The Navajo Nation, Colorado and New Mexico declared disaster emergencies on August 10 as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed that the spill its workers had triggered last week was not one million gallons of mining wastewater, but three million.
Environmental health experts said the effects could play out for years, and one called the situation “a real mess,” CNN reported.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye toured the site over the weekend and briefed members via video and in-person meetings. He vowed to make the EPA accountable for cleanup and for supplying water to Navajo chapters that rely on the San Juan River to water crops and feed livestock, and said he was assembling a team of lawyers.
“The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster, and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources,” Begaye told a packed Shiprock Chapter House in Window Rock on Saturday August 8. “I have instructed Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take immediate action against the EPA to the fullest extent of the law to protect Navajo families and resources.”
Residents along the San Juan River have been warned to stay away from the waterway. It is closed until further notice and should not be used to water crops or feed animals, the Navajo Nation said.
EPA workers accidentally triggered the spill on August 5 while examining and remediating the abandoned Gold King Mine. Unbeknownst to the crew wielding a backhoe, there was a huge buildup of water behind what turned out to be a flimsy dam. It burst when they moved the loose soil and stones holding back the water, unintentionally unleashing a sludgy torrent into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, which flows through Southern Ute territory.
From there it went to the San Juan River, arriving on Saturday August 8.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez was angry that she was not notified immediately of the spill. She also expressed concern about the lack of information on the contents of the wastewater, which the EPA said was still being tested. It is known to contain lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum and copper, among other heavy metals, but the amounts and exact composition were still being determined late Monday.
“I had the chance to see the spill with my own eyes. It is absolutely devastating, and I am heartbroken by this environmental catastrophe,” New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez said in a statement after touring the site of the August 5 leak near Silverton, Colorado. “As I’ve said before, I am very concerned by EPA’s lack of communication and inability to provide accurate information. One day, the spill is one million gallons. The next, it’s three million. New Mexicans deserve answers we can rely on.”
Martinez’s declaration makes at least $750,000 available for monitoring and cleanup, the statement said. So too with the emergency declaration of Colorado Governor John Hickenloooper, who freed up $500,000 from the state’s Disaster Emergency Fund to pay for the response and technical assessments.
“Our priority remains to ensure public safety and minimize environmental impacts,” said Hickenlooper in a statement. “By declaring a disaster emergency, we are able to better support impacted businesses and communities with state resources. We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to work together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The EPA said the spill is dissipating and is no longer coloring the waters neon yellow-orange. The agency also said, according to the Associated Press, that the lurid color came from iron in the water and that it looked more unhealthy than it was—although the water was still being tested for content, and arsenic levels were spiking along the 100-mile-long plume route.
“The EPA has said the contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat,” the Associated Press reported. “Experts and federal environmental officials say they expect the river system to dilute the heavy metals before they pose a longer-term threat.”
The San Juan and Animas rivers are each closed until at least August 17, though the Navajo Nation said the San Juan would be closed until further notice. Begaye called upon the EPA to provide water to affected tribal members for drinking, irrigation and livestock, as well as hay and feed for livestock. Begaye called on the EPA to fund an “independent lab onsite for real-time monitoring of chemicals that may migrate into our irrigation or public water system.”
The ultimate culprits, of course, are the companies that left the mines there. There are 22,000 abandoned mines in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, many of them collecting water, according to the Washington Post.