WATCH: Millions of liters of toxic wastewater have spilled into two rivers in Colorado and New Mexico, turning the waterways yellow. People living in the area are restricted from drinking or bathing in the water. And it’s the environmental protection agency – meant to protect the people – that is taking responsibility for causing the contamination. Aarti Pole reports.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Townspeople watching millions of gallons of orange-colored mine waste flow through their communities demanded clarity Tuesday about possible long-term threats to their water supply.
Colorado and New Mexico made disaster declarations for stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers and the Navajo Nation declared an emergency as the toxic waste spread downstream toward Lake Powell in Utah.
EPA workers accidentally unleashed an estimated 3 million gallons of mine waste, including high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, as they inspected the long-abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5.
READ MORE: Heavy metals leaked from Colorado mine into river, no word on health risk
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Tuesday in Washington, D.C., that she takes full responsibility for the spill, which she said “pains me to no end.” She said the agency is working around the clock to assess the environmental impact.
EPA officials said the shocking orange plume has already dissipated and that the leading edge of the contamination cannot be seen in the downstream stretches of the San Juan River or Lake Powell.
But that has done little to ease concerns or quell anger. The Navajos, whose nation covers parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, shut down water intake systems and stopped diverting water from the San Juan River. Frustrated tribal council members echoed the sentiment of state officials, insisting that the federal government be held accountable.
The Attorneys General of Utah, New Mexico and Colorado have been co-ordinating a response to protect their citizens and ensure “whatever remediation is necessary occurs as quickly as possible,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert expressed disappointment with the EPA’s initial handling of the spill, but said the state has no plans for legal action. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, however, said she would not take anything off the table and that the EPA should be held to the same standards as industry.
“Right now we have people preparing for a lawsuit if that is what we need to do,” she said in a Tuesday television interview.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper spent Tuesday visiting a contaminated stretch of river.
The EPA has said the current flows too fast for the contaminants to pose an immediate health threat, and that the heavy metals will likely be diluted over time so that they don’t pose a longer-term threat, either.
Still, as a precautionary measure, the agency said stretches of the rivers would be closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses at least through Aug. 17.
Dissolved iron is what turned the waste plume an alarming orange-yellow, a colour familiar to old-time miners who call it “yellow boy.”
“The water appears worse esthetically than it actually is, in terms of health,” said Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines.
Tests show some of the metals have settled to the bottom and would dissolve only if conditions became acidic, which Cohen said isn’t likely. He advises leaving the metals where they settle, and counting on next spring’s mountain snowmelt to dilute them more and flush them downstream.
No die-off of wildlife along the river has been detected. Federal officials say all but one of a test batch of fingerling trout deliberately exposed to the water survived over the weekend.
As a precaution, state and federal officials ordered public water systems to turn off intake valves as the plume passes. Boaters and fishing groups have been told to avoid affected stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers, which are usually crowded with rafters and anglers in a normal summer.
Farmers also have been forced to stop irrigating, endangering their crops, and recreational businesses report losing thousands of dollars.
“We had lots of trips booked. Right now we’re just cancelling by the day,” said Drew Beezley, co-owner of 4 Corners Whitewater in Durango, Colorado. He said his dozen employees are out of work, and he’s lost about $10,000 in business since the spill.
“We don’t really know what the future holds yet,” said Beezley. “We don’t know if the rest of this season is just scrapped.”
Heavy metals from Gold King and other defunct mines have been leaching into the water, killing fish and other species, for decades as rain and snowmelt pools and spills from places left abandoned and exposed to the elements. The EPA has considered adding a section of the Animas River in Colorado as a Superfund cleanup site at least since the 1990s, which would have provided much more support for a cleanup.
But some in Colorado opposed Superfund status, fearing the stigma and the federal strings attached, so the EPA agreed to allow local officials to lead cleanup efforts instead.
Knickmeyer reported from San Francisco. AP writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City, Ivan Moreno and Thomas Peipert in Denver, and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contributed to this story.