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Yellow River Still Not Safe Months Later, Despite EPA Claims

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor

Drinking water from the river the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) polluted with 880,000 pounds of lead nearly seven months ago still isn’t consistently safe for humans, according to the New Mexico secretary of the environment.

“Even months later, although the yellow water has passed, the EPA’s data show that storms have disturbed contaminated sediment and pushed lead levels back above the tolerance for safe drinking water,” Environmental Secretary Ryan Flynn wrote in The Wall Street Journal Monday. “The city of Farmington (pop. 45,000) still shuts its water intakes whenever storms or snowmelt increase water turbulence.”

An EPA contractor working under the agency’s direction spilled three million gallons of toxic waste from Colorado’s Gold King Mine into the Animas River, which poisoned drinking water for three states and the Navajo Nation last August.

“About two weeks after the spill, the EPA released an environmental standard for the Gold King mine sediment that was an order of magnitude weaker than those applied to other polluters,” Flynn wrote. “The agency used a ‘recreational’ standard and suggested that lead in the soil at 20,000 parts per million would be ‘safe’ for campers and hikers.”

“But in New Mexico people live along the Animas, so a ‘residential’ standard would be more appropriate,” he continued.

The lead standard for the Animas River is 40 times greater than the standard the EPA used at a Dallas superfund site in the EPA regional office’s backyard.

Additionally, contamination levels seen in Utah – the third affected state – could be “the tip of the iceberg,” the state’s Department of Environmental Quality Assistant Director of Water Monitoring Erica Gaddis told The Salt Lake Tribune in February.

In fact, a Colorado lawmaker recently said melting snow could cause a resurgence of contaminants in the Animas River.

“I think we’ll see a yellow river again,” state Rep. Don Coram previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Yet, the EPA says the river safe is now safe.

“The EPA is confident that the Animas and San Juan rivers are safe for agricultural use and long-term recreational exposure,” an agency spokeswoman who asked not to be named told TheDCNF in February.

“Such subterfuge made our job of educating the public on the consequences of the spill much more difficult,” Flynn wrote. “It seems clear to me that the EPA sacrificed truth on the altar of image management.”

Additionally, Silverton – a town less than 10 miles downriver from the Gold King Mine – recently reversed its decades-long opposition and requested the EPA designate the area as a superfund site, TheDCNF previously reported.

Flynn also highlighted difficulty working with the agency following the incident.

“From the start, the EPA bungled its response to the spill,” Flynn wrote, noting New Mexico was alerted by the affected Southern Ute Tribe the day after the spill, rather than the EPA.

“No one from the EPA’s regional office in Dallas showed up in New Mexico for nearly a week, by which time the plume had passed,” he continued. “New Mexico’s representative to the EPA’s Incident Command Center in Colorado reported that she was shut out of closed-door meetings where decisions were made.”

Flynn detailed how EPA staff rotated on site, which “led to redundant briefings and inconsistent execution.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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