With the apparent arrival of an acidic mine waste plume in the San Juan River south of Bluff, Utah politicians kicked into gear Wednesday, with the governor declaring a state of emergency and the state's attorney general hinting at legal action.
Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency to mobilize agencies to help San Juan communities deal with the slow-moving waste from the defunct Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado. Attorney General Sean Reyes met in Durango, Colo., with the attorneys general for Colorado and New Mexico to talk about the three states' legal options. And Utah's congressional delegation and state lawmakers called for an investigation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and linked the spill to the state's public-lands fight.
Meanwhile, state scientists figure the 3-million-gallon stream of lead and arsenic-laced gunk has assimilated into the river, making it difficult to pinpoint the plume's location in Utah.
The spill was inadvertently triggered Aug. 5 when a wall of earth and timber gave way as an EPA contractor was digging to get a sample of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine outside Silverton, Colo. The sludge has slowly made its way down the Animas River in Colorado, which joins with the San Juan River outside Farmington, N.M., before flowing north into Utah. Whatever remains of the spill will end up in Lake Powell.
Initial water quality samples taken Aug. 8-9 showed low concentrations of heavy metals in the San Juan River, according to a news release from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Some samples had higher concentrations, but those seems to be linked to flooding from weekend thunderstorms.
Sediment in the San Juan River already contains naturally elevated concentrations of heavy metals, according to DEQ, so scientists still are struggling to determine whether the elevated samples are old or new.
In Durango on Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy ordered cleanup operations at other mine sites throughout the country to stop, pending an investigation into the Gold King Mine release.
Herbert blamed the EPA, saying he was "deeply disappointed."
"It was a preventable mistake, and they must be held accountable," Herbert said. "Our top priority will continue to be the safety of Utahns and wildlife affected. With potential long-term implications, the emergency proclamation will allow us to continue to support affected businesses and communities."
Reyes said his legal talks were geared toward just that: finding a way to hold the EPA accountable.
"One of the reasons I am in Durango today is ... to ensure the EPA lives up to its promise to be fully accountable and transparent — and to make our citizens and environment whole," he said in a statement. "It is premature to say what legal action will be taken until we better understand the damage that has been and is occurring and also learn what the EPA is willing to compensate. In that process, we will ensure the EPA, and any other potentially liable entities, are held legally responsible not just for short term effects but for damage that may not be known or understood for years to come."
Reyes and Herbert aren't the only government officials demanding accountability from the EPA. A statement from the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources said Utah Rep. Rob Bishop — who heads the committee — will visit Lake Powell next Monday to survey the aftermath of the spill.
"EPA's grave blunder is posing a serious threat to both the environment and the economy in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona," Bishop said. "Lands and projects managed by the Department of the Interior and Forest Service — not to mention the tribal concerns — within my Committee's jurisdiction will be seriously and negatively impacted."
He promised "extensive oversight over the causes and the short-term and long-term effects of this serious situation."
And fellow Republican Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to the environmental agency's inspector general criticizing the EPA's role in the release, its delay in making the spill public and its generally slow response to requests for information.
Chaffetz called for an independent investigation into the matter — similar to what was required after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.
A few state leaders also weighed in on the EPA's handling of the spill, arguing the environmental mess is yet another reason for the state to take over management of public lands.
Orem Sen. Margaret Dayton accused the agency of being careless in its response.
"This mistake and lack of transparency by the federal EPA is yet another egregious example of why states and local entities are much better managers of our own land and natural resources," she said in a statement.
San Juan County Emergency Management trucked in water to some homeowners and ranchers on Sunday and Monday.
In Bluff, businesses and residents are getting by despite advisories that warn visitors away from the river.
"It's affecting our river companies and several businesses, but we have a lot of other tourism as well," said Jennifer Davila, president of Business Owners of Bluff and the owner of La Posada Pintada boutique inn.
Most of Bluff's tourists come from Europe, Davila said, and those visitors aren't necessarily interested in floating the river. That means news of the river's contamination hasn't impacted most Bluff businesses — except those that cater to river-runners themselves.
Still, Bluff residents are worried about the spill, Davila said, especially about the long-term impacts.
"With the way it's being spread in Colorado, every time we get a high-water flood, it's going to wash more sediment" downstream to Bluff, she said. "I can see this being a long-term cleanup.
"I hope they don't just drop the ball and forget it in a few weeks."
Bluff residents have set up an information center with the latest updates on the volunteer fire department's website.
Utah State University aquatic ecologist Chuck Hawkins said their concerns about long-term issues are not misplaced. It's not just the cleanup that could take a long time, he said. It could take at least a week to collect enough test results to understand the full impact of the release on the river environment, and even longer to come up with a plan to address it.
Utah may not be immediately impacted by the release, he said, because the sludge's acidity will be diluted before it arrives.
And heavy metals — which also will be significantly diluted by the time they reach Utah — aren't usually a problem in the case of short-term exposure. But long-term exposure to heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic does lead to toxicity over time. And metals aren't exactly biodegradable.
"Over time, the metals will probably be buried and will be less of a problem — except when the river is churned up with high flow," said Hawkins, director of the Western Center for Monitoring and Assessment of Freshwater Systems. "It will eventually go downstream. It's unlikely that it will be permanently buried."
Eventually, he said, the river will purge itself of the contamination and return to what the EPA has dubbed its "pre-event state."
"Streams, fortunately, are incredibly resilient systems," he said, "in large part because they're self-cleaning."
The million dollar question, Hawkins said, is whether that process is a matter of months, years or even decades.