The Animas River, One Week Later

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy spoke in Durango, Colo., and Farmington, N.M., about progress being made in the Animas River, claiming that the latest testing results after a major spill of mine wastewater into the river showed improvements in water quality. McCarthy said she was heartbroken by the spill and announced that investigation field work would stop at mines nationwide as the agency looks into what led up to the spill. She also indicated that the river was "restoring itself" just one week after EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater while inspecting Gold King Mine outside of Silverton, Colo. The spill contained metals such as arsenic, lead, and iron and has affected communities in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.

In the hours that followed the spill, test results showed water samples contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and 3,500 times the exposure limit for human ingestion. These results did not deter Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper from reportedly drinking out of a bottle of the river water on Tuesday after treating it with iodine to "kill giardia and E. coli," neither of which was a concern during the spill. Apparently, his goal was to prove that the water was back to normal less than a week after the massive release of heavy metal-laden mine waste into the river. The gesture has been widely panned as careless, bizarre, and in stark opposition to instructions given to the general public: "Avoid showering, drinking, any type of bodily contact with that water. Don't let the livestock drink it," said Jack King, with the New Mexico Environment Department.

No stranger to criticism, Hickenlooper is a long-time proponent of all things fossil fuel. Besides appearing in ads paid for by the fossil fuel industry and denying the existence of climate change, his attempts to help overturn local drilling regulations and support of hydraulic fracturing peaked with his 2013 proclamation that fracking fluid is not only safe to be around but is literally harmless enough for human consumption (which he claimed to have done himself).

New Mexico's Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn reiterated that no one should be drinking river water under the best of circumstances and, if Hickenlooper did in fact drink the contaminated water, it was a "reckless and irresponsible act by a public official" that sent the wrong message to parents and children. "He might as well stick 15 cigarettes in his mouth and light them all at the same time and take a picture about how that's good for you," Flynn said.

Communities up and down the Animas and San Juan rivers have been affected by the wastewater, but the Navajo Nation in New Mexico appears to have the most at risk. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said EPA wasn't honest with him and is questioning everything the EPA tells him. Officials say the spill is around 3 million gallons, though Begaye said he believes it's clearly much more than that. McCarthy has promised to look into claims that her staff wasn't up front about the magnitude of the spill, as well as their lack of communication with tribal leaders and state governors. The agency also stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom. "The EPA, our mission, is public health and we will hold ourselves to a higher standard than everyone else."

As of Aug. 13, Colorado said it was once again safe to process river water into drinking water, but the Animas remains closed to boating.

Posted by Julia Troute on Aug 14, 2015

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