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EPA’s slow response over Animas River mine spill raises ire of local, state politicians

Ellen Roberts: ‘What we see before us is horrifying’
Roberts

Elected officials say they have more questions after contamination of the Animas River as a result of actions by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Federal, state and local officials were first focused on addressing the EPA’s immediate response to the incident. But they said once the disaster is under control, further investigation may be warranted.

“We’re hearing that this is somewhat to be expected living in a mining region, but what is very clear from this is the communications were not adequate, and they underestimated how severe this was,” state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said Friday. “It does have significant consequences, both in terms of the environmental issue and in terms of trust.

“The Animas River, to Durango and Southwest Colorado, is not just a river, it is our lifeblood in so many ways,” she said. “What we see before us is horrifying, so I think I personally have very high expectations of what the EPA is going to do to fix this.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., sent a letter Friday to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy requesting the agency move as quickly as possible to undertake an emergency response, water-quality testing and cleanup necessary to mitigate the effects of the Gold King Mine blowout.

“The community has expressed serious concerns about the speed and scope of the EPA’s initial response,” the letter reads. “... We urge EPA to take full responsibility for this accident, including appropriate compensation to the communities that have been affected by the spill.”

Gardner spoke directly with EPA administrators. But he said there are still many more questions.

“Coloradans deserve to know the EPA’s plan for cleaning up the mess they’ve made and their plan for the long-term restoration of the river habitat impacted,” Gardner said.

A spokeswoman for Bennet said the senator is closely following the situation.

“Our top priority is to support efforts to protect the health and safety of the citizens there, focus on cleanup and recovery efforts, and make certain that state and federal agencies are taking all necessary steps to mitigate future problems,” Erin McCann said.

She added that Bennet personally called the EPA deputy administrator and regional manager Thursday night to stress the urgency of the situation. Bennet asked them to expedite the water testing. He will contact federal agencies to ask what money is available for recovery efforts, including funding for businesses affected by the event.

Tipton appeared angry with the EPA’s actions that caused wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton to flow down the Animas River through Durango. He has been unimpressed with the EPA’s initial response.

“The poor communication is unacceptable,” Tipton said in a statement. “If a mining operator or other private business caused the spill to occur, the EPA would be all over them. The EPA admits fault, and as such must be accountable and held to the same standard.”

Tipton isn’t alone in his outrage. Residents started an online petition to President Barack Obama on Friday, calling on the president to hold the EPA responsible.

“How much of a fine do you think the EPA should impose on itself?” the petition states. “I know just the group to hold them accountable. We’ll have to call the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, met with state agencies Friday, said spokeswoman Kathy Green. She said the governor’s office was still gathering facts. State agencies have been assisting federal officials.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will be assisting with water-quality sampling, assessing potential impacts on people and the environment and advising local health officials about when the water is safe to use. The Department of Natural Resources is assessing potential impacts on fish and aquatic life, notifying downstream water users and providing technical assistance to the EPA as it looks at a long-term fix for the mine site.

“The governor’s made clear his priority is, and will continue to be, to ensure public safety and minimize environmental impact,” Green said.

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

Lawmakers letter (PDF)

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