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EPA takes blame for Animas River contamination

Agency yet to say how extensive damage may be

Environmental Protection Agency officials Friday acknowledged causing a catastrophic leak of wastewater into the Animas River, apologizing to the Durango community but then stopped short of detailing any significant outcomes from the event.

Officials held their first public meeting on the subject Friday afternoon, explaining that an early analysis of water samples shows the presence of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium at varied levels. Sediment has also poured into the river. The meeting drew about 250 people, with many sitting on the floor, standing and spilling into the hallway.

Dave Ostrander, the EPA's regional director of Emergency Preparedness, Assessment and Emergency Response, said the agency was not ready as of Friday afternoon to release levels to the public. He highlighted that the first round of data includes dissolved metals, but it does not include total metals. The earliest an analysis of total metals would be available is Friday night. Officials will first verify results before releasing them to the public.

Administrators also stopped short of explaining any environmental and health impacts as a result of the leakage. They say they are analyzing historical data from similar events, but were unable to speculate on hazards that could arise from the event.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed about 108 hatchery fish in cages along the river to monitor response. There was only one death as of Friday afternoon, according to the EPA.

The overall message from federal regulators was “we're very sorry.”

“This is a huge tragedy, and it's hard being on the other side of this in terms of being the ones that caused this incident at this particular time,” Ostrander said. “We typically respond to emergencies; we don't cause them.”

The Animas River flowing through Durango remained a mustard-yellow color Friday, two days after wastewater was accidentally released around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday from the abandoned Gold King Mine 60 miles north, near Silverton in San Juan County. The EPA was working with Environmental Response and Restoration, a company that was contracted to assist with investigating the extent of contamination from the mine.

Investigators underestimated the amount of wastewater. The plan was to excavate loose material that collapsed into the cave entry. That dirt and rock debris had backed up in the entry. During excavation, loose material gave way, opening the mine tunnel and spilling water stored behind the encasement, Shaun McGrath, the regional administrator for the EPA, said at the meeting. He indicated that the debris may have burst through anyway if it had not been dealt with by somebody.

It is estimated about 1 million gallons of water rushed out of the cavity and spilled into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. The amount of water is an estimate based on dimensions of the mine tunnel. The large pulse of water dissipated in about an hour. Friday morning, the EPA said the mine was still draining water at about 800 gallons per minute.

“Our initial assessment of it was not appropriate in that we did not understand the full extent of what we were looking at,” McGrathsaid.

He added that the EPA could have done a better job communicating the disaster to the public so that the community could have had more time to respond.

“Some of our earlier comments may have sounded cavalier about the public-health concern and the concern for wildlife,” McGrath said. “I want to assure you that the EPA absolutely is concerned.”

Water quality has been improving, said Steve Salka, the city's utilities director, Friday afternoon. The pH levels in the water had increased to 7.747 on Friday from 6.84 on Thursday, Salka said. The lower the pH, the higher the acidity in the water.

The EPA is rebuilding settling ponds to treat ongoing flows. An upper pond was expected to be completed this afternoon, and a lower pond was to be completed early Saturday. The EPA will treat the mine water diverted to the ponds with caustic soda and flocculent.

“We are hopeful that the immediate impacts on the water quality will pass in the next day or two,” Ostrander said.

The environmental disaster is hardly over. The Animas River remains closed to the public, and the leaking mine still is polluting water above Silverton.

The discoloration will pass in coming days, but environmentalists and fishing organizations worry the effects will linger for much longer.

“Once the plume passes through town, it doesn't mean the event is over,” said Dan Olson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group based in Durango. “There is sediment settling out of this event all along the river, and that sediment is likely laden with heavy metals and will be kicked back up every time there's a storm surge.

“It's something that our community is going to be dealing with for years,” he said. “This is not an event that is going to pass. It's going to be an event that's going to continue to have negative impacts on the Animas and the fisheries and water quality and health.”

No formal water restrictions have been put in place.

Salka said city water conservation efforts have so far been a success. The city can produce only about 5.3 million gallons of water a day without using water from the Animas River. On Thursday, the city used about 5.8 million gallons.

Major irrigators in town, including Mercy Regional Medical Center, Fort Lewis College, Hillcrest Golf Club and the Parks and Recreation Department, turned off sprinkler systems Thursday to help conserve. The Durango 9-R School District stopped irrigating Friday.

“The community as a whole has pretty much come together,” Salka said.

shane@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story named the wrong agency that placed fish cages in the river. It was Colorado Parks and Wildlife that placed the cages.

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