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Costs and lingering sediment remain a concern

With news improving concerning the Animas River spill, local officials can now turn their attention to more long-term issues, such as impacts to the budget and contaminated sediment that might linger.

Both state and federal health officials say Animas water quality has returned to pre-event conditions after an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater poured into the river after an error by an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew on Aug. 5. The latest water-quality data released Tuesday and Wednesday show heavy-metal and pH concentrations have returned to levels similar to before the incident.

But outstanding questions remain about the nature of sediment in the river. While water quality may have returned to normal, sediment at the bottom and along the river could still contain unhealthy levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum.

“We are waiting for the results,” EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said Thursday of the sediment sampling. “When the data are available, they will be analyzed, and an assessment of longer-term risks will be made.”

State health officials are awaiting similar sediment test results.

Sampling results from the EPA released Thursday show high levels of toxic heavy metals in river water hours after last week’s spill.

The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.

The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.

The company that the EPA contracted to do the work at Gold King Mine is Environmental Restoration L.L.C., based in St. Louis, Missouri. The company declined comment. In a news release, it said it is the prime contractor for EPA’s Region 8. It acknowledged it was on site when the incident took place.

“ER honors our contractual confidentiality obligations to all of our clients, and cannot provide any additional information,” the press release said.

The Animas remained closed Thursday, as the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office continues to consult with health advisers and toxicologists.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the county has retained its own water-quality experts to analyze state and federal results and conduct its own testing. The county received sampling results on Wednesday and experts were reviewing the results Thursday.

County officials were expected to meet Thursday to discuss the financial impacts from the disaster. An emergency disaster declaration by Gov. John Hickenlooper made $500,000 available, but the county must assess all its costs so it can seek full reimbursement from the federal government.

In a memo sent to the EPA this week, La Plata County officials outline a long list of requests, including full reimbursements for a variety of costs that has burdened the county.

In terms of reimbursements, county officials would like a $200,000 initial response grant to cover expenses. La Plata also seeks “other arrangements” to reimburse agencies that incurred expenses. Another request is for a separate grant to conduct an independent review of EPA data and analysis. Similarly, officials want assistance to assess aquatic wildlife.

The county wants a cooperative agreement to fully reimburse it for ongoing expenses throughout the duration of the incident, pointing out that there may be future health advisories. They say a partnership may be necessary with San Juan Basin Health and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. They also point out that there will be costs in assessing the financial impact to the county.

County officials also would like the EPA to establish a recovery center to assist the community in accessing resource assistance, including help with filing claims against the EPA. They say financial and technical assistance should be offered to farmers and ranchers directly impacted.

The memo emphasizes transparency, calling on the EPA to release a spill report that quantifies known and expected impacts. They would like a calculated deposition of released material along Cement Creek and down the Animas corridor. The county seeks a projection of physical, chemical and biological impacts to water, sediments and soils for irrigation. And officials want to see ongoing water-quality and sediment monitoring as part of an overall cleanup plan.

County officials also would like to see an explanation of the history leading up to the incident, as the leak from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton has been a looming fear for years. In fact, the county has requested an assessment of other abandoned mines in the area. They say a water-treatment plant at Silverton is necessary.

Efforts to take advantage of Superfund site designation, so mining issues around Silverton could benefit from an injection of large federal dollars for reclamation, have been blocked by Silverton leaders in San Juan County, who have been fearful that a blighted designation would be a black eye on the community. La Plata officials say they should have a seat at the table in discussing Superfund status. They also would like to be included in conversations on long-term plans and remediation.

The county said the EPA should detail the full scope of the spill, including the size of the release and chemical load in it. Early testing showed the presence of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium.

Meanwhile, Durango city officials are also working on compiling financial impacts, said City Manager Ron LeBlanc. They are assessing communitywide impacts, including any drop in revenue from a loss of sales and lodgers taxes. Impacts to the rafting and fishing industries are being analyzed. Equipment expenses also are being calculated.

More long-term, city officials are assessing impacts based on possible future vacation decisions, such as if tourists cross Durango off their vacation list following the incident.

In terms of city operations, officials are examining what staff members’ resources were devoted to the emergency, including overtime. There’s also potential cuts or reductions in service levels that might be required based on future revised revenue forecasts following the incident.

pmarcus@durangoherald.com The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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