EPA Causes Massive Waste Spill, Hurting Navajo Nation

 animas river

By Daniel Davis, Townhall.com

Durango, Colorado declared a state of emergency yesterday after the EPA accidentally contaminated a local river with 3 million gallons of waste. The Animas River has turned orange, and residents living along its banks have been warned to avoid it.

The accident began Wednesday last week when EPA workers accidentally leaked a local mine, releasing concentrated minerals into a stream. The mine had been abandoned for about 10 years, and ground water had accumulated inside it. EPA workers were there to clean up the mine. Now, the mine is leaking at 500 gallons per minute. It still hasn’t been contained, though workers are treating the nearby ponds where the minerals are leaking.

The EPA has tested the polluted water and reports arsenic levels at 300 times the normal level, and lead levels at 3,500 times the normal level. Both arsenic and lead pose significant dangers to humans when highly concentrated. The local sheriff has warned local residents to stay away from the river. The contaminants move along the river fairly quickly, they will not completely pass until the mine leak is plugged.

Many people who live along the Animas River depend on private wells for their water, but those are now threatened by the river’s pollution. The EPA is sending materials to these residents so that they can test their well water for cleanness.

The water pollution has flowed straight into the territory of the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous reservation Native American reservation spanning parts of northern Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah. The spill is already threatening the livelihoods of many Navajo residents, and the nation has declared its own state of emergency. It even looks to be preparing for a lawsuit against the EPA — the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management has directed the tribe’s Attorney General to assemble a legal team to address the grievances of local residents:


Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates told the Daily Times that residents were concerned about drinking water safety, river access, water for livestock and crops, and the possibility of compensation for failed crops. With irrigation canals shut off, many farmers are concerned about their next step, Bates said.

“If these farmers don’t get water in the next week, they’ll lose their crops,” he said.


The plume of orange waste has already reached three states, and is expected to reach a fourth by Wednesday. As USA Today reports:


Mustard-colored water flowed this week into Cement Creek, a tributary that runs through Silverton [Colorado] and into the Animas River. In New Mexico, the plume of pollution entered Aztec early Saturday morning and Farmington later that morning. Officials said they expected it to reach the Utah border on Monday and Lake Powell, in Arizona, late Wednesday.


New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez toured the damage in Farmington, NM over the weekend. She was stunned by the disaster:


“The magnitude of it, you can’t even describe it,” she said, CNN affiliate KRQE reported. “It’s like when I flew over the fires, your mind sees something it’s not ready or adjusted to see.”


Equally stunning was the EPA’s slow response in notifying states of the disaster. New Mexico officials got their first word of the disaster from Native American officials. By the time they heard from EPA officials, it was 24 hours after the spill had begun. Gov. Martinez commented:


“It’s completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately.”

Canadians are eating tar-sands pollution

Caelie Frampton
Caelie Frampton


By John Upton, Grist

Tar-sands extraction isn’t just turning swaths of Canadian land into postapocalyptic film sets. New research shows it’s also contaminating the wild animals that members of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have traditionally relied on for food.

We already knew that the tar-sands operations have been dousing northern Alberta with mercury and other forms of pollution. Now university scientists have collaborated with the First Nations to test the pollution levels in hunted animals found downstream from the tar-sands sites. Here are some lowlights from their findings, which were included in a report published on Monday:


Arsenic levels were high enough in in muskrat and moose muscle; duck, moose, and muskrat livers; and moose and duck kidneys to be of concern for young children. Cadmium levels were again elevated in moose kidney and liver samples but also those of beaver and ducks … Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys, and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys, especially for children. …

Total levels of PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] and levels of carcinogenic and alkylated PAHs were very high relative to other food studies conducted around the world.

The First Nations members aren’t shocked to hear this. Some have already started avoiding their traditional foods because of worries about contamination, they told researchers. More from the report:

Participants were concerned about declines in the quality of [traditional] foods, in the greatest part because of environmental pollutants originating from the Oil Sands. It was notable how many participants no longer consumed locally caught fish, because of government-issued consumption advisories and associated human health concerns. Muskrat consumption had also declined precipitously, along with muskrat populations, a decline that was attributed to changes in hydrology and contaminant levels associated with the WAC Bennett Dam and the Oil Sands. The only effective alternatives to traditional foods are store-bought foods. …

All participants were worried about ongoing declines in the health and wellbeing of their community. They generally viewed themselves as less healthy than their parents, who rarely got sick. Neurological illnesses (e.g. sleeping disorders, migraines, and stress) were most common followed, in descending order of frequency, by respiratory illnesses (e.g. allergies, asthma) as well as circulatory (e.g. hypertension, coronary) and gastrointestinal (e.g. gallbladder, ulcers) illnesses. Yet, everyone was most concerned about the current and escalating cancer crisis.

