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Navajos plan to sue EPA over river cleanup

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The president of the Navajo Nation said Sunday that he intends to sue for “every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess” after Environmental Protection Agency employees accidentally released at least 3 million gallons of wastewater, including potentially harmful metals, into a river that breached the sovereign nation’s borders this weekend.

A01_jd_08aug_spillThe orange plume of wastewater, which slowly crawled down the San Juan River after gushing out of a Colorado mine on Friday, has already forced many reservation residents in New Mexico and Utah to cease watering their crops and livestock, shut down at least two drinking water wells and required them to avoid the river entirely, said Rick Abasta, communications director for Navajo tribal leadership.

The nation on Sunday also took steps to formally declare a state of emergency for the reservation, warning of potential environmental and other damage. The declaration was waiting for the president’s signature as of Sunday evening.

“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,” president Russell Begaye said in a news release. “I have instructed Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take immediate action against the EPA to the fullest extent of the law to protect Navajo families and resources,” he added.

New Mexico officials said the plume was beginning to dissipate, and preliminary data released by the EPA on Sunday showed that the levels of metal at various checkpoints along the Animas river in Colorado, including arsenic and lead, diminished within several hours.

However, state environment department officials said Sunday that they still need much more information and were only beginning to examine the data.

Also, federal and state officials said Sunday that a major potential problem could be the potentially hazardous sediment that sinks to the bottom of the river as the plume passes and that could be kicked up again in flooding or weather events.

An Environmental Protection Agency official said Sunday she doesn’t believe wildlife will suffer significant health impacts from the large volume of wastewater that spilled from an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado.

The EPA also said Sunday that the amount of wastewater that spilled from Colorado’s Gold King Mine into the Animas River is three times larger than its initial estimate. The agency says 3 million gallons spilled into the river Wednesday and Thursday, instead of 1 million. The revision came after the EPA used a stream gauge from the U.S. Geological Survey.

EPA toxicologist Deborah McKean says the sludge laced with heavy metals moved so quickly after the spill that it would not have harmed animals that consumed it.

The EPA still doesn’t know if there are any health risks posed to people or aquatic life.

Trais Kliphuis, water protection division director for the State Environment Department, said New Mexico officials have been concerned with what they said was a slow rollout of information and unclear leadership in charge of coordinating the response.

She said the department will have employees outside the San Juan County fair providing information about the plume and has created a list of all the wells within 1.5 miles on either side of the river. Employees will also go door to door, environment officials said, to offer to sample wells in or around the river’s floodplain.

The wastewater spilled from the Gold King Mine on Friday when an EPA-supervised cleanup crew accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine had been inactive since 1923. The EPA’s stated intention was to assess the on-going wastewater releases from the mine, to treat the water and to consider the feasibility of continued treatment for the Gold King Mine and others nearby that contain similar reservoirs of wastewater.

Kliphuis said the state environment department was aware that some of the wastewater was trickling out of the mines in Colorado but that a deluge of this sort was impossible to predict.

“We were aware that there was a trickling, that there was some interesting hydrogeology going on there,” she said. “… But nobody could have predicted this. It was unprecedented.”

The plume reached the northern New Mexico cities of Aztec on Friday night, Farmington on Saturday morning and Kirtland on Saturday afternoon. The plume has been visually diluted and the leading edge of it is far less defined.

No health hazard has been detected yet. In addition to lead and arsenic, federal officials say the spill contains cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium, but the concentrations were not yet known.

Water samples were also tested in New Mexico, and results are expected to be found early this week. The Animas flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, and the San Juan flows into Utah, where it joins the Colorado River in Lake Powell.

At least two of the heavy metals, lead and arsenic, found in the waste water can be lethal for humans with long-term exposure.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.