EPA officials say no river access until Aug. 17
FARMINGTON — New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez Monday afternoon declared a state of emergency in San Juan County after EPA workers caused a spill that released 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.
And Environmental Protection Agency officials announced that public access to the Animas and San Juan rivers would continue to be closed until at least Aug. 17, during a 30-minute media teleconference Monday afternoon.
The heavy-metal laden water worked its way from a mine above Silverton, Colo., into a tributary that feeds the Animas River and then into the San Juan River where the rivers join in Farmington. As of Monday evening, officials said the plume of contamination was southeast of Montezuma Creek, Utah, and was headed for Lake Powell. EPA officials say the pollutants in the plume include arsenic, lead, copper, aluminum and cadmium, but have not released any detailed information on the spill that started Wednesday morning and has since been contained.
"I had the chance to see the spill with my own eyes. It is absolutely devastating, and I am heartbroken by this environmental catastrophe," Martinez said Monday in a press release. "As I've said before, I am very concerned by EPA's lack of communication and inability to provide accurate information. One day, the spill is 1 million gallons. The next, it's 3 million. New Mexicans deserve answers we can rely on."
The governor's executive order makes available an additional $750,000 in state funds. That money can be used for water well testing, studies of possible long-term effects of the spill, support for a multi-agency response team formed by Martinez, and other mitigation or response efforts, the release said.
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn issued emergency orders allowing for additional hazardous waste funding to support response efforts, according to the release.
On Friday, the New Mexico Environment Department requested and received $500,000 in state emergency funds to support the response efforts. Martinez also said the multi-agency team will remain in northwest New Mexico for an indefinite period of time as the extent of the damage is evaluated.
Martinez directed administration officials to be prepared to take legal action — along with others affected by the spill — against the EPA, the release states.
Shaun McGrath, EPA administrator for Region 8, said that agency officials are increasing their efforts to evaluate and mitigate the toxic plume that has impacted the Animas and San Juan Rivers in coordinated efforts with local, state and tribal officials.
"We do not anticipate any reopening decisions until at least August 17th," McGrath said. "The timing of these decisions could vary among local, state and tribal governments based on local conditions and by uses. And they will also vary by river segment, since the impacts to the river system depend on their distance from the source of the contamination (at the) mine. Until notified otherwise, people should continue to abide by existing closures."
McGrath said that a unified central command center in Durango, Colo., has been established to coordinate efforts from multiple states over the toxic plume.
The evaluation of whether to reopen access to the river for multiple activities and uses — including rafting, fishing, irrigation and drinking water intake — continues, he said. Local, state, EPA and tribal officials are coordinating those decisions based on risk-screening levels, sampling data and other related factors, he said.
Ron Curry, EPA administrator for Region 6, said the agency's New Mexico team has grown to 26 people — two federal on-scene coordinators, two water-quality experts and 10 technicians, plus additional contractors and EPA officials — on scene in Farmington and Aztec.
An EPA mobile command center in Farmington is located across the street from the police station on Municipal Drive, he said.
Curry said that the EPA is collecting water-quality samples from nine locations on five water systems affected by the spill — in the cities of Aztec and Farmington, the Lower Valley Water Users Cooperative Association, Morningstar Domestic Water Users Association and North Star Water Users Association.
Jared Blumenfeld, Administrator for EPA's Pacific Southwest Region, which covers the Navajo Nation, said 12 EPA officials are on hand in Farmington, Shiprock and in Window Rock, Ariz.
McGrath said the agency is committed to long-term efforts to monitor and clean up the impacted rivers.
"We are absolutely committed to the longer-term effort," McGrath said. "We are engaged across the agency at EPA to do the sampling that's going to be necessary ... and we'll be committed to work with the partnership we'll need to work with to do both the long-term clean-up and mitigation work."
The EPA set up a website for people impacted by the mine spill to make a claim of personal injury or damage at epaosc.org.