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EPA Criticized For Slow Response To Wastewater Spill In Colorado

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now to a story we're following in this country. Colorado's Animas River is not orange anymore. A spill from the long-shuttered Gold King Mine last week turned the water that color and may have left toxic heavy metals in the riverbed. Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have all freed up emergency funds to help people affected by this spill. It was triggered by EPA contractors who were doing cleanup work at the mine. The agency says it takes full responsibility for the accident. But locals are saying the agency has also been pretty slow to respond. Colorado Public Radio's Grace Hood reports.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: The orange plume of wastewater laced with arsenic and lead was shocking to southwestern Colorado residents when it flowed down the Animas River. It's since flowed into the San Juan River in New Mexico, headed toward Lake Powell. On Wednesday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy traveled to Durango, Colo. to meet with local officials.

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GINA MCCARTHY: No agency could be more upset about the incident happening or more dedicated in terms of doing our job and getting this right.

HOOD: The spill was triggered August 5. Since then, the Animas and San Juan Rivers have been closed to boaters and swimmers. Rafting companies have been temporarily out of work. Farmers can't use the water for crops. In a bit of good news, McCarthy said water quality results in the Durango, Colo. area were showing that levels have returned to conditions before the spill.

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MCCARTHY: So this is very good news. But I want to make sure you understand that there are additional steps that we are going to take.

HOOD: But McCarthy did not address the contaminants that experts say remain in the riverbeds. Colorado and New Mexico residents have become frustrated with what they see as a slow EPA response. That's left states to take matters into their own hands. While the EPA said the rivers won't reopen until next Monday, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper says he thinks the river could open in a few days. And just yesterday, Colorado gave the green light for Durango to start processing tap water from the Animas River.

CYNTHIA COFFMAN: It is the type of response and communication that I am concerned about.

HOOD: Cynthia Coffman is the attorney general of Colorado. She, along with the attorneys general for Utah and New Mexico, said they're watching the EPA closely, and they won't hesitate to apply legal pressure if it's needed.

COFFMAN: It may take a lot of attention from citizens here and from the attorneys general to make sure that things are done and done properly.

HOOD: Promising news for a New Mexico attorney general, Hector Balderas, was the fact that the EPA will seek independent oversight when it investigates the Gold King Mine incident. Balderas says he's evaluating whether the EPA plan to address environmental concerns after the spill is adequate for New Mexico.

HECTOR BALDERAS: We would hope that they would welcome feedback in terms of whether additional resources will be needed.

HOOD: Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says his state hasn't seen any acute effects from the spill. But it's the orange sediment on the banks and at the bottom of the river that worries him.

SEAN REYES: Who knows long-term, in terms of a chronic problem, how that's going to affect everyone? That's our biggest concern, probably, right now.

HOOD: The attorneys general say they'll be watching the effects over the next two to five years to ensure that the land is restored and residents are compensated for damages. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Durango, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.