As EPA Mine Waste Spill Keeps Flowing, Warnings Grow Over Long-Term Risks

There will be no easy cleanup of the spill that sent millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into a Colorado waterway last week and has now contaminated rivers in three neighboring states—and it could take years to calculate the full damage of the accident, including risks to public health, experts warn.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman said Wednesday that legal representatives from her state, as well as New Mexico and Utah, must be “vigilant” in holding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accountable for its promises to pay cleanup bills and other costs.

The EPA took full responsibility for the accident after workers with the agency inadvertently released at least three million gallons of contaminants into the state’s Animas River during an inspection of Colorado’s defunct Gold King Mine.

“We have to be vigilant as attorneys general, as the lawyers for the state, as protectors of the environment, to be sure that the assurances that we received today from the Environmental Protection Agency are the same in two years, in five years, even 10 years when we discover what the damage to the environment actually is,” Coffman said.

The EPA on Wednesday said it was planning both an internal and independent probe into the spill to determine how its workers could have caused the accident.

New Mexico Sierra Club organizer Robert Tohe said the spill highlights the “legacy of toxic mining practices” in the U.S. “The company that owns this mine has apparently allowed dangerous conditions to fester for years, and the mishandling of clean-up efforts by the EPA have only made a bad situation much worse,” Tohe said Tuesday.

Also Wednesday, Utah Governor Gary Herbert joined Colorado and New Mexico in issuing a state of emergency over the spill, which has fouled hundreds of miles of waterways in those and is currently flowing toward Arizona. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes reiterated Coffman’s call for vigilance and noted that EPA officials prevented attorneys general from touring the mine or meeting with EPA chief Gina McCarthy when she visited the site of the spill.

Local media reports:

The EPA maintains that the waste—which includes arsenic, lead, copper, zinc, aluminum, and cadmium—has not harmed any wildlife in the areas surrounding the Animas River or the San Juan River in New Mexico. But local environmental experts are not so sure, warning that as the heavy metals settle along river bottoms and shores, they are sure to pose risks in the future.

New Mexico Environmental Secretary Ryan Flynn warned that it will be vital to track “some of the longer-term issues that affect humans as well as wildlife,” according to the Associated Press.

Added hydrologist Tom Myers, “There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time. Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”

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The Navajo Nation, which was heavily impacted by the spill and subsequent water shutoffs, also declared their intention to charge the EPA for damages the tribe will incur in the future.

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, told AP that heavy metals were already present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river.”

“This new water coming in was the avenue to creating new development and creating long-term sustainability,” Kontz said. “Now it’s almost like your legs were cut out from under you.”

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