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Audio of Administrator McCarthy's Press Conference, Farmington, NM 8/13/2015

Audio from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s remarks and press conference at the Animas River Hike and Bike Trail in Farmington, NM on response efforts relating to the release of waste water from Gold King Mine.


At 11:20 AM MT, 8/13/2015, the Administrator held a press briefing at the Animas River Hike and Bike Trail in Farmington, NM. The following remarks can be attributed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy:

The agency and community are making significant steps forward in the Farmington, NM area. A significant positive step was announced yesterday that showed that water quality for the Animas River from the Silverton, Colo. area to the Durango municipal water intake has returned to pre-event water quality levels. These results are based on validated sampling data collected from Aug. 5 to Aug. 9, 2015.

We are committed to helping the people throughout the Four Corner Regions who rely on these rivers for their drinking water, irrigation water and recreation.  We know how important it is to them. We have stood up a Unified Command Center in Farmington and Durango, as well as the Emergency Operations Center at EPA headquarters in DC to ensure a seamless coordinated response in collaboration with local, state and federal officials.

In New Mexico – we will have new data soon and we will put it in context for local decision makers, so they can make the most informed decisions regarding the on-going use of water resources.

Regarding irrigation, EPA issued a $500,000 work assignment on Monday for the delivery of water for irrigation and livestock in New Mexico. This service was previously being provided by San Juan County, NM and we are making deliveries. We understand the importance of the irrigation systems and are providing data to local jurisdictions to make informed decisions.

EPA is here to take responsibility, we are seeing the river restoring itself and we are working through issues to ensure that it is cleaned up. We are in this for the long haul.

For additional information on the response to the Gold King Mine release www.epa.gov/goldkingmine

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Full transcript of 8/13/2015 press briefing audio

Gina McCarthy:
Good morning everyone, I’m glad to be here on the shores of the Animas River.  It’s great to be in Farmington.  I think as all of you know, I’ve been spending a few days here just to check up and update on response actions relative to the spill.  I’m proud of the work that we’ve been doing.  I want to thank Congressman Lujan for not just being here, but being such a steady voice in this process to make sure that EPA is meeting its responsibilities and also meeting the needs of the communities.  So I’m proud to be here and I’d like to offer him an opportunity to say a few words.

But before I do that, I’d like to just make sure that I recognize Mayor Roberts for all of the work that he’s doing.  He is here somewhere.  Ah, there you are Mayor; thank you for being here.  I’d like to introduce Ron Curry who is our regional administrator who is doing a great job servicing the needs of New Mexico.  And I’d also like to introduce David Ostrander who is actually our incident commander at our unified response center in Durango who is really ensuring that we have sound communication with all of our partners during this effort.  So we are making progress but before I give you an update on that, why don’t I ask the Congressman if he wants to say a few words.

Ben Ray Lujan:
Good morning, everyone as well, thanks for being here.  Mr. Mayor, it’s good to be with you today sir.  Sorry it’s under these circumstances as well.  As everyone knows, the response that we are seeing today is different than how we got started.  Initially there was some communications to our friends not only here in New Mexico, but in Colorado.  In reaching out to the regions here, with region six, but also with the administrator about how we can improve communication.  What we saw immediately was on Monday and Tuesday.  The administrator moved very quickly to work to make sure that there was rapid coordination with region six, region eight, and region nine to be able to come into the communities to work closely with the state and with local partners.  We can always improve communication, but that’s an important start.

At the community meeting on Saturday, it was also made clear that the community residents were -- there was a bit of frustration that there wasn’t one point of contact from a toll-free access line.  And that was something that I communicated via conference call shortly after that community meeting as well.  And as everyone knows, this number and this hotline has already been established.  And it's not just taking calls in English, it