By ELIZABETH WARMERDAM (CN) – The governors of Colorado and New Mexico declared a state of emergency and the Navajo Nation threatened legal action after EPA workers spilled 3 million gallons of carcinogenic chemicals into the Animas River.
The contaminated sludge was accidentally released on Aug. 5 from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., by Environmental Protection Agency workers who were inspecting and cleaning up the mine.
The wastewater – containing high levels of heavy metals, including aluminum, arsenic, copper, lead and mercury – was carried by the Animas River into New Mexico and eventually into the San Juan River.
The plume is expected to reach Lake Powell by Wednesday.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez declared a state of emergency Monday and directed a multi-agency team to stay in northwest New Mexico to provide on-the-ground support for residents dealing with the spill.
“I had the chance to see the spill with my own eyes. It is absolutely devastating, and I am heartbroken by this environmental catastrophe,” Martinez said.
Martinez criticized the EPA for lack of communication and inability to provide accurate information. The agency said at first that the spill was 1 million gallons, then tripled its estimate over the weekend.
“New Mexicans deserve answers we can rely on,” Martinez said.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper also declared a state of disaster emergency Monday, allocating $500,000 from the state’s Disaster Emergency Fund to pay for response and technical assessments.
“We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to worth together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Hickenlooper said.
The Navajo Nation, in the Four Corners Region, declared an emergency, shut down water intake systems and stopped diverting water from the San Juan River.
The Navajo said they intend to hold the EPA responsible for the pollution. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the EPA is “not going to get away with this.”
Begaye told his attorney general to take immediate action against the EPA to “the fullest extent of the law.”
“The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources,” Begaye said.
The EPA on Monday said it has deployed a large response team to Durango and Silverton, and to several locations in New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Reservation to coordinate with the states, tribes and communities on responses.
The contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat, according to the EPA.
The agency said two of its primary objectives are to ensure that people have safe drinking water and that appropriate precautions are in place for recreational use and contact with river water.
Stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers will be closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses through at least Aug. 17.
The EPA has taken steps to capture and treat the discharge at Gold King Mine by constructing four ponds there to treat water by reducing acidity levels and removing dissolved metals. The treated water is discharged into a tributary.
So far, no die-off of wildlife in the Animas or San Juan rivers has been detected. EPA officials said all but one of a test batch of 180 fish deliberately exposed to the water survived over the weekend.
The agency said it is “committed to take responsibility for the discharge and impacts to affected communities.”
Although EPA regulations state that the agency has six months to resolve a claim, officials said the EPA will respond to Gold Mine release claims as soon as possible.
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