Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday drank a hearty gulp of the Animas River in an effort to highlight that the river has returned to pre-contamination conditions.
The governor and his health department director, however, cautioned that residents should not be freely drinking from the river, because the water was unsafe for consumption even before the Environmental Protection Agency released an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater into it.
But the drinking exercise indicated that state officials are more than confident that the river does not pose a toxic risk to humans, as they publicly stated on Tuesday.
“Am I willing to go out there and demonstrate that we’re back to normal?” Hickenlooper asked out loud after The Durango Herald raised the idea with the governor. “Certainly. I’m happy to do that. I’m dead serious.”
Moments later Hickenlooper was presented with an iodine tablet, offered to him at the request of Dr. Larry Wolk, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who was traveling with the governor in Durango. The iodine tablet was used to kill possible presence of giardia and E. coli. After waiting for 30 minutes for the iodine tablet take effect, the governor walked from the Herald offices to Iris Park, the governor – in dress boots – to the banks of the Animas.
With bottle in hand, Hickenlooper slowly began to drink. After his sips, he raised the bottle in victory. Twenty-four hours later, the governor called the Herald to say he was in good health.
“If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help,” Hickenlooper said.
The act sets up a battle between the governor and the EPA over when to recommend reopening the river. EPA officials have been at odds with the governor, going as far as to ask him to silence remarks on the health of the river and to stop pushing to reopen it. Hickenlooper, however, called the EPA’s concerns “nonsense” and pointed out that businesses are closed that rely on the river to drive operations, such as the rafting industry.
At a news conference in Durango on Wednesday, EPA chief Gina McCarthy confirmed that the EPA’s own tests show that the water had returned to pre-event conditions. Initial tests taken early on had shown spikes in heavy metals and a plummet in the pH level. But those levels had returned to normal.
McCarthy would not say when the EPA might recommend reopening the river, which ultimately rests in the hands of La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, who said on Tuesday that he would not consider reopening it until at least Sunday. It irked Hickenlooper that McCarthy would not be pushing to reopen the river because both state and federal tests show that conditions are back to a state they were in before the spillage.
“I cannot give you exact dates on when things will happen because we’re going to let the testing and the science drive those decisions ...” McCarthy said. “It’s been a while, and we have the data that looks good, but we’re going to allow those decisions to be made collaboratively.”
Hickenlooper’s action of drinking water from the Animas River is reminiscent of the time in 2013 when he told a U.S. Senate committee that he once drank fracking fluid to show it is safe. His spokesman at the time, Eric Brown, said the governor drank the fluid in 2011 while in his office with Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar.