U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said the Environmental Protection Agency must respond without reservation and set the right example for cleanup after unleashing an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.
The two senators toured the riverbank Sunday in Durango, five days after a mustard-yellow plume of wastewater cascaded down the shores of Cement Creek and into the Animas River.
“We are going to hold the EPA accountable to make sure that they meet the highest standard of response, and if that standard sets an example for other actors, that will be a good thing,” Bennet said. “But right now, our main concern is addressing this blowout.”
The senators were joined by local government officials, representatives from the rafting and agricultural industries and scientists who have been testing pH levels in the Animas River. They walked on a swaying pedestrian bridge that spans the river behind the Powerhouse Science Center and north on the Animas River Trail to about Rotary Park.
The EPA was investigating seepage from the abandoned Gold King Mine above Silverton on Wednesday when a crew removed dirt from the collapsed entrance and accidently unleashed a torrent of wastewater that had pooled behind the loose material.
As a result, the city of Durango shut off water pumps, the La Plata County sheriff closed the river to the public, ranchers stopped watering fields, and the tourism industry fears millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Long-term environmental impacts to fish, wildlife and insects remains a mystery, in large part because the EPA has yet to release a clear picture of the level of heavy metals that flushed downstream, including lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium. The agency did release a data table from sampling done Wednesday and Thursday, but experts were still interpreting the numbers.
“We acknowledge frustration with the turnaround time for this information,” the EPA said in a news release. “Workers at the lab and data experts are working continuously to develop the information.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed three cages containing 108 fish in the river, and only one had died as of Sunday, from unrelated causes, said Patt Dorsey, southwest regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “So we have had no fish mortality,” she said.
City officials said the mishap highlights the need for a new water-treatment plant that would draw from Lake Nighthorse and create redundancy in the city’s water supply. City Manager Ron LeBlanc said federal funding and easing bureaucratic hurdles with the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Animas-La Plata Project, would help.
Marcie Bidwell, executive director of Mountain Studies Institute, said Wednesday’s discharge involved one of thousands of leaky mines in the San Juan Mountains. Those mines and how we deal with them needs to be studied as part of the long-term picture, she said.
Bennet said he came to town Sunday to make sure the EPA acts urgently and provides information in a timely fashion.
“The Animas River is the lifeblood of this community,” Bennet said. “We know it’s not just about the economy – although that’s important – it’s about the way of life for people in and around Durango. When you see something like this, and you see the pictures, it’s horrifying.
“Part of what we need to do is project confidence about this beautiful part of our state, where people from all over the world want to come recreate,” Bennet said. “We’re going to make sure that continues to be the case going forward.”
When asked if the EPA should be held financially liable for interruption to businesses such as rafting companies, Bennet said, “We need to discuss what their responsibility is going forward.”
Andy Corra, owner of 4 Corners Riversports, said he was having the best rafting season in years, but it came to a screeching halt Thursday. The river industry had a $19 million economic impact according to an analysis done 10 to 12 years ago, he said, and that dollar amount has only grown.
“We’re not going to recover,” he said. “We’re at the end our season. We’ve got another month normally, and I think that month is done.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse for those in rafting and agriculture, said La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff. The event appears to be tapering off, she said, but when the next rainstorm stirs up sediment in the river, farmers and rafting companies can’t wait 48 hours to seven days to know if the river is safe.
Farmers and ranchers need to know if they can irrigate fields and water cows, said Ed Zink, an area rancher and business owner. “We may need help, I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know that until we have information.”
The EPA must lead by example, Gardner said. That means addressing immediate needs and improving transparency. He asked his staff to come up with a side-by-side comparison of how the EPA would respond if it were overseeing a private company that caused this disaster.
It will have to be determined how much responsibility the EPA bears for compensating local governments, businesses and agriculturalists, he said.
“Businesses are going to be hurt,” Gardner said. “You shut down businesses that are relying on the river, and that has a ripple effect across all economies, whether it’s sales-tax dollars going into city coffers, hotels booking up, outfitters having people. ...”
Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Alliance, who joined the walk with officials Sunday morning, said businesses should document cancellations specific to the spill and track revenue trends over the next couple of months.
“If there is going to be a system set up, people are going to want to see some documentation,” he said. “Keep track of your records is the important thing at this point.”
Said Gardner: “The broader message for the community, state and all across the country is Durango remains open for business; Durango remains a place where you can recreate today.”