DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to arrive in Durango on Tuesday to assess damage after contamination of the Animas River from runoff from the Gold King Mine blowout.
The governor, a Democrat, was critical of the Environmental Protection Agency’s initial response to the 3 million gallons of mining wastewater that spilled into the river. But he expressed confidence that federal officials are now acting appropriately.
“We are, like everyone, disappointed that there wasn’t a more rapid communication right at the beginning of the incident,” Hickenlooper told The Durango Herald on Sunday night. “We haven’t really quite unbundled that. But we are in the process of carefully sorting through the facts.”
On Sunday night, Hickenlooper personally spoke with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who leads the agency that acknowledged causing the blowout leading to the tainted mine runoff reaching the Animas River. EPA officials were hoping to curb leakage from an abandoned mine near Silverton, but accidentally caused a massive leak Wednesday that turned the Animas River a mustard-yellow color, causing county officials to close what many regard as the ”lifeblood” of the Durango community.
“She certainly recognized that it took two days to get vital information out to people, and she regrets it.” Hickenlooper said of his call with McCarthy. “... But she is very committed to working together to make sure this doesn’t happen at another mine.”
Thousands of abandoned mines exist in Colorado and across the West, where similar wastewater, containing heavy metals, such as lead and arsenic, exist. But Hickenlooper downplayed concerns that other parts of Colorado are prone to contamination.
“I’ve been assured that there is a list of priority places, places that pose the greatest risk to clean water. We’re going to go back and revisit that and re-evaluate all the science,” Hickenlooper said.
The governor officially declared a disaster emergency Monday. Both La Plata County and the city of Durango also have declared emergencies. The state declaration will make $500,000 available from the Disaster Emergency Fund.
“We’re trying to figure out the right designation to maximize the delivery of resources,” Hickenlooper said.
In the meantime, state officials are evaluating what resources are going to be available from the federal government and the state to assist those who have been impacted, including the tourism and agricultural industries.
Colorado U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, as well as U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, are also exploring what federal funds might be made available. Hickenlooper said zero-interest loans and grants might be a possibility.
“These people, it’s the height of their season,” Hickenlooper said. “Many of them are small businesses.”