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Gov.: New Mexico to declare state of emergency for toxic river plume

The confluence of the Animas and San Juan rivers is pictured Saturday in Farmington. The yellow water contaminated with toxic metals, at left, merges with the San Juan River, at right. (Farmington Daily Times/AP)

The confluence of the Animas and San Juan rivers is pictured Saturday in Farmington. The yellow water contaminated with toxic metals, at left, merges with the San Juan River, at right. (Farmington Daily Times/AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gov. Susana Martinez said New Mexico will declare a state of emergency this afternoon as a result of the 3-million-gallon yellow plume of toxic waste dumped into the Animas River and making its way through this state into the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah on Monday.

The governor’s declaration, which she said would occur this afternoon, follows other emergency declarations in Colorado and on the Navajo Nation Monday.

Some drinking water systems on the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, have shut down their intake systems and stopped diverting water from the river. Drinking water is being hauled to some communities.

Navajo President Russell Begaye said the tribe is frustrated with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and he plans to take legal action. An EPA-supervised crew has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the mine area.

Elsewhere, farms along the Animas and San Juan river valleys in northwestern New Mexico have no water to irrigate their crops after the spill.

Aztec’s city manager this afternoon announced water restrictions for Aztec residents to conserve the city’s reserve water supply. The city’s three reservoirs hold 73 million gallons of water, but the city is using about 1.4 million gallons a day, City Manager Josh Ray said. At this rate, the city’s reserves will last about 50 days, he said. The city has been relying on its reserve supply for five days.

The stage one water restrictions Ray implemented this afternoon instruct city water customers to not water yards, gardens, trees or shrubs, except during certain times and days.

For now, the city of Farmington is not considering water restrictions, said Public Works Director David Sypher.

Farmington has about 90 days of reserve water in its reservoir, and it turned off its pumps along the Animas River Thursday morning, he said.

The New Mexico Environment Department is also offering free water testing for residents affected by the spill. The department will provide free water testing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office substation in Lee Acres, 21 County Road 5500 in Farmington.

A spokeswoman for the department said those hours may be extended if the demand for water testing continues. One scientist involved in the testing said a line of people were waiting at 8 a.m. today to get their water tested.

To get their water tested, residents need to bring 16 to 32 ounces of water in a clean container.

The yellow plume of wastewater stretches 100 miles and was three times larger than initially estimated, federal officials say. The EPA initially estimated 1 million gallons escaped.

The water is laced with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, and spilled from the Gold King Mine in the historic town of Silverton, turning the Animas River in Colorado a mustard yellow last week.

The spill reached the New Mexico municipalities of Aztec, Farmington and Kirtland over the weekend.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also issued a disaster declaration Monday, releasing $500,000 to assist businesses and towns affected. It also helps pay for water quality sampling by the state, assessing impacts on fish and wildlife, and any possible cleanup.

Hickenlooper directed state agencies to seek federal funds or low-interest loans to help entities affected by the spill.

The plume of heavy metals released last week into the Animas River from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., arrived in Utah in the morning. Evan O’Keefe, supervisor with the San Juan County Geographical Information Systems department, estimated the plume, now in the San Juan River, is about three hours south of Aneth, Utah.

He said the speed of its travel depends on factors like topography. He also noted that, at this point, the front part of the plume is not as noticeable.

“It’s not like it was when coming down the Animas River,” O’Keefe said.

In San Juan County, access to the Animas River was still closed. Officials advise residents with wells in the floodplains of the Animas River and the San Juan River downstream of the confluence of the two rivers to have their water tested before using it for cooking, drinking or bathing. Meetings are scheduled daily to update the public on the river.

Several members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation wrote Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy Monday criticizing the agency’s response to the Gold King Mine spill that has dumped three million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River.

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who represents northern New Mexico, said the EPA needs to improve communication with state and local officials, and the public about the nature of the spill.

“In the immediate wake of the spill and in the days that followed, there was a troubling lack of communication from EPA to federal, state, and local officials,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. ” Our offices, as well as leaders in the state and our constituents, had to learn of the spill and critical details from news reports before receiving any information from EPA.? Many of our constituents continue to feel that EPA is not providing timely information, and we encourage you to better communicate with impacted communities.”

 

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