#AnimasRiver: NM Sec. of State claims that EPA kept Gold King Mine spill data secret for weeks

Bottom of Animas River at Durango August 8, 2015 via Twitter and The Durango Herald
Bottom of Animas River at Durango August 8, 2015 via Twitter and The Durango Herald

From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via the Farmington Daily-Times:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials refused for weeks to share water-quality data with their state counterparts following a blowout of toxic wastewater from a Colorado mine that fouled rivers across the Southwest, New Mexico’s top environmental regulator testified Thursday.

The move by federal agencies aimed to downplay the severity of the spill, hobbling the state’s response to the high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants involved in the spill, New Mexico Secretary of Environment Ryan Flynn said.

His criticisms, aired before a U.S. House committee investigating the Aug. 5 accident, offered more fodder for congressional Republicans eager to find fault with a federal agency they perceive as having an anti-business agenda…

EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said water-quality test results were made public on the agency’s website as soon as they were validated. The EPA has closely coordinated with state officials and American Indians from the Navajo Nation, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes to keep them apprised of the test results, Allen said.

But Flynn said the EPA’s warning about the pollution came belatedly, and it was followed by incomplete testing data presented in a way that minimized the presence of contaminants above drinking-water standards. He called it a “PR stunt” by the EPA…

Flynn said he remained concerned about contaminated sediments harming the environment, and a long-term monitoring plan offered by the agency is inadequate. That echoed concerns raised by Navajo President Russell Begaye, who questioned the EPA’s role overseeing the response to a spill that it caused.

Thursday’s hearing before the House committees on Natural Resources and Oversight and Government Reform was the fourth this month examining the spill. Republican lawmakers have used the events to bash the EPA for its handling of issues ranging from climate change to the protection of streams.

Democrats have sought to put the focus on the mining industry and ongoing pollution from tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the country…

The Colorado spill came from a cluster of century-old mines in the San Juan mountains that together discharge an estimated 330 million gallons of toxic wastewater annually, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified. That’s over 100 times more pollution than the Gold King spill.

“We were trying to get a handle on a situation that was growing increasingly dangerous,” McCarthy said. “This is not the EPA’s … finest hour. But I am here to tell you that we are taking responsibility.”

She added that mining companies contribute “close to zero” money to help clean up such sites, under an 1872 mining law that the administration of President Barack Obama has proposed to change…

McCarthy responded that she did not believe the law had been broken, but a review of the accident needs to be completed before a final determination. An Interior Department investigation of the spill is due in late October. The EPA Inspector General’s office is conducting a separate review.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The 3-million-gallon blowout of mine waste last month didn’t cause a massive die-off of trout in the Animas River, but wildlife officials are still concerned about the steady decline of fish populations over the past decade.

In August and early September, Colorado Parks and Wildlife crews conducted a survey of trout numbers in sections of the Animas near Durango and Silverton.

“We did it last year, and normally we skip a year,” Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said at the time. “But because of the spill, our biologists decided it’d be a good time to do it again, and see what’s going on.”

A prepared statement from the Parks and Wildlife on Tuesday said the survey did not show effects on fish from the mine spill, but the results did provide a “mixed picture” for trout.

In Durango, officials saw an increase in the overall biomass of fish, but aquatic biologist Jim White said that’s because Parks and Wildlife stocks about 40,000 fingerling trout every year.

Two segments – from the La Plata County Fairgrounds to the Ninth Street Bridge, and from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge – met the “Gold Medal” water status for biomass, a standard of 60 pounds of fish per surface area.

But overall, the river did not meet the Gold Medal status.

Fish greater than 14 inches improved slightly from 2014 – from nine to 11 fish per acre – but the Gold Medal standard is 12 fish longer than 14 inches or more per acre.

Parks and Wildlife officials said the number of large fish remains low, and trout have shown little signs of natural reproduction, issues that wildlife experts have been combating for almost 10 years.

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