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State, federal officials clash over health of Animas River

EPA asks Hickenlooper to curb remarks about river’s health

Gov. John Hickenlooper had strong words for the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday after federal officials asked the governor to curb remarks on the health of the Animas River.

It was apparent during an informal meeting between state and federal officials that the two entities are at odds over whether the river is ready to reopen.

Speaking in Durango, Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said a preliminary analysis of water samples taken Friday from Cement Creek – after a plume of mustard-yellow mining wastewater crawled down the river – shows that the water has largely returned to pre-event levels. Concentrations of heavy metals and pH had returned to within normal ranges, confirmed Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

But an official with the EPA asked Hickenlooper to stop making comments about the returning health of the river.

“It doesn’t show where we are at right now,” Shaun McGrath, Region 8 administrator for the EPA, told Hickenlooper, as officials huddled on the grass at Rotary Park. “You have to have a couple of days of data to show that you’re actually back to baseline conditions, and we’re not there yet.”

“That’s nonsense,” Hickenlooper responded, pointing out that businesses that rely on the river to drive operations are closed.

The EPA caused an estimated 3 million gallons of mine runoff to pour into the river Aug. 5. A team was working with an independent 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 heavy-metal tainted water stored behind the encasement.

An initial analysis found the presence of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium, at varied levels. But Wolk said average readings since the plume past are all back to normal.

Still, McGrath is concerned, telling Hickenlooper that long-term monitoring had not yet been established.

“I’m afraid you’re getting ahead of us to be able to say we have the data that supports the decision. I’m just not comfortable,” McGrath told the governor. “My toxicologists haven’t called me.”

Hickenlooper shot back, pointing to the EPA’s delays over the course of the incident.

“You guys don’t call for days anyway,” Hickenlooper said. “There’s nothing we can do about that. There’s been delay in communication in terms of when information on this went out. The whole thing has been a couple days late.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

Oct 27, 2021
New Mexico sues Colorado over Gold King Mine spill
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