#AnimasRiver: New Mexico still irked, seeks water tests, $1.5 million after #GoldKingMine — The Denver Post

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

New Mexico officials Tuesday accused Colorado of blindly accepting assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that the Animas River has returned to conditions that existed before the Gold King Mine disaster — and warned they’re still mulling a legal battle.

New Mexico’s chief environmental official also is pressing the EPA to reimburse $1.5 million spent responding to the agency-triggered Aug. 5 blowout, which spilled 880,000 pounds of acidic heavy metals downriver.

“Colorado and the EPA keep saying everything has returned to pre-event levels. That’s just false, not backed up by the data,” said New Mexico’s Ryan Flynn, a Cabinet secretary who runs the state Environment Department.

“There’s still a hazard. The risk is still there. We’re having to deal with that risk. We shouldn’t be having to address, on our own, a risk that was created by others,” Flynn said.

Colorado officials didn’t respond.

EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said the agency has been working with New Mexico “and will review their submission as quickly as possible.” New Mexico sought reimbursement for about $375,000 about a week ago then revised that to include additional response costs, Grantham said…

New Mexico residents in Farmington, Aztec and other communities have raised concerns about lead and other heavy metals deposited along river banks. They contend that heavy rain and flooding dislodge contaminants, causing spikes in lead levels. They acknowledge that municipal treatment plants remove contaminants and that lead may have existed in soil before the disaster — but they demand further study…

And New Mexico also is pleased that Silverton residents and Gov. John Hickenlooper have asked the EPA to launch a Superfund cleanup, he said. “But the jury is still out on whether we’re going to move forward to court.”

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

A $1.5 million bill sent by New Mexico to the Environmental Protection Agency on Friday could be the last chance for federal officials and the state of Colorado to avoid a lawsuit related to the Gold King Mine spill.

Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman on Tuesday asked the EPA to quickly resolve individuals’ claims, which have not been settled more than seven months after the incident.

The requests from New Mexico and Colorado highlight the uncertainty that lingers in the aftermath of the spill.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Durango Herald on Tuesday that his researchers reject assertions from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Colorado environment officials that the Animas River quickly returned to safe pre-event conditions after the Aug. 5 spill of toxic heavy metals.

The rift between New Mexico and Colorado is a departure from the unity promised when Coffman hosted the attorneys general of New Mexico and Utah in Rotary Park in Durango just a week after the spill…

New Mexico also asked the EPA to provide financial and technical support for a long-term monitoring plan it developed in partnership with Utah. And the state wants a seat at the table for ongoing Superfund discussions.

“If we can’t come to alignment on those issues, then ultimately the state of New Mexico will have to do what is necessary to make sure our communities are protected,” Flynn said.

Coffman said her office has been in communication with New Mexico.

“I think these interstate matters are best resolved by talking to one another rather than lashing out in the press …” she said in an email to The Durango Herald. “We are committed to working with all the parties affected by this catastrophe to reach a good outcome as quickly as possible.”

Coffman’s letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy expressed concern for EPA’s “apparent failure to process claims of citizens” affected by the spill.

Fifty-one claims from individuals totaling nearly $5 million have not been paid, despite the EPA promising to “make every effort” to respond quickly.

“EPA’s inaction effectively forces Colorado citizens into federal court to resolve their claims or they must suffer further delay and uncertainty …” Coffman wrote to McCarthy. “Neither is fair or consistent with your commitment to take full responsibility for the damage.”

In January, New Mexico officials filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA and Colorado. A lawsuit could come as early as mid-April.

Colorado would become entangled in the lawsuit, as Flynn and attorneys for his department suggest that the state is liable for the incident. He added that his office is working “in lockstep” with New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office…

Colorado officials with the Department of Natural Resources have maintained since September that its Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety was never on board with the EPA’s restoration plan.

The disagreement came to light after the Aug. 24 release of an internal investigation by the EPA that determined that the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety agreed to put drainage piping through the entrance of the mine, contributing to the spill.

But former Colorado Department of Natural Resources Director Mike King wrote in response to the EPA’s investigation: “DRMS did not have any authority to manage, assess, or approve any work at the Gold King Mine … Operations at Gold King were entirely under EPA management using EPA contractors on an EPA response action.”

For its part, Colorado state officials submitted a request to the EPA for reimbursements of approximately $315,000. The request is being evaluated.

Separately, the EPA made initial payments of $197,792 to La Plata County and $220,000 to San Juan County. Another $71,571 is pending to the San Juan Basin Health Department…

The EPA also is working with states and tribal governments to allocate $2 million for water-quality monitoring, according to Grantham. She added that the agency is addressing New Mexico’s $1.5 million request.

A spokeswoman for Hickenlooper said the office would “not weigh in on Mr. Flynn’s comments. We remain focused on the work at hand which is supporting our local communities.”

“From afar, there seems to be this strange dance that’s occurring between the state of Colorado and EPA, where on one hand you have certain agencies like CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) who seem strongly aligned with EPA and … on the other hand, you have agencies like the Department of Natural Resources in Colorado who really seem to be disagreeing with EPA …” Flynn added. “I’m hopeful that Colorado will join the other downstream communities and really have that conversation so we can put in place some measures … to move forward.”

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