Colorado mine spill prompts changes in warning system

AP News
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Posted: Sep 02, 2015 4:22 PM

DENVER (AP) — A massive wastewater spill from an old gold mine in southwestern Colorado prompted state officials to expand the list of downstream users they warn after such accidents.

Colorado health officials notified only agencies inside their state after 3 million gallons of water tainted with heavy metals gushed out of the Gold King mine Aug. 5, eventually reaching the Animas, San Juan and Colorado rivers in New Mexico and Utah.

In the future, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will warn downstream states as well, department spokesman Mark Salley said.

Colorado officials didn't know the magnitude of the spill when they issued their warnings, he said.

Officials in neighboring New Mexico are unhappy because they say the federal Environmental Protection Agency never alerted them, even though an EPA-supervised crew inadvertently triggered the spill, and it poured into the Animas River about 70 miles upstream from the Colorado-New Mexico line.

The crew was trying to enter the mine as part of a cleanup operation and breached a debris pile that was holding back the water.

New Mexico officials first heard about the spill nearly 24 hours after it happened, and the news came from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, not the EPA, said Chris Sanchez, a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez.

The Southern Ute reservation straddles the Animas River in Colorado, and tribal officials had been alerted by the Colorado health department.

New Mexico officials contacted the EPA after hearing from the Southern Utes, Sanchez said.

"The EPA to this day has not been able to answer why the agency never contacted the state of New Mexico," Sanchez said in an email to The Associated Press Wednesday.

EPA spokesman David Gray said Wednesday New Mexico officials were notified after the EPA's Dallas regional office learned of the spill. His email comment didn't say when that occurred.

New Mexico is part of a Dallas-based EPA region; Colorado is part of a separate region with headquarters in Denver.

The EPA has come under sharp criticism for causing the spill and for its handling of the aftermath. At least four congressional committee hearings are scheduled, starting Sept. 9.

The EPA's inspector general is investigating. The Interior Department, which is separate from the EPA, is also investigating, with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency accepts the responsibility for the spill, calling it tragic and unfortunate.

The EPA has said water quality is returning to pre-spill levels. Colorado health officials said Wednesday it is safe to eat trout from the Animas River.

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