that has helped the river downstream from the confluence, Martinez and Flynn both said. The bureau raised the flow rate in the San Juan River from 650 cubic feet per second to 1,300 cubic feet per second, Flynn said.
"Dilution is really the solution right now," Flynn said.