Water Quality in Animas River at Pre-Spill Levels

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By Tripp Baltz

Aug. 13—Water quality in the Animas River from the Silverton, Colo., area to the Durango municipal water intake has returned to pre-spill levels a week after the Environmental Protection Agency triggered a 3-million-gallon release of mining waste.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said during a visit to Durango Aug. 12 that the determination was based on water samples collected at numerous intervals beginning Aug. 5, when the spill occurred. EPA investigators accidentally unleashed the mining wastewater at the Gold King Mine on Upper Cement Creek.

Upper Cement Creek flows into the Animas River, which merges with the San Juan River in New Mexico. The San Juan then empties into the Colorado River at Lake Powell in Utah.

The plume of waste contained elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, but the metals have now flowed through the Durango area and are approaching Lake Powell in Utah.

Governor's Drink 

The water's quality in Durango was good enough for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) to drink a few gulps Aug. 12 after it was treated with iodine to kill microorganisms.

The results showing the water quality for the river has returned to pre-spill levels were based on validated sampling data collected from Aug. 5-9, the EPA said. The agency has shared the data with state, local and tribal officials in Colorado to assist them in their decisions regarding the on-going use of water resources.

The EPA plans to continue to monitor, analyze and share data for downstream river segments as it becomes available, it said.

Suit ‘On the Table.’

On Aug. 12 the attorneys general of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah gave a briefing in which they said a suit against the EPA was “still on the table.” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman (R) said the likelihood of litigation depended on the extent to which the EPA takes responsibility, and pays the cleanup and damages costs, for the spill.

While in the region, McCarthy met with Hickenlooper, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.). She also met with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) at a water sampling facility in Farmington, N.M.

McCarthy's briefing took place at the Unified EPA Area Command in Durango. On Aug. 13, McCarthy met with Navajo Nation President Begaye and his leadership team, touring the Navajo Nation and surveying the San Juan River.

The administrator also was scheduled to visit the Farmington Incident Command Center, meet with officials from the San Juan Water Commission, and visit the Aztec Emergency Response Center.

Irrigation Flushing 

Inspecting and flushing began Aug. 12 on select irrigation districts in southwest Colorado. Officials took the measured step before opening irrigation for farmers and ranchers who depend on the Animas for their crops and livestock, according to an Aug. 13 Joint Information Center statement from several Colorado government agencies.

Two ditches north of Durango had very little sediment, but after opening the head gates for flushing, they produced a slight, temporary change in color of the Animas River, as expected, the statement said.

Despite the opening of the ditches, owners of livestock are cautioned against allowing livestock watering until the sediment has passed from the ditches and canals, the center said.

Veterinary science experts and agriculture professionals arriving in Durango are set to help address concerns residents have expressed about their livestock. Topics of concern surround the remaining sediment in ditches, canals and the river, the center said.

Durango Water Intakes 

Although the city of Durango has received notification from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that it can begin to collect and treat water from the Animas River, the intake to the drinking water system from the Animas River remains closed.

“The City is proceeding carefully to ensure the absolute safety of our drinking water, which is our top priority,” Matt Holden, utilities engineer for the city of Durango, said in an Aug. 13 statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at abaltz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com