- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2015

DENVER — EPA officials have assured those living along the Animas and San Juan rivers that water quality is back to normal, but some locals can be forgiven if they don’t entirely trust the federal government after its monster mining spill.

Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, dipped a paper cup into Cement Creek outside the Gold King Mine on Sunday, 11 days after the Aug. 5 accident, and came up with several ounces of water the color of lemonade.

“One thing I can tell you is I’m not gonna be drinking this water. Even if I put in a purifying pill, I ain’t drinking it,” Mr. Begaye said in a video of the event posted Monday on his Facebook page.

The agency announced Monday that the inspector general for the Environmental Protection Agency will investigate the cause of and response to the massive spill that unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater, moving from Colorado to New Mexico and last weekend into Utah.

In La Plata County, Colorado, and San Juan County, New Mexico, local officials reopened their water intakes from the river for drinking and farming last weekend after testing by the EPA showed the river had returned to “pre-event conditions,” as EPA administrator Gina McCarthy put it.

So far the Navajo Nation, which straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has refused to lift the ban, with Mr. Begaye saying that he will base his decision on the findings of the Navajo Nation’s own EPA.

“I will lift the advisory only upon completion of the analysis by NNEPA and assured that the water is safe,” said Mr. Begaye in a Sunday statement.

In Durango, Colorado, the community plans to celebrate the re-opening Tuesday with a “Durango is Back River and Bike Parade” along the Animas, organized by 4Corners Riversports, one of the popular rafting companies that dot the waterway.

“We’re not trying to say that everything is back to normal, we’re not trying to say that everything’s fine and dandy, but we’re trying to show people what the river really means to us and that the orange sludge is no longer flowing through the river,” said Matt Gerhardt, a 4Corners manager.

“Because obviously a lot of people, especially on the national level, think that we’ve got this completely toxic river that’s completely unusable, and that’s not the case,” he said.

His response reflects a cautious optimism among locals hoping for a return to business as usual after watching the river turn mustard-colored with metallic acid after an EPA-led team caused a blowout at the inactive mine.

What’s most worrisome at this point is the still-orange sediment on the river bottom and banks.

“We’re putting our trust in the numerous agencies that have done water testing along the Animas,” said Mr. Gerhardt. “Obviously we do still have some concern with the sediment along the bottom of the river, but we are encouraging people to just try and minimize their contact with the sediment.”

EPA Region 6 deputy area commander Chris Ruhl said in a press call Saturday that the agency continues to test and monitor water quality along the Animas and San Juan rivers, adding that, “Just because sediment may be colored it doesn’t necessarily [mean] an indication of toxicity.”

Mr. Gerhardt cited testing results from the EPA as well as the U.S. Geological Survey and other private and public agencies showing that the water was safe for recreational use.

“We’ve talked to several experts here locally and everybody is saying that if you do come into contact with the sediment, it’s not that big a deal as long as you’re not bathing in it, rubbing it all over your body,” he said. “And if you essentially just wash with soap and water afterwards, there’s really no concern as far as your health goes.”

Mr. Begaye isn’t so sure, saying in his Sunday video that he’s not yet ready for the Navajo Nation in New Mexico to starting using the San Juan River again for drinking and agriculture.

“I’m just going to say that the health of the Navajo Nation comes first with us, not the almighty dollar, and so that’s how we’re going to make our decision is to make sure the water is healthy for our animals, out livestock, our farms,” Mr. Begaye says. “We do not want to contaminate our canals and our farmland.”

The EPA has installed several settling ponds outside the Gold King Mine on Cement Creek, which continues to spew about 600 gallons per minute of contaminated water, in order to treat the flow before it hits the Animas River.

“I came back down here to see what the condition of the river is,” Mr. Begaye said in the video filmed Sunday. “This water right here flows into the Animas, and the Animas flows right into the San Juan. It’s a lot better than it was a week ago when we were here.”

“Whatever chemical they’re putting into the river is working because it’s not as yellow as before,” he said.

The EPA said in a statement Saturday that the results of sediment samples collected in the Animas River in Colorado from Bakers Bridge to north of Durango indicates “metals concentrations in sediment are generally consistent with pre-release levels.”

“Slightly elevated results for some metals were compared to risk-based screening levels,” the EPA said. “No results exceeded recreational screening levels.”

Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group in Colorado, said that he’s “comfortable” with allowing the river to be used again for drinking and agriculture.

“I think I’m comfortable with it. I’d be more comfortable if I actually saw the data,” Mr. Simon said. “I haven’t seen the results they’re making their decisions on. I’m not saying they’re making the wrong decision, I’m just saying that I haven’t seen the data.”

The EPA has posted water-quality testing results on its Web page, although the agency has been criticized for its slow turnaround time.

“People are swimming in the river. People are frolicking,” Mr. Simon said. “I wouldn’t say everyone is. Some people are a little leery, but I think we’re starting to get back to normal.”

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