DENVER (CN) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put a hold on field inspections such as the one that accidentally triggered a 3 million-gallon toxic spill into the Animas River in Colorado.
The EPA put the kybosh on inspections like the one it was running at the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, when EPA workers sent the enormous plume of mercury and other toxins into the river near Silverton, Colo. The orange and yellow contamination floated downstream into the Navajo Nation, Utah and New Mexico.
“We are going to be fully accountable for this in a transparent way,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. “The EPA takes full responsibility for this incident. No agency could be more upset.”
The fiasco began when the EPA sent contractors from Environmental Restoration LLC, a site remediation company, to the abandoned Gold King Mine just outside of Silverton. The workers were contracted to place a pipe at the mine entrance to pump contaminated water out of it, but the machinery dislodged enough debris to release 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater. EPA officials say they underestimated the water pressure.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared the site a disaster area, the Navajo Nation has promised a lawsuit, and Utah and New Mexico are far from happy. They blame the EPA for supplying little information, some of it incorrect, to the public.
The EPA originally reported the spill was 1 million gallons.
“I had the chance to see the spill with my own eyes. It is absolutely devastating, and I am heartbroken by this environmental catastrophe,” New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. “One day the spill is 1 million gallons. The next it’s 3 million. New Mexicans deserve answers we can rely on.”
The U.S. Geological Survey reported Wednesday that the yellow and orange plume continued to pour from the mine at 610 gallons per minute. The EPA has built pools to collect the runoff before leaks into tributaries of the Animas, and is treating the water as it emerges.
The Animas River is an important source of irrigation for the Navajo, many of whom have had to stop using the river water. The tribe was not told of the spill until 24 hours after it began.
“They are not going to get away with this,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said at a public meeting. “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.”
Navajo leaders this week claimed that EPA officials were trying to make Navajos sign waivers of claims for damages spill. The EPA denied it.
“EPA is not offering immediate reimbursements for damages from the Gold King Mine water,” the agency said in a statement. “It is not true that if someone submits a claim that by doing so they limit or waive future rights.”
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