Photo from TheDenverChannel.com
The people at the Environmental Protection Agency need to get on the same page. This afternoon, a Denver CBS affiliate published a headline that says, “EPA: High levels of toxic metal in Animas River water after mine spill.” A couple hours later, at the Los Angeles Times, we see, “EPA chief says polluted Animas River ‘seems to be restoring itself.'”
Well… which is it?
Going with the CBS Denver report, we learn:
Sampling results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show high levels of toxic heavy metals in the Animas River water following last week’s spill at a Colorado mine.
The federal agency released its testing data early Thursday following increasing public pressure.
The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.
The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.
However, according to the LA Times:
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on Wednesday toured the riverside in Durango, Colo., saying tests showed the levels of various metals had returned to normal.
“I visited the river and took a look at it myself, and the good news is that it seems to be restoring itself,” she said. “We’re hoping for a return to some sense of normalcy for the use of this river, but the EPA is letting science be its guide.”
Is it just me, or does that just not jive? Given a bit of high school level chemistry and a pretty decent knowledge of how river currents work (I’m from Missouri, after all), a river can be crystal clear, and still be contaminated. Heavy metals sink to the bottom even if the initial rush of momentum takes more of it downstream. Eventually, that forward force of extra water rushing dissipates. That doesn’t mean that the metals all go with it.
Heavy metals are just that in elemental form. They sink. Anyone who ever did the hydrochloric acid in the baby bottle experiment in high school saw that with copper. Magnesium dies a quick and painless death. Copper, like a lot of other heavy metals, is stable in elemental form and doesn’t just dissolve or dissipate. Whatever sank, whether or not it’s showing up in tests in a rushing river, is going to remain in the sediment and end up washed outside the river beds in case of flooding – and that doesn’t include what was already washed onto the banks and will end up seeping into the ground and groundwater. Adding to this, heavy metals dissolve in more acidic water, which happens in rivers and streams every time there’s rain.
Does EPA head Gina McCarthy think that we who actually passed chemistry and who live along the rivers would not remember all this? Her claim is that the water pollutants are back to “normal” from before the spill. The people who depend on the Animas River in Colorado, quite frankly, don’t believe McCarthy.
What’s interesting is that even though the EPA is doing a lot of water tests, so are state officials and individuals, too. We spoke with Tom Bridge, the owner of Durango Nursery, who says he used to draw drinking water from Animas River. Now he gets three truckloads of water delivered daily to his business. We asked him, what would it take for him to start watering plants again with Animas River water.
“I’d have to have independent water tests and have it run by CSU labs to have them tell me it’s OK,” Bridge said. “Trust but verify.”
Given, the EPA’s track record in this case, no one blames them.
In the meantime, the rafting companies are losing money, the Navajo are suing, Susanna Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, is FURIOUS…. Yeah, the EPA’s “oopsie” is going to cost them dearly. And really, did they seriously not trouble shoot this? Yesterday’s news that the spill was predicted by a retired geologist does not instill trust in Mrs. McCarthy’s agency.