A documentary about the research — One River, Many Relations — will be released in October. Here’s a trailer:

Talks Set In Beijing On West Coast Shellfish Ban

Geoduck clams harvested from Puget Sound, along with most shellfish from the West Coast of the U.S., have not been allowed into China. But an upcoming meeting in Beijing between U.S. and Chinese officials could ease that ban. | credit: Katie Campbell | rollover image for more
Geoduck clams harvested from Puget Sound, along with most shellfish from the West Coast of the U.S., have not been allowed into China. But an upcoming meeting in Beijing between U.S. and Chinese officials could ease that ban. | credit: Katie Campbell | rollover image for more


Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

SEATTLE — There are signs of a thaw in the icy trade relations between the United States and China over a Chinese ban on imported shellfish from the West Coast of the U.S.

Chinese officials have agreed to meet next week with U.S. counterparts to discuss China’s import ban on shellfish harvested from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and part of California.

China banned shellfish imports from most of the West Coast in December over concerns about contamination. The move has cost the shellfish industry in Washington hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Representatives from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be in Beijing March 21 to discuss China’s remaining concerns about shellfish imports. China instituted the ban when officials found high levels of arsenic and a naturally occurring biotoxin in two samples of geoduck.

The shellfish with high levels of biotoxin came from Ketchikan, Alaska.

The shellfish contaminated with arsenic were harvested near a site in Tacoma where a copper smelter operated along southern Puget Sound.

The smelter was in operation for 100 years and shellfish beds nearby were closed until 2007.

The state Department of Health did some follow-up testing on geoduck from the area and says the shellfish are safe to eat.

Wash. Officials Say Shellfish Is Safe For China To Import


Ashley Ahearn, Earth Fix

SEATTLE — Washington state officials said Tuesday they found lower contamination levels when they tested geoduck clams than those alleged by China when it said geoduck imported from Puget Sound had high levels of arsenic.

China cited its findings in December when it imposed the largest ban on shellfish imports from Northwest waters — as well as from California and Alaska — in the region’s history.

Chinese officials said they found inorganic arsenic levels of .5 parts per million in the shellfish they tested in October.

But Washington officials’ tests produced different results.

“Only one of the whole samples was above China’s standard of .5 (parts per million) and everything else was below that, so that was good news,” said Dave McBride, who oversaw the testing at the Washington Department of Health.

The Department of Health tested more than 50 geoduck clams from the allegedly contaminated area, analyzing the different body parts of the clams to compare arsenic concentration levels.

The details of the test results are perhaps revealing than the overall “whole sample” figures. The skin of the clams tested by Washington exceeded China’s safe levels of inorganic arsenic by as much as three times, although McBride said that should not be worrisome to China, given how the Chinese consume geoduck clams.

“People generally do not eat the skin and we would advise people, when you eat geoduck, to remove the skin,” he said. “What we think is that, for the vast majority of the public, this is not a health issue at all. Obviously, when we’re talking about a carcinogen there is always the risk for high consumers.”

McBride added that the whole, or averaged samples, for several other clams came close to the .5ppm limit set by the Chinese.

The World Health Organization is said to be considering setting safe levels for inorganic arsenic in food in the .2-.3ppm range in 2014.

The shellfish that tested high for inorganic arsenic in China were harvested from a tract of land managed by the Department of Natural Resources that has since been closed. The tract is within the shadow of a copper smelter that was operated near Tacoma for 100 years.

“Well we know that arsenic levels are elevated in the surface soils in that area,” said Marian Abbett, manager of the Tacoma smelter clean up for the Washington Department of Ecology. Soil samples from the surrounding land show levels of arsenic between 40 and 200ppm, though that number does not directly equate to levels of arsenic that will end up in the water, or in shellfish.

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 12.16.20 PM
Soil arsenic levels resulting from the historic deposition by the Tacoma smelter
in the vicinity of the geoduck tracts of interest. (Courtesy: ATSDR/DOH)



Inorganic arsenic levels are higher in soils in the area immediately surrounding the smelter, though wind patterns also lead to higher concentrations ending up in soil samples to the northeast of the smelter, where the shellfish were harvested.

“I’d be nervous after a big rainfall event,” said Kathy Cottingham, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College who studies arsenic exposure and human health. “With soils that contaminated you need to worry about the episodic events of a big rainstorm or snowmelt causing pulses into the water.”

The area was closed to all shellfish harvest until 2007, when the Puyallup Tribe petitioned state agencies to reopen the tract for geoduck harvest. At that time the Department of Health conducted tests on geoduck in the area and found levels of .05ppm. That’s an order of magnitude below the amount found by the Chinese in October of 2013 and well within the safety parameters set by the Chinese.

However, state agencies have not tested for inorganic arsenic or other metals in shellfish from the area since it was reopened in 2007.

Arsenic is a carcinogen that has also been associated with long-term respiratory effects, disruption of immune system function, cardiovascular effects, diabetes and neurodevelopmental problems in kids.

“There’s no safe level, but at some point you’ve crossed the threshold to being really dangerous and we don’t quite know where that threshold is at this point,” Cottingham said.

The Food and Drug Administration has delayed setting a safe level for arsenic in food. Washington state does not regularly test for arsenic in shellfish.

McBride said he did not see a need to test the Tacoma site further after his agency’s extensive sampling.

“I think we have a pretty good handle that this area is pretty clean and wouldn’t require further testing,” he said. “The lab results have been sent to (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NOAA has sent them on to the state department to the Chinese (as of yesterday). We’re waiting to hear if and when the ban might be lifted.”