MAC: Mines and Communities

US EPA head meets with Navajo president over Colorado mine spill

Published by MAC on 2015-08-15
Source: Reuters

The US government agency, EPA, tasked to safeguard the country's environment, has fallen foul of its own standards - by over three million gallons of toxicity.

That's the amount of acid sludge, containing mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, which staff employed by the EPA, allowed to spill into neighbouring rivers, when cleaning up an abandoned gold mine in Colorado on August 5th (see: US river fouled by 1 million gallons of contaminated mine water)

Only a week later, the EPA's head announced that the affected waters had been returned to "pre-spill" levels.

This was an extraordinary statement, given what the agency itself knew about the effects of acid mine drainage and the long-lasting toxic impacts of released heavy metals on water and the species dependent on it.

Didn't the EPA recall that, in the early 1990's, it was confronted with a similar disaster, when acidified runoff from another closed-down Colorado gold mine - owned by Robert Friedland's Galactic Resources - caused pollution which took years to clean-up, costing the agency some US$150 million?

On August 14th, the EPA appeared to backtrack somewhat on its earlier gross complacency, conceding that "deposits of heavy metals have settled into river sediments, where they can be churned up and unleash a new wave of pollution when storms hit or rivers run at flood stage".

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation, a community partially affected by the recent spill, has threetened to take legal action against the EPA.

EPA head meets with Navajo president over Colorado mine spill

By Alison Uralli


14 August 2015

FARMINGTON, N.M. - The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection agency told the Navajo Nation president on Thursday that her agency would work closely with the Native American tribe in handling a toxic waste spill into river waters from a defunct Colorado gold mine.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has pledged to take legal action against the EPA, which has taken responsibility for inadvertently causing the spill last week that sent toxic waste flowing into rivers in the Four Corners region where part of the 250,000-member tribe's reservation is located.

"(The) EPA is not unfamiliar with litigation, but frankly none of that tone and tenor was in the discussion this morning," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at a news conference in Farmington, New Mexico, after meeting with Begaye.

The encounter came a day after McCarthy announced the water quality of the Animas River in Colorado, which was rendered bright orange by the toxic waste spill from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, had returned to pre-spill levels.

An EPA operation on Aug. 5 accidentally spilled more than 3 million gallons (11.3 million liters) of acid mine sludge containing heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. The torrent of waste gushed first into a stream just below the site before washing into the Animas.

The contamination also reached New Mexico where it flowed into the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary that winds through the Navajo reservation into Utah. Navajo communities rely on the San Juan for fishing and agriculture.

The spill led two Colorado municipalities, including Durango, and the New Mexico towns of Aztec and Farmington, to shut off their river intakes.

The governors of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah declared a state of emergency over the spill, and New Mexico's governor also suggested her administration could take legal action against the EPA.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said on Wednesday the Animas appeared to have returned to normal, with no sign of lasting environmental harm.

Dilution has gradually diminished concentrations of contaminants, EPA officials have said, even as they warned that deposits of heavy metals have settled into river sediments, where they can be churned up and unleash a new wave of pollution when storms hit or rivers run at flood stage.

"Frankly, the sediment is where the longer-term responsibility is for this agency, and we will meet that responsibility," McCarthy said.

(Additional reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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