DENVER — The EPA is known for its hard line on environmental offenders, but its own accountability is being challenged after its agents unleashed a disastrous toxic spill threatening water supplies in four Western states and two Indian reservations.
The agency revised Sunday its estimate on the spill from 1 million gallons to 3 million as regional officials came under fire for waiting 24 hours before alerting authorities that a crew at the Gold King Mine had accidentally uncorked the orange, acidic brew now spreading from Colorado to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
“There is widespread frustration with the EPA’s initial response and the lack of information coming out of the agency — the poor communication is unacceptable,” said Rep. Scott R. Tipton, Colorado Republican. “If a mining operator or other private business caused the spill to occur, the EPA would be all over them.
“The EPA admits fault, and as such must be accountable and held to the same standard,” Mr. Tipton said.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Sunday that he will sue the EPA for “millions of dollars.” The reservation sits in the path of the contaminated water via the San Juan River, which merges with the Animas in New Mexico.
“We are going to make EPA pay for this,” Mr. Begaye told the Navajo Times.
EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath took responsibility for the spill Saturday, but the agency is receiving little sympathy from Western lawmakers and others who have found themselves too often pleading for mercy from the EPA for less-egregious violations.
“Imagine what would happen if a private company caused this waste spill,” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said in a statement.
“This was caused by the EPA and the EPA should demand the same of itself as it would of a private business responsible for such a spill, particularly when it comes to making information available to the public and state and local officials,” she said.
Mr. McGrath has admitted to missteps, notably the agency’s decision to wait a day before sounding the alert after the accident at the abandoned mine near Silverton, Colorado. Contaminated water from the mine flooded into Cement Creek at 10:40 a.m. Wednesday, but it wasn’t until Thursday that townsfolk downriver got the word.
“When the event happened Wednesday, the people on the ground misinterpreted, misread the severity of the impact,” Mr. McGrath said during a Saturday press call from Durango, Colorado.
“We believed in the first day that it was going to be a smaller discharge, it was going to be limited to Cement Creek, and as a result our response was designed to the impacts we were anticipating,” Mr. McGrath said. “We misjudged. And this is something that I’m owning up to.”
He said his office did not contact EPA Region 6 Administrator Ron Curry, who oversees New Mexico, until the next day, nor anyone in La Plata County nor Durango, even though the river runs directly through the town of 16,000.
“As a result, the message to my colleague Ron Curry was delayed. It was a day delayed, and we do apologize for that,” said Mr. McGrath. “On the other side of it, though, as soon as we understood the significance of release, we have ramped up accordingly and have really done the outreach to states, to tribes, to the local governments, to try to be as transparent with information, to get information out as quickly as we can. So that situation has changed.”
The contamination has already reached New Mexico and is expected to cross into the Navajo Nation in Arizona’s northeastern corner. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, which flows into Utah, where it connects to the Colorado River via Lake Powell.
In Colorado, La Plata County and the city of Durango declared a state of emergency Sunday. Water supplies for residential users and agriculture drawn from the waterways have been shut off in Colorado and New Mexico. Stretches of the river have been closed to the public indefinitely.
The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell, posted a warning Saturday to visitors: “Do not drink, fish, or swim the waters of San Juan arm until further notice.”
An EPA team was testing the waters from sites on rivers and posting results as they became available. Officials could not say what exactly is in the contaminated fluid, although dissolved heavy metals, including traces of lead and arsenic, are part of the mix.
The agency has since installed settling ponds at the mine site to treat the water before it heads downstream. Even after the water has been declared safe, Mr. McGrath said, the contamination will remain in the water in the form of sediment.
“This is going to be a long-term impact,” Mr. McGrath said. “The sediment, the metals that are in that sediment, are going to settle out to the stream bottom. As we have storm surges, as we have flooding events, that sediment can and likely will get kicked back up into the water, and we’re going to have to do ongoing monitoring and then potential closures in the future as well.”
In Durango, the popular rafting companies that dot the Animas River closed down as soon as they received word Thursday, but some farmers and ranchers didn’t get the message in time.
“Most of the farmers and ranchers shut their ditches off so they wouldn’t take water from the river, but because of lack of communication and dissemination of information from the EPA, some didn’t get the word in time,” said state Sen. Ellen Roberts, a Republican.
“So that they actually did have some of that water flow from the river into their ditches,” she said.
Ms. Roberts, who represents Durango, stood vigil for six hours Thursday to ward off swimmers and others after the Animas River had been contaminated but before it turned orange.
“In the summertime, what we do is we get in the river, whether it’s for fishing, tubing — kids and adults,” she said.
“I was at one of the primary what we call ‘put in’ spots for people to get into the river,” she said. “There was a little 8-by-11-inch sheet of paper posted on a stick that said, ‘River Advisory,’ and people were still going in. And so I felt compelled to sit there.”
The EPA-led team working to clean up the Gold King Mine, which has been inactive since 1923, included private contractors.
Mr. McGrath said he did not know the name of the company but stressed that the EPA is taking responsibility for the accident.
“Although I don’t have the name yet, I do want to be clear here: Our folks, EPA employees, were on the site and directing the contractor work, and EPA takes responsibility for what happened up there,” Mr. McGrath said.
At this point, those affected by the spill have little choice but to wait for results of the water testing and for the EPA to clean up its mess.
Officials already have been asked whether they will reimburse rafting companies, farmers and others for damages and lost income, although no answer has been given.
“They say that that was a mistake on their part,” Ms. Roberts said. “It’s helpful to hear them say that they made a mistake, but what’s even more important is, what are they going to do about it?”