Utah attorney general tours Gold King Mine spill site

ST. GEORGE – Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, along with Colorado’s attorney general and other officials from both states, took a fact-finding tour of the site Wednesday where 3 million gallons of toxic mine water spilled into the Animas River on Aug 5. Filled with heavy metal contaminants, the spill eventually reached the San Juan River and Lake Powell last week.

Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine. Officials have said that federal contractors accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of wastewater laden with heavy metals last week at the Gold King Mine near Silverton. The pollution flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah, Siverton, Colorado, Aug. 14, 2015 | AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, St. George News
Water flows through a series of sediment retention ponds built to reduce heavy metal and chemical contaminants from the Gold King Mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine. Officials have said that federal contractors accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of wastewater laden with heavy metals last week at the Gold King Mine near Silverton. The pollution flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah, Siverton, Colorado, Aug. 14, 2015 | AP Photo by Brennan Linsley , St. George News

“I’ve always made it a practice in all of my cases, especially one of this magnitude, to go to the site to get a true understanding and appreciation of the dynamics of what occurred,” Reyes said in a phone conference Wednesday.

The tour of the origin point of the spill – the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado – was a unique opportunity, Reyes said, as the Environmental Protection Agency has thus far only allowed a handful of other federal, state and Native American officials to visit it.

“There was a large, gaping hole, and I won’t even guess at the dimensions, and some of the debris from whatever was holding back the water,” Reyes said as he described the release site.

Some water was still pouring out of the hole, which the EPA had diverted toward various pools for treatment.

The toxic spill was accidentally triggered by EPA and contracted work crews earlier this month.

During the conference call, Reyes said the spill was possibly caused by the EPA’s attempt to measure the depths of the wastewater in the mine. EPA officials on-site wouldn’t comment on the matter due to an investigation into the spill that is being conducted by the Department of the Interior. However, some state officials said they believe that to be the case.

Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff's Office, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo. Thursday. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. Near Durango, Colo., Aug. 6, 2015 | Photo by Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP; St. George News
Dan Bender, with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, takes a water sample from the Animas River near Durango, Colo. Thursday. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. Near Durango, Colorado., Aug. 6, 2015 | Photo by Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP; St. George News

While there have been accusations that the EPA deliberately caused the toxic spill, Reyes said: “Currently we don’t have any evidence that supports a purposeful release.”

He further said: “Part of the reason we came here was to separate myth from fact. … I actually asked (the EPA workers) point-blank if they were aware of any evidence that might support the suspicion people have about purposeful motives, and they categorically denied any of that.”

Still, senators from the three states impacted by the spill – Utah, New Mexico and Colorado – are not happy with how the EPA has handled the situation. They sent a letter to the White House Monday demanding the agency be more transparent and efficient in its cleanup efforts. They also demanded that the EPA ensure state and local governments will be compensated for damages caused by the agency’s mishap.

A second letter from the six senators was sent to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Wednesday, asking him to address 13 questions related to the spill, including: “whether the EPA followed its own legal obligations, policies, and guidelines in the run up and aftermath of the spill,” according to a press release from the office of Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Ben Brown, with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, takes a pH level reading from a probe in the San Juan River, in Montezuma Creek, Utah, Aug 11, 2015. A spill containing lead and arsenic from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo., leaked into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River in southern Utah, on Aug. 5. The spill was caused by a mining and safety team working for the EPA, Montezuma Creek, Utah, Aug. 11, 2015 | AP Photo by Matt York, St. George News
Ben Brown, with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, takes a pH level reading from a probe in the San Juan River, in Montezuma Creek, Utah, Aug 11, 2015. A spill containing lead and arsenic from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo., leaked into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River in southern Utah, on Aug. 5. The spill was caused by a mining and safety team working for the EPA, Montezuma Creek, Utah, Aug. 11, 2015 | AP Photo by Matt York, St. George News

“The chronic, long-term concern is: What will be the effect over years, decades on our communities in Lake Powell, and (San Juan and Kane) counties, as people recreate and people also try to make a living agriculturally?” Reyes said.

While the San Juan River has been cleared by the state for agricultural use, the heavy metals brought with the spill have settled on the river bottom. On the lake bottom, in the case of Lake Powell, Reyes said, there’s still a significant amount of lead, arsenic, zinc, mercury and cadmium left behind.

“These metals are toxic to trout and other species in the concentration we believe may exist,” the attorney general said.

As for the short-term impacts of the spill, he said:

It disrupted and halted recreation, swimming, boating, fishing. It’s impacted irrigation, farming and ranching, tourism and our recreation-based economy.

As for who will pay bill for potential damages, Reyes said, his office is looking into potential legal action.

“Who pays the costs for that? How is that going to get taken care of?” he said.” I don’t think the state of Utah should bear that cost much, if at all.”

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Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

 

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2 Comments

  • native born new mexican August 20, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    I hope the Mr. Reyes does not back down on this one bit. Did he really think he was going to get honest answers from the people who have everything to lose if the truth comes out? You don’t ask the wolf if he was the one who killed the chickens. You look for paw prints in the chickens yard. The EPA workers are not going to just come right out and tell him they did wrong.

    • Bender August 21, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Reyes’ visit was political grandstanding of the first order. He wants to get to the bottom of who peed in the pool. Meanwhile big coal/big power in the U.S. continues to dump 50 tons of elemental mercury in the air we breathe each year. The heavy metals in the CO spill will likely never affect a human being. The airborne mercury from coal burning is a proven health hazard to all of us.

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