Something caught San Juan Sheriff Bruce Conrad’s eye on Aug. 5 that compelled him to pull off on the side of County Road 110. He looked to the right, and there was Cement Creek as he knew it, murky and meandering. He then looked over his other shoulder and couldn’t believe what he saw.
There, a raging, bright orange swell of water, carrying downed trees and debris, was headed straight for Silverton.
“I just recall feeling my head go back and forth, questioning what I was looking at,” Conrad said. “I was actually not even on duty.”
Conrad was the first to raise the alarm that a massive runoff was headed toward the town of Silverton. Public officials have since asked why it took the Environmental Protection Agency so long to notify communities downstream of the mine blowout.
The newly elected sheriff had no way of knowing the EPA had set off an estimated 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine. His dispatch radio was silent.
It took about an hour for the orange runoff to travel from where Conrad first reported it to Silverton’s northern town limits. In that time, the town’s emergency response officials were able to alert residents.
“There’s not much recreation in Cement Creek, but it does run right past our park. There’s horseshoe pits, tennis courts, a playground,” Conrad said. “We did want to make sure no one was on the edges of the creek. I don’t think we overestimated the potential for injury.”
When the orange mass reached town about 1 p.m., neither state nor federal officials had contacted the town of Silverton.
Nearly two hours to notify state
In the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, many questions have been asked and fingers have been pointed at the EPA, the agency tasked with remediating the Silverton Caldera, when it underestimated the pressure behind the abandoned mine, triggering the spill.
One issue the event did expose is the EPA’s lack of protocols for notifying downstream communities in the event of a massive blowout – a point the agency has admitted it was not prepared for.
In a prepared statement, the federal agency said a crew of EPA personnel and hired contractors accidently caused the spill at 10:51 a.m., who were then trapped without cellphone coverage or satellite radios.
It wasn’t until 12:40 p.m., after a mad rush to find the correct personnel and reach an area with phone reception that the EPA contacted by two-way radio a state worker who was inspecting a mine in another area.
The EPA’s protocols mandate it must first notify state agencies in the event of an emergency situation. The EPA’s same statement said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contacted local agencies by 1:39 p.m.
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said that although crews should have had a satellite radio on the job site, the EPA made all the right steps. He said city officials had ample time to stop drawing water from the Animas and close down the river for recreational use before the spill waters hit Durango late that Thursday afternoon.
“There’s been all this bashing of the EPA, but we knew a day and a half before it ever reached us,” Brooke said. “Our emergency services were fully prepared.”
28 hours for local notification
No formal public statement was issued until about 3 p.m. Thursday by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. By that time, the Silverton Standard & the Miner and The Durango Herald had already reported that something wasn’t right upstream.
Tom Riley, who works retail sales at 4 Corners Sports, said despite the delay, he had plenty of time to pull boats off the river.
“They could have told us Wednesday, but would it of helped us? No,” he said.
Liane Jollon, executive director at San Juan Basin Health Department, said the local agencies delayed a formal public statement because of the limited information they were working on.
“When the report went out, it was a million gallons, and the belief was the material would not remain in a consolidated fashion as it reached town,” she said.
The EPA didn’t announce the spill was actually about 3 million gallons until a week later.
“Everyone did their homework Wednesday night, and we canceled everything Thursday morning to start working on it,” Jollon said.
N.M. in the dark for 24 hours
Once the Animas spills into the San Juan River in New Mexico, it travels 215 miles through the Navajo Nation, with some 750 families relying on the water for irrigation and farming.
But it took the EPA 24 hours to alert the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, and officials there have vowed to sue the federal agency.
New Mexico was first informed by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe about the spill 22 hours after the blowout. It was only two hours later that the EPA returned the state’s many phone calls.
EPA spokesman David Gray said he spoke to New Mexico’s Environment Department about the spill at midday Aug. 6, a day after it occurred. Gray, who works in the EPA’s Dallas regional office, said that was shortly after he learned about it.
New Mexico is part of a Dallas-based EPA region; Colorado is part of a separate region with headquarters in Denver.
“The EPA has still not explained the reason for the delay,” said Allison Majure, communications director for the New Mexico Environment Department.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez took a strong stance in the days that followed, and said lawyers were preparing for a lawsuit if that is ultimately the decision of her office.
EPA remains silent
The federal agency has remained tight-lipped and terse in responses to questions on how the agency intends to improve communications at the site. EPA spokespeople consolidated a number of inquires from the Herald into one basic response:
“A new Gold King Mine/Animas River Stakeholders alert and notification plan has been drafted. It is currently being reviewed by local government officials,” it states.
However, in the days since the blowout, Conrad said the EPA has brought to the mine site an emergency command center truck designed for communications. He said there are also intentions to install a permanent cellphone tower.
“So now they have working land lines out there, and the protocol is to dial 911 in similar instances,” he said.
The EPA did not respond for a comment on when the new notification plan would be released to the public.