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Water from mine spill reaches Lake Powell

By Dennis Romboy | Posted - Aug. 17, 2015 at 10:33 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Contaminated water from a Colorado mine has made its way to Lake Powell, leaving Utah officials wondering about possible long-term effects.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, spent Monday on the lake with federal and state officials and said he was encouraged by what he saw and heard about any immediate danger.

"They think it's fairly well-diluted. They expect it to be positive, but it won't be definite until later on," he said.

But Bishop still wants to hold the Environmental Protection Agency's feet to the fire "because that's short term. You really don't know what the long-term situations are."

Meantime, the EPA inspector general is investigating the cause of the spill and the agency's response, which has drawn much criticism for being slow. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, requested the investigation last week.

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The EPA and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality took water and sediment samples at the confluence of the San Juan River and Lake Powell, as well as other places on the lake over the weekend. Results were still being analyzed Monday, but the EPA said it does not expect any significant impacts to the lake.

There are no closures in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but the National Park Service still urged recreationists Monday to carry their own drinking water and not rely on filtering or purifying water from the San Juan River.

EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater Aug. 5 as they inspected the idle Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The spill released heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury into a tributary of the Animas River, turning the water mustard yellow and raising concerns about long-term environmental damage.

The EPA took responsibility for the accident and promised to pay for remediation.

The spill affected rivers that supply water for drinking, recreation and irrigation in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation.

Richard Hepworth, state Division of Wildlife Resources aquatics manager in southern Utah, said he doesn't expect any immediate impact to fish in Lake Powell, but he wants to "ensure people aren't eating bad fish" in years to come.

Much of the contamination dissipated before reaching the lake, but Hepworth said he suspects some of the heavy metals settled at the mouth of the San Juan River.


Everytime there's a storm or we get runoff events in the spring, you'll start seeing that show up more and more in fish down in the lake. I don't know enough about it to say, yes, it is going to be a problem, or no, it isn't. But we'll be watching for those problems.

–Richard Hepworth, DWR


"Everytime there's a storm or we get runoff events in the spring, you'll start seeing that show up more and more in fish down in the lake," he said. "I don't know enough about it to say, yes, it is going to be a problem, or no, it isn't. But we'll be watching for those problems."

Wildlife Resources already checks fish for mercury and will now do additional testing for a variety of heavy metals, Hepworth said.

Bishop reacted strongly last week to the EPA's role in the breach, calling it an "impressive double standard." Had a private company caused the spill, the agency would have come down hard, he said.

The House Natural Resources Committee intends to hold hearings on what happened and how the EPA plans to take care of it, Bishop said.

The congressman said he was impressed with EPA and National Park Service workers' response to the spill on the ground. But the EPA in Washington, he said, responded slowly to its own regional offices, as well as the states. He said there was no reason for the 24- to 48-hour delay.

"As I've said at other occasions, the federal government just owns too much to really be effective in its control and management, and that's sad," Bishop said.

Federal officials, though, were complimentary of how Utah handled the situation, he said. The state started testing the water and the fish as soon as it became aware of the contamination.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food last Friday lifted advisories against using San Juan River water for crop irrigation and livestock watering.

Based on the latest state evaluation of water samples, Utah State University veterinary toxicologists found the river's highest levels of contaminationposed no harm to plants, soils and animals.

The majority of the mine contamination passed through San Juan County last Tuesday.

Contributing: Associated Press

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Dennis Romboy

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