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States downstream from contaminated river upset that EPA didn't alert them

States downstream from contaminated river upset that EPA didn't alert them
Ben Brown with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, left, receives a San Juan River sample from hydrologic technician Ryan Parker in Montezuma Creek, Utah. (Matt York / Associated Press)

As the Environmental Protection Agency continued to monitor 3 million gallons of mine waste released into Colorado's Animas River, residents in two states downstream decried the federal agency Tuesday, saying it failed to alert them to mustard-colored sludge headed their way.

Officials for New Mexico's San Juan County Office of Emergency Management said they learned of the oncoming rush of wastewater laden with lead, arsenic and other heavy metals not from the EPA, but in a newspaper in nearby Durango, Colo.

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In Page, Ariz., Mayor Bill Diak said that when he contacted EPA officials to attend an emergency community meeting Monday, the agency said no one was available. Agency officials responded only after Diak called his congresswoman in Washington, he said.

"We told her, 'Hey, this really is a concern to us and the EPA doesn't have time to talk to us,'" Diak said. "They dropped the ball — using the media to get the word out."

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency took full responsibility for the spill caused by federal and contract workers cleaning up the defunct Gold King Mine above the town of Silverton, Colo. McCarthy, who planned to visit affected areas Wednesday, said the spill "pains me to no end. I am absolutely, deeply sorry this ever happened."

By late Tuesday, the leading edge of the spill was eight miles west of Farmington, N.M., more than 100 miles from the disaster site. Parts of the Animas and San Juan rivers have been declared disaster areas, as governors from Colorado and New Mexico conducted visits to communities that have shut off outtake valves from the polluted waterways.

In a news conference held at an agency command center in Durango, EPA officials said workers were treating the 500 to 700 gallons of tainted water still leaking from the Gold King Mine.

Though the EPA said stretches of the Animas south of the spill were clearing, residents described orange-colored silt on the river bottom and shoreline in many places. The agency will continue to monitor the silt "for years to come," EPA officials said, noting that sediment would be stirred up by rainfall or spring runoff.

The plume was expected to reach Lake Powell this week, but the pollutants were not expected to threaten the lake or Colorado River-fed drinking water for Western states including California.

Justyn Liff, a Colorado spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the 3-million-gallon spill was about the size of 4 1/2 Olympic-sized pools. Lake Powell, she said, contained 4.2 trillion gallons of water, comparable to 6.4 million Olympic-sized pools.

"That's assuming the full amount reaches Lake Powell," she said.

Mic Stewart, director of water quality for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, agreed that the contamination would take years to hit the region, if ever.

"The event [happened] about 850 miles upstream of us, so we have a couple factors in our favor," he said. "It's a long distance away."

In Colorado, the state parks and wildlife department continued to monitor fish placed in the Animas River near Durango to gauge health effects of the sludge. The agency placed scores of rainbow trout fingerlings from a local hatchery into the river at three locations.

"So far, they're surviving," said spokesman Matt Robbins. "As for the wildlife that might be drinking this water, we don't know."

Communities that rely on the Animas and the San Juan for water say the spill has upset their way of life.

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Michele Truby-Tillen, a spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management in New Mexico, said people who drew their water directly from the Animas River had been coming into nearby Farmington to take showers. Officials have blocked farmers from irrigating crops with river water and have ordered thousands of well owners to have their water tested.

"People ask, 'Is this going to affect our health and welfare for the next 10 years?' All we say is to take this one day at a time. The long term will have to wait," she said.

She criticized the EPA for not giving residents warning that the flood of polluted water was coming their way. "If they had done that, farmers and well-users could have drawn out as much clean water as they could before this set upon us," she said. "But that didn't happen."

The attorneys general of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah plan to visit the spill site on Wednesday and discuss potential "legal remedies," according to the New Mexico attorney general's office.

"I'm not taking anything off of the table. Right now we have people preparing for a lawsuit, if that is what we need to do," Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said in a Tuesday appearance on Fox News.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, also criticized the EPA in a televised news conference in Durango, albeit with a softer tone.

"When we have an incident like this, it is, in every sense, unacceptable," he said. But Hickenlooper, while promising accountability, declined to condemn the agency, saying the EPA's intentions — to treat the wastewater in the mine — were good.

Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's administrator for the Pacific Southwest Region, said the agency was investigating why it took 24 hours for officials to notify governors in affected states of the spill.

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FOR THE RECORD

Aug. 12, 1:40 p.m.: An eariler version of this article identified Jared Blumenfeld as an EPA spokesman. He is the EPA's administrator for the Pacific Southwest Region.

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"There are 300 miles of river between the incident and Lake Powell. On fast-moving issues we focus on the most affected areas first," he said. "But today we are coordinating better than we did at first."

In Page in northern Arizona, residents wait with a sense of dread for the oncoming pollution.

On Monday, Mayor Diak held an unusual meeting attended by 150 residents, many of whom questioned EPA officials who phoned into the event.

"People were concerned over their drinking water," Diak said of the town of 9,000 residents. "The doomsday people were predicting the price of water to rise."

But Diak hoped Lake Powell would hold its own.

"Remember, this is a big lake with 1,900 miles of coastline, more than the entire West Coast of the U.S.," he said. "Bottom line, this is like adding one drop of water with red dye into a pool of 15,000 gallons. So just try and find the red dye."

Twitter: @jglionna

Twitter: @mattdepearce

Glionna reported from Las Vegas and Pearce from Los Angeles.

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