Gov. Susana Martinez says NMED will review EPA response to spill

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Gov. Susana Martinez announced Wednesday that the New Mexico Environment Department will investigate the Gold King Mine spill that released more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers earlier this month.

The investigation will examine the spill's cause and the response from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which accepted responsibility for the accident, according to a press release from the governor's office. It is also expected to look at notification for affected residents, businesses and communities along the Animas River.

"New Mexicans deserve answers as to why this catastrophe happened and why the EPA failed to notify us in a timely manner," said Martinez in the statement.

The governor's news comes after the EPA announced Tuesday that the Department of the Interior will lead an independent review of the spill.

Also on Wednesday, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as lawmakers from Colorado and Utah, urged the EPA to answer additional questions about the spill.

The New Mexico Democrats joined Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and Mike Lee, R-Utah; in signing a bipartisan letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins Jr.

The letter welcomes Elkin's announcement that his office plans to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the spill, but it also asks Elkins to address 13 points. Among them are whether delayed release of information to local agencies caused health risks and whether additional policies should be instituted to safeguard against future spills when crews resume remediation of abandoned mine sites.

In Farmington, several state lawmakers answered questions about another letter sent earlier this week to the New Mexico Congressional Delegation. The letter asked for federal legislation to address damage caused by the mine spill.

House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, spoke at the Farmington Civic Center about the EPA's response and how to ensure affected residents receive proper compensation.

"There is a lack of confidence in the Environmental Protection Agency in terms of informing the community on what happened," Gentry said.

Gentry said he's glad the Interior Department will conduct a review of the spill because that is one of the items the local lawmakers' letter requests.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec; Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington; and Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland; also signed the letter but did not attend the meeting.

Montoya said the proposed federal legislation to compensate mine spill victims would include Navajo Nation residents. He added that federal legislation would supersede claims filed using EPA Standard Form No. 95.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has warned tribal residents to avoid using the form for claims of damage or injury, claiming it does not allow for future claims to be filed.

As sampling data are released for stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers indicating levels of heavy metals in river water and sediment are returning to levels that don't pose health risks, officials have been lifting bans on the use of river water.

Begaye said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the tribe is preparing its irrigation canals for usage. Service could be restored as soon as Saturday, unless there is evidence the water is unsafe for farming, he said.

"Right now, my goal is to open it on Saturday," Begaye said.

Aztec officials have said the city will start pumping water from the Animas River into its water treatment plant today, and Farmington plans to do the same, though that will depend on water testing results from samples taken on Monday.

Water from city municipal systems remains safe to drink.

Reporter Noel Lyn Smith contributed to this report.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.