The head of the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday confirmed what Colorado officials already knew, that readings of the Animas River show a return to pre-contamination conditions.
Gina McCarthy made the announcement during a 15-minute news conference in Durango at the La Plata County Fairgrounds, which the EPA has been using as a command center. McCarthy made no public appearances during her trip to Durango – other than to speak with the press – meeting behind closed doors with federal and local officials.
She did not tour the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, where the EPA on Aug. 5 released an estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas. While the EPA has taken responsibility for the error, the agency continues to be criticized for a delayed response, with answers trickling in.
Calling the agency’s debacle “heartbreaking,” McCarthy said the EPA is conducting an internal investigation.
“No agency could be more upset about the incident happening, and more dedicated in doing our job to get this right,” McCarthy addressed a large group of reporters. “We couldn’t be more sorry. Our mission is to protect human health and the environment. We will hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else.”
The Durango Herald received several calls Wednesday from members of the public who wanted to know when and where they could meet with McCarthy. They had expected the EPA chief to hold a community meeting.
At the media availability, McCarthy said she was not in town to meet with the public, but instead to hold briefings with officials. She answered only nine minutes worth of questions from reporters before leaving the podium, as reporters continued to shout questions at her while she walked away.
“Right now I have a schedule where I am making sure that I touch base with all of their representatives and their technical experts so that we are responding to the needs that we know are being raised and we’re doing that well,” McCarthy said.
Elected officials weigh in
People at high levels of government may yet intervene. Colorado and New Mexico federal lawmakers on Wednesday sent President Barack Obama a letter urging him to direct resources toward addressing the spill. The letter was sent by Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, as well as by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Democrats New Mexico U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, also a Democrat.
The gang of lawmakers asked Obama to focus “all appropriate federal resources on the tragic Gold King Mine spill.”
White House spokesperson Hallie Ruvin declined to comment on the record on Wednesday.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said he spoke with the White House about the mine spillage when it first happened, but that he had not followed up.
The congressional members who sent the letter pointed out that the Animas River and San Juan River are “critical to our states’ economies and way of life.”
“The communities we represent expect and deserve a prompt and thorough response to this disaster as well as transparency and accountability from the federal government,” the letter says.
EPA halts all cleanups
Meanwhile, McCarthy on Wednesday ordered all of her agency’s regions to cease fieldwork in mines across the country in the wake of the blowout, which sent sludge down the Animas River, into Durango, across state lines and into two Indian Nations. It was not immediately clear how many mining cleanup sites the directive affects across the nation. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment left by The Durango Herald.
“We are in the process of initiating an independent assessment by a sister federal agency or another external entity to examine the factors that led to last week’s incident,” McCarthy said in the directive. “Based on the outcome from that assessment, we will determine what actions may be necessary to avoid similar incidents at other sites.”
Federal officials were encouraged by the validated water-sample readings they released on Wednesday, taken on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Officials did not immediately release the data sets, other than to say that levels had returned to pre-event conditions. Initial readings taken immediately after the spill found spiked levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium, at varied levels. The water’s pH level also had initially plummeted.
State health officials on Tuesday also said water quality improved to pre-event levels.
Local governments guarded
Despite the positive news on water quality, Durango city officials are cautious, saying they will not start drawing water from the Animas immediately.
The city needs to complete more testing before opening up its intake on the Animas River, said Sherri Dugdale, assistant to the city manager. The city also plans to wait until irrigation companies have the chance to flush out ditches upstream of the intake before starting to treat city water. The city would like residents to continue to conserve water.
When the city does start drawing water from the Animas, irrigation will be allowed in stages. Those with gardens will be allowed to start watering first, then Hillcrest Golf Club, Parks and Recreation Department and other large water-users.
The Florida River is the city’s main source of water, and it has been sustaining the city since the blowout. City tap water remains safe.
Those hoping to get back on the Animas for fun are also going to have to wait.
“Although we are all in agreement about the water quality results being back to pre-event levels,” La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said, “it is only prudent that we wait to have sediment testing results to ensure public safety prior to opening the river to recreation.”
As a precaution, the state health department recommends residents test the source of their well water if their wells are within one mile of the Animas River. The department has no indication the aquifer accessed by private wells has been contaminated, officials said in a news release. Residents should not take their own samples because technicians will be sent to sample the water from homes.
La Plata County is in the process of doing its own water quality testing to compare to state and federal results, said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.
The full cost of the disaster to both the city and county is unknown, though numbers may start to become available on Thursday, Lachelt said.
The county sent a long list of requests to the EPA, including assistance on initial costs, ongoing expenses, assessments of wells and public water systems and analyzing sediment and impacts to wildlife. County officials also want a full independent investigation into the EPA and a review of Superfund status for the mine, which would open the door to many more financial resources.
In the meantime, an emergency declaration by the governor makes $500,000 available, and the city and county have continued their emergency declarations, which allows agencies to share resources.