EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on August 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.
State and local officials have charged that the agency was too slow and not communicative in its response, and national Republicans have begun to pile on from the Hill and beyond.
Heavy metals already were present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river”, complained Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Cadmium was found at more than six times the aquatic limit, 33 times that for humans. He even drank a glass of river water.
Gov. Martinez said Thursday the New Mexico Environment Department is doing its own tests on the water to make sure the feds are telling the truth about what’s in it.
Like many places in the Colorado mountains, this historic mining area affords opportunities for the most cherished vacation memories as long as we know not to drink the water or eat the fish.
Scientists think the acidic minewater has been neutralized to background levels in the alkaline river, and most of the heavy metals have settled. The EPA also promised free water testing for homeowners with wells close to the river, but it’s unclear how long that offer stands. But Colorado’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, said the full impact may not be understood for years.
For now, attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah have joined together to fight for compensation for communities affected by the spill.
The Gold King spill was proving devastating to the Navajo Nation, which recently negotiated a settlement giving it rights to water from the San Juan River. A chemical reaction ensues, creating sulfuric acid that dissolves heavy metals into the water, creating a toxic mess.
The spill happened as an EPA-supervised crew inspected a horizontal passageway into the partially collapsed and Gold King mine, which was abandoned in 1923.
Colorado and local authorities said in a statement Thursday that farmers and ranchers shouldn’t give the water to livestock until the sediment in the irrigation ditches is flushed out.
The photos of the yellow-orange river were widely shared and have brought attention to a longstanding challenge that many were unaware of: how to regulate, treat and pay for the upkeep of abandoned and dormant mines in Colorado and across the country.
The EPA revealed the firm’s involvement as its chief, Gina McCarthy, toured the polluted river. “We want to make sure all of that data is quality controlled”, said McCarthy.
Begaye says the EPA has distributed claim forms at public hearings across the Navajo Reservation and urged tribal members to sign them.
Colorado tightened its bond requirements in the 1990s after the operator of the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co, declared bankruptcy and couldn’t complete a cleanup.
The EPA has been overseeing abandoned mine lands – which can include bodies of water and surrounding watershed – for many years.
On Wednesday, EPA identified Environmental Restoration, one of its prime contractors for cleaning up and containing contamination on short notice, as the company that had been working onsite as part of an EPA-directed cleanup when the spill occurred. And next week the U.S. Geological Survey will set up its own monitors at the San Juan delta in Lake Powell. She said the wastewater would fill fewer than five Olympic-size swimming pools a tiny factor for a reservoir that could fill about 6.4 million similar pools.
Hydrologists usually measure by the acre-foot and acre-inch, and say 3 million gallons could cover 110 acres with an inch of contaminant-laden toxic sludge.