SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert issued a state of emergency Wednesday, while state officials contemplate legal action over the Colorado mine spill that sent contaminated river water to southeastern Utah.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told reporters that Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, both individually and collectively, were evaluating potential claims under federal and state law as well as administrative claims against the Environmental Protection Agency.
“All of those things, I think, are on the table,” Reyes said at a news conference in Durango, Colorado.
Reyes met with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas to discuss the legal, health and environmental ramifications of the disaster.
Colorado and New Mexico have also declared states of emergency.
Herbert’s order directs Utah agencies to use all resources available to help local communities affected by the spill, which he called a preventable mistake for which EPA must be held accountable. The declaration could also trigger access to federal funds.
“Our top priority will continue to be the safety of Utahns and wildlife affected,” the governor said. “With potential long-term implications, the emergency proclamation will allow us to continue to support affected businesses and communities.”
An EPA cleanup crew accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of wastewater laced with arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into the Animas River from the abandoned Gold King Mine. The Animas flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, and the San Juan runs into Utah, where it joins the Colorado River in Lake Powell.
Preliminary water quality samples taken Saturday and Sunday along the San Juan River showed low levels of metals dissolved in the water and, as expected, higher levels of total metals in the sediment, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
State environmental scientists couldn’t identify with certainty the location of the once-mustard-colored plume, but they say it appears to have completely assimilated into the river. They are continuing to watch the river and take water samples.
Until officials understand the extent of the damage — which might not be known for several years — it’s too early to say what kinds of claims the state or states could bring, Reyes said.
“This is not the end of the story. This is just the beginning,” Coffman said.
San Juan County also declared a state of emergency Wednesday, saying the spill has jeopardized water systems that serve residents and livestock in its communities. It also hurts the economy because it put recreationists at risk on the river and Lake Powell.
Reyes said he wants to make sure Utahns have safe drinking water and that they can put their lives back in order. He noted that the EPA has taken responsibility for the disaster and said it would be transparent in its accountability.
“What that actually means going forward remains to be seen,” he said.
“No agency could be more upset about the incident happening, and more dedicated in doing our job to get this right. We couldn’t be more sorry,” she told reporters. “We will hold ourselves to a higher standard than anyone else.”
Reyes was disappointed that the EPA didn’t let the attorneys general tour the mine site or meet with McCarthy.
“We think that’s critical,” he said.
Members of Utah’s congressional delegation are calling for investigations into the cause of the disaster and how EPA handled it.
The House Committee on Natural Resources will look into the cause as well as the short- and long-term effects of the spill, said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who heads the panel.
“EPA’s grave blunder is posing a serious threat to both the environment and the economy in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona,” he said in a statement. “Lands and projects managed by the Department of the Interior and Forest Service — not to mention the tribal concerns — within my committee’s jurisdiction will be seriously and negatively impacted.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter Wednesday to the EPA asking the inspector general to open an investigation.
The state Water Development Commission, whose members include legislators, county commissioners, water district supervisors and environmental groups, plans to discuss the spill at its meeting next Tuesday.
Committee leaders Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, and Rep. Keith Grover, R-Provo, said in a statement the disaster could cost the states millions of dollars in damage to ecosystems, economies, water resources, wildlife and tourism. They said the EPA should reimburse the states for all costs resulting from its mistake.