By Gail Binkly
Long-term impacts are expected from the spill of more than 1 million gallons of toxic mining waste into the Animas River on Aug. 5.
“We anticipate as this plume moves downstream, the sediment will settle out and as we have storm events and floods, this gets kicked back up and can present some risk, [so] we need to be proactive in our monitoring,” said Sean McGrath, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, during a conference phone call Aug. 8.
But as of now, no adverse impacts to the health of either people or animals are known to have occurred, EPA officials said. Of 108 fish placed in cages at three locations in the Animas River, only one has died, they said, and that occurred very early on.
McGrath said containment ponds have been constructed outside the mouth of the abandoned Gold King Mine north of Silverton where the spill occurred. The toxic waste flowing into those ponds is being treated with caustic soda (to decrease acidity) and then with flocculants to help precipitate out sediments that include heavy metals.
The discharge of mining wastewater has decreased from 740 gallons per minutes as of Aug. 7 to 548 gallons per minute Aug. 8.
Sampling is being done and results are expected within 24 hours. The EPA is posting updated sampling results on its website.
Officials took responsibility for the spill, which occurred while EPA employees were overseeing work done by a contractor to try to investigate and treat contamination at the old mine site. McGrath said no one as yet has been placed on leave or terminated because of the accident, but “we are going to be looking at the reasons why this occurred” to see “if there was anything actionable in terms of a personnel action.”
Ron Curry, administrator for EPA Region 6, which includes New Mexico, admitted that it was 24 hours after the spill occurred before that state’s leaders were contacted by the EPA. “Since that time we’ve been working very aggressively with all the people in New Mexico,” he said. “We reached out to them as soon as we could when we were made aware of the situation.”
McGrath said the people on the ground at the spill “misread the severity of the impact” initially. “We believed in the first day that it was going to be a smaller discharge, that it was going to be limited to Cement Creek,” a tributary of the Animas, he said. “We misjudged. This is something that I’m owning up to. . . We do apologize for that.”
The EPA is working with leaders in affected cities, states, and Indian tribes, including Durango, Colorado, New Mexico, the Southern Ute Tribe, and the Navajo Nation.
Discussions are ongoing about long-term solutions, alternative supplies of drinking and agricultural water, and costs, including compensation to irrigators, rafting companies, and others, officials said.
“We understand the impacts here and that’s why we’re working to ensure we have drinking water available to anybody that’s impacted and alternative sources of water for other needs. We’re working our tails off,” McGrath said.