State officials reported Tuesday that the Animas River appears to be back to pre-event conditions after seemingly catastrophic contamination.
The latest water samples – taken Friday after a mustard-yellow plume of mining wastewater moved through Durango – shows that both heavy-metal and pH levels have returned to normal conditions, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in Durango.
The latest results open the door for conversations about reopening the river, though La Plata County officials say it will not likely reopen until at least Sunday. The Environmental Protection Agency has already recommended the river stay closed until at least Monday.
Meanwhile, more top officials are expected to land in Durango on Wednesday. EPA chief Gina McCarthy is expected to tour the area, as well as Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who will host attorneys general from New Mexico and Utah.
Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., sent a follow-up letter Tuesday to McCarthy asking that the EPA establish and disclose a plan for both the near-term cleanup of the river and a long-term plan to ensure economic and environmental recovery.
Gardner blasted the EPA on Tuesday for its lack of communication, coordination and inability to provide an explanation.
“It’s outrageous, reckless, and unacceptable that it’s been seven days since the EPA released 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River and the federal agency still has few answers,” he said. “That is why I am requesting congressional oversight hearings to examine the EPA’s insufficient response and to ensure that the EPA is held to the same recovery standards as the private sector.”
Hickenlooper and an entourage of his Cabinet members landed in Durango on Tuesday to receive an update from teams working on the ground after an accident by the EPA on Aug. 5 sent an estimated 3 million gallons of sludge into the river. The EPA was working with a contractor to assist with investigating the extent of contamination from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton. During excavation, loose material gave way, opening the mine tunnel and spilling water stored behind the encasement.
The water initially had varied levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium. Also, pH levels also had plummeted.
But Hickenlooper was encouraged by the latest water analysis. He even hinted that local officials might want to consider reopening the river sooner than the Aug. 17 date recommended by the EPA on Monday.
“Isn’t that amazing? That’s much better than what I would have hoped for,” Hickenlooper said, as he reviewed data from the incident.
“The indications are that the threat to the human health is returning back to pre-event levels, if not already there now,” the governor said.
“At this point, we don’t feel there’s any potential risk for human health,” Wolk added.
EPA officials agreed that signs point to a return to normalcy for the river, but they wanted to verify recent results first before releasing data to the public and offering a definitive answer.
“Here in Colorado, we’re working well with the state. It’s a matter of sharing the different sampling, it’s a matter of jointly looking at the return to the pre-event conditions,” said Shaun McGrath, Region 8 administrator for the EPA.
McCarthy also spoke about the incident Tuesday in Washington, D.C., taking responsibility and adding that it “pains me to no end.”
“It is really a tragic and very unfortunate incident, and EPA is taking responsibility to ensure that, that spill is cleaned up,” McCarthy said. “I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened.”
A group of researchers with Mountain Studies Institute, which has an office in Durango, said insects on the river appear alive. Researchers caught a salmon fly, which is sensitive to pollution. Since the fly was doing well, researchers are optimistic that it bodes well for the river.
While Hickenlooper is the biggest political player to throw himself into the increasingly contentious intergovernmental fray over the Animas’ continued closure, when it comes to deciding to reopen the Animas in Durango, the governor is outranked by La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, who is the only public official with the power to make that call.
“We don’t want to have mixed messaging,” Smith told The Durango Herald on Tuesday. “Obviously, the governor came to town today and said what he said.”
Smith said he is not considering reopening the river until Sunday.
“We’re working on this, receiving new scientific information all day, every day,” Smith said. “I’m extremely cognizant of how important this river is to the local economy, and I do worry about businesses. But I will not compromise public safety. We’re going to get this right.”
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Health Department, said health officials are weighing all options.
“Our goal is to have all the partners working together to make sure we are all in unison, in concert, on getting out the right decision,” Jollon said. “As soon as we have good information, we will make the best decision we can.”
Both Durango and La Plata County renewed their emergency declarations Tuesday, which allows resources to be shared among responding agencies.
The governor also spoke at Rotary Park, where he addressed questions from the public. Some appeared angry, calling on the governor to hold the EPA accountable. It was pointed out that the EPA is the regulatory agency that fines the private sector for environmental damage. They quipped that the EPA should fine itself.
“Obviously the EPA is not going to fine itself. They’re the ones that administer the fines,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s not my job to tell the EPA how to discipline their staff or how they should work. ... If there was some level of malfeasance there, then I think the answer is very different.
“We do not have jurisdiction over the federal government. You may wish that we did,” he added. “The more important thing is to make sure that we figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
One tool that may be available to officials is to push for federal Superfund status, which comes with a large source of funding to clean up blighted areas. For years, some Silverton residents and local officials have resisted a Superfund listing, concerned that it would leave a black eye on the community.
After the Animas contamination, some say it is time to expand Superfund listings, especially in the West, where thousands of abandoned mines exist with similar wastewater.
Hickenlooper offered some ideas, including updating mining laws that date to 1872 and making it easier for the private sector to get involved with reclamation activities as “good Samaritans.” He also wants to reassess abandoned mines across the state.
“We have assessments of every one of those mines, but in many cases they can be 10 years old,” Hickenlooper said. “So, we are committed, with the EPA, to go back and look at and update all those assessments so we can make sure that those places, where there might be a problem, that we’ll be able to address it before the problem becomes serious.”