EPA WON’T PAY FINES FOR ANIMAS RIVER SPILL, CRITICS CRY FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
In the week since the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered a toxic spill into the Animas River, critics are stepping up their disapproval of the agency’s response to the disaster.
From Capitol Hill lawmakers to state governors and Native America tribes, groups across the West are demanding the EPA be held accountable for damage to the environment. The EPA is taking heat for waiting a day to notify states that the spill had occurred and for grossly underestimating their initial estimate of spilled wastewater.
According to the Washington Times, the agency won’t be paying fines for the spill, despite fining other businesses, agencies and individuals who cause environmental damage.
“Sovereign immunity. The government doesn’t fine itself,” Thomas L. Sansonetti, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s division of environment and natural resources, told the Washington Times.
A mining and safety team sent by the EPA triggered the spill in the abandoned Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colorado, on Wednesday, Aug. 5 while working with heavy machinery to pump out contaminated water that had been leaking into Cement Creek. The burst of water, laden with heavy metals and sediment — estimated at more than 3 million gallons — coursed through the creek into the Animas River.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez was less than thrilled with how the EPA handled informing her state about the spill. Chris Sanchez, spokesperson for the downriver governor, said in a statement that the Southern Ute Tribe told their office about the toxic discharge headed their way.
“The Governor is disturbed by the lack of information provided by the EPA to our environmental agencies in New Mexico and strongly believes that people in our communities downstream deserve to have all the information about this situation,” Sanchez said in a statement.
Gov. Martinez isn’t the only politician upset by the agency’s actions post-blowout. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, along with Rep. Scott Tipton sent a letter to the EPA on Aug. 7 urging the agency to take swift action to communicate results of testing and commit to longterm monitoring and cleanup efforts.
The White House has yet to make a statement on the spill, instead deferring questions to the EPA.
The EPA is testing to determine exactly what is in the water, but early reports say copper, iron and zinc are among the metals flowing through the river. There are currently no estimates on the cost of cleaning the spill.
Officials in San Juan and La Plata counties have closed the river from the San Juan County line to the border of New Mexico until further notice and are urging residents to cut back on water use. The EPA says the spill will not harm people, but impacts on wildlife are unclear. Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed 108 fingerling trout in cages along the Animas River on Aug. 6 to assess impacts to wildlife. So far, one fish has died.
Fish long ago fled from existing pollution in Cement Creek and the upper Animas, but the traveling contaminants will reach far beyond the previous pollution.
The Colorado Department of Public Health does not anticipate adverse health effects from limited exposure to metals in the water. However, they advise people to avoid contact with yellow- or orangecolored water and sediment.
The mustard colored water crossed into New Mexico on Friday, Aug. 7, and the plume of contamination is making its way to Lake Powell on the border of Arizona and Utah.
— Mollie Putzig