WASHINGTON, Aug. 11 (UPI) — Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told reporters Tuesday the agency’s accidental release of toxic mining wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River last week “pains” her.
Speaking in Washington, D.C., McCarthy said the agency is committed to cleaning up the waterway and ensure the health and safety of residents.
On Wednesday, some 3 million gallons of water contaminated with zinc, iron, cooper and other heavy metals broke free of a barrier of unconsolidated debris at the abandoned Gold King Mine, dumping the water into Cement Creek. The creek empties into Animas River, which runs south through Durango, Colo., and into New Mexico and Utah.
Monitors from Utah’s Department of Water Quality continue to collect samples from four locations along the San Juan River. They say that while the plume was expected to have crossed into Utah yesterday, DWQ inspectors have not seen any changes in water color and pH levels have remained constant over the last few days.
Yet, according to Evan O’Keefe, supervisor of the San Juan County Geographical Systems Department, pH evidence suggests the plume has now reached the San Juan River and has spread beyond the town of Aneth.
“If the contaminated plume has in fact arrived in Utah as predicted, the pH data suggests that natural processes in the San Juan River have neutralized the plume’s acidity,” said DWQ. “It is important to note that at higher pH values, such as pH 8, metals such as copper, cadmium, lead, and zinc are less soluble and more likely to settle as sediment. This means the metals are less bioavailable (able to be absorbed by the body).
“DWQ is processing water samples to analyze for total metals (dissolved plus undissolved) and dissolved metals. A dissolved metals analysis of a water sample removes the particulates with a filter and analyzes the filtered water for metals. Analyzing for both total metals and dissolved metals helps to ensure that the plume will be detected even if most of the metals have switched from dissolved to undissolved.”
In the meantime, DWQ continues to coordinate with the Utah Department of Health and the San Juan County Department of Health to provide information for people using San Juan River water. At this time, the San Juan County Department of Health recommends that river recreationists bring their own drinking water and not use river water until data are available to confirm that pollutants in the river are at acceptable concentrations for drinking.
Mustard yellow water flowed down the river, leaving a thick sediment and prompting authorities to close access to the river until at least Monday, USA Today reported.
“This is a tragic and unfortunate incident, and EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that it is cleaned up,” McCarthy said. “The most important thing throughout this is ensuring the health and safety of the residents and visitors near the river. We are committed to helping the people throughout the Four Corner Regions who rely on these rivers for their drinking water, irrigation water and recreation. We know how important it is to them.
“EPA is an agency whose core mission is ensuring a clean environment and protecting public health, so it pains me to see this happening.”
EPA on-scene coordinator Hayes Griswold told San Juan County, Colo., officials the breach was caused when a team of EPA officials attempted to pump liquid from the mine for treatment. He said the team underestimated how much pressure was behind debris that plugged the mine’s entrance as it attempted to insert a pipe into the top of the mine.
“We were very careful,” Griswold said.
New Mexico Go. Susana Martinez called the spill “devastating” in a news release Monday.
“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,” she said.
Martinez declared a state of emergency, freeing up an additional $750,000 in funds to test water and study the potential long-term effects of the spill. The new funds are in addition to $500,000 the New Mexico Environment Department had previously requested and received.