- The Washington Times - Monday, August 10, 2015

DENVER — The EPA isn’t terribly popular in the aftermath of its toxic wastewater blowout, and the agency didn’t gain any friends Monday by announcing that water from the Animas and San Juan rivers in two states will remain shut off for at least another week.

EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath said that river water for drinking, irrigation, rafting and fishing will not be available for communities along those rivers until at least Aug. 17, adding that, “Until notified otherwise, people should continue to abide by existing closures.”

Five water systems in New Mexico and two in Colorado have been affected. The number of consumers is unknown, but they include the residents of the Navajo Nation, where tribal leaders are demanding that the agency provide their livestock with water.

“Cattle can’t wait for test results,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in the Navajo Times.

His frustration was shared by those at a Sunday night public meeting with EPA officials in Durango, where tempers flared over the slow dribble of information from toxicology results taken along the river after the Wednesday accident that made the Animas River turn orange.

“The feeling is that people are really discontented with the way this whole thing is going,” said Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

His co-coordinator, Peter Butler, asked how the EPA could put a date on resuming water service without the testing data. The latest information on the EPA website comes from samples taken Thursday.

“That seems kind of ridiculous, but you don’t know until you have the data,” Mr. Butler said.

He said the initial samples taken from the Animas River between Silverton and Durango, the first communities hit by the accidental release from the Gold King Mine in Colorado, showed extremely high levels of lead, but that those levels would have since been diluted.

“Right now the river doesn’t look that bad,” Mr. Butler said. “It’s got a little bit of a greenish tint and there’s some orange sludge around the banks.”

While the orange plume first hit Durango, Colorado, the residents of Farmington and Aztec, New Mexico, could be worse off because their primary source of water is the Animas River, said Mr. Simon.

The EPA has also been blasted for waiting 24 hours after the spill to notify local and state authorities.

“The EPA hasn’t come forward with data, for one thing, and they were slow in reacting from the start, so they’ve got the whole community inflamed,” Mr. Simon said. “Now you’re starting to hear conspiracy theories that the EPA did this on purpose so that they could declare this a Superfund site.”

An EPA-led crew accidentally uncorked 3 million gallons of acidic orange wastewater from the Gold King Mine, which is not on the EPA’s National Priorities List, also known as Superfund, although there has been debate for years on whether to add it.

“Being listed under a National Priorities LIst makes available to a clean-up effort resources under Superfund which are significant resources,” Mr. McGrath said. “It does allow for a potentially more extensive cleanup.”

Opponents of Superfund say a listing brings more problems than it solves, such as a loss of local control, a drop in property values, and a flurry of litigation.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster emergency for the area affected by the spill, which allocates $500,000 for response efforts.

“We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to work together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Mr. Hickenlooper said Sunday.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez also declared a state of emergency Monday, freeing up another $750,000 in state funding for the response.

During a Monday press call, EPA officials said they have moved to bring in more personnel and resources to fight the spill. Ron Curry, EPA Region 6 administrator, said he has established a mobile command center in Farmington, New Mexico.

“I don’t want to speculate on what the data are ultimately going to tell us, [but] the sediment and metals are showing already that they’re on a trajectory toward pre-event conditions,” Mr. McGrath said. “We’ll have to continue to monitor that data as it comes in.”

He assured the affected communities that the EPA is “absolutely committed to the longer-term effort.”

“We are engaged across the agency at EPA to do the sampling that’s going to be necessary to inform that work,” Mr. McGrath said. “We’re going to be doing the modeling to help inform that work. We’ll be committed to work with the partners that we’ll need to work with to do the long-term clean up and mitigation work.”

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