SALT LAKE CITY — Utah water quality regulators stumbled upon new information gathered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that shows elevated metal concentrations in the San Juan River, a revelation that will prompt new rounds of testing by state scientists.
The federal agency had not directly disclosed the results to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality from September and October sampling in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill last August. Instead, state employees discovered the information in a posting on the EPA's website.
"It is a concern," Alan Matheson, the department's director, said Friday. "If there is something that raises a red flag, we would hope that we would be notified. We would hope we would find out other than through our own search."
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes announced Friday that the state will file a notice of its intent to sue the EPA for its role in the "disaster."
The samples show elevated metal concentrations that exceed state water quality standards, but Matheson said the data do not indicate an immediate public health threat.
"We looked at the numbers and shared them with other agencies and concluded there is no immediate threat to public health or agriculture," Matheson said, adding that testing showed the concentrations of metals were episodic and may have been triggered by storm events that stirred river sediment.
Still, Matheson said the results are concerning enough to prompt a three-pronged approach by the state agency to gather additional information and put a long-term monitoring plan in place.
"We are going to take three initial actions to ensure the safety of Utah residents," Matheson said. "First, we filed a Freedom of Information request to gather whatever additional information EPA has on their sampling, and we are immediately undertaking are own sampling regime to see if there is ongoing evidence of elevated metals in the San Juan River."
The department is also working with the EPA, tribes and other states to determine the extent and source of contamination. It has posted information gathered so far on its website.
The August spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado sent 3 million gallons of mustard-colored metal-laden sludge into the Animas River, a 126-mile river that is a tributary of the San Juan River. The rivers are part of the Colorado River system, eventually dumping into Lake Powell.
Lingering metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and zinc, pose future risks that cannot yet be quantified, and Matheson said it's difficult to tell exactly how and when they made it into the rivers.
"There have been releases of metal-laden water from mining for decades," he said. "It could be from the Gold King Mine or legacy mining or other sources that have not been identified yet."
The Colorado spill above Silverton has evoked a blistering response from local, state and congressional leaders, with the federal agency revealing last week that 880,000 pounds of heavy metals were released into critical waterways as the result of an intentional breach of the mine's plug directed by EPA.
On Thursday, the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources released a Majority Staff Report on the spill that asserts a series of blunders on the part of the agency and deliberate concealment of key information related to technical evaluations of the mine's structure and integrity.
"When government actions result in harm, it’s our duty to know who was responsible and why decisions failed. They haven’t been forthcoming in this regard,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah and the committee chairman.
Matheson said it is unclear at this point how long — and to what extent — the state will have to monitor the San Juan River.
"Our mission is to protect the health and safety of Utah residents and the environment," he said. "We take that seriously. We are going to take a very cautious approach and make sure we get the best information available to ensure that our residents are not being exposed to harmful levels of metals."
Reyes said suing the EPA may force the federal government to be more responsive and transparent.
“From the beginning we have evaluated Utah’s legal options to ensure the EPA lives up to its promise to be fully accountable and transparent — and to make our citizens and environment whole,” Reyes said in a prepared statement.
“After the spill, we waited to take legal action because in good faith we hoped that cooperation with the EPA could bring more rapid reimbursement and remediation. Perhaps there is a still a chance for that to happen, but Utah needs to be in a position to file a lawsuit if the federal government is not more responsive and transparent. The discovery that the EPA did not share relevant information is a cause for serious concern and could lead to additional claims after we have fully investigated that omission.”
Reyes said a lawsuit could help ensure that the EPA and others who may be liable "are held legally responsible not just for short-term effects but for damage that may not be known or understood for years to come.”