The nation’s environmental chief apologized for a mine blowout that fouled a Colorado river with 3 million gallons of toxic water, as lawmakers criticized the response of the Environmental Protection Agency to the accidental spill.
“I’m absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened,” Gina McCarthy, the head of the EPA, said Tuesday at an event in Washington. “EPA is taking responsibility to make sure it is cleaned up.”
McCarthy, who said the agency probably will be sued for causing the spill, will visit the region on Wednesday to view the damage. She’s responding to a request from local lawmakers, who complained that the agency was slow to react and inform residents about the risks.
“While we have been in regular contact with EPA since Friday, we were disappointed by the lack of communication between the agency and the state and local governments immediately after the spill occurred,” New Mexico Democratic Senator Tom Udall and other lawmakers said Tuesday in a statement.
Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the spill a “grave incident” and said he planned to hold the EPA responsible.
EPA contractors caused the release of the mustard-hued toxic sludge from the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado, last week. At the time, the agency was investigating the mine to stem leaks from abandoned properties in southwest Colorado. Instead, the work “unexpectedly triggered” the blowout, sending tainted water into the Animas River.
Data released by the agency showed the water had elevated levels of lead, arsenic and magnesium -- all harmful to humans and the environment -- in the initial day after the spill. Subsequent testing showed that the water is back to near pre- incident pollution levels, officials said. The agency hasn’t released any more test results, however.
The Animas flows south into the San Juan River in New Mexico and eventually to Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. The leading edge of the toxic plume was just west of Farmington, New Mexico, late Tuesday and is no longer visible, according to the EPA.
Federal, state and local officials closed the Animas and San Juan rivers to fishing and boating, and barred water withdrawals for ranching or residential use. The rivers will be closed until at least Aug. 17, according to the EPA.
In addition to water testing, the agency is analyzing the sediment on the river bottom, which can accumulate toxic metals that fall out of the water, said David Ostrander, who is leading the emergency response in Durango, Colorado.
McCarthy said Tuesday that tests showed that after the initial surge in pollutants, water quality is improving as the plume of tainted water advances downstream. Still, the river will remain closed until scientists determine “it’s safe for them,” she said.
The governors of Colorado and New Mexico on Monday declared states of emergency, and several communities along the river shut intakes to shield drinking water supplies. House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, on Monday asked the EPA to brief the committee on clean up plans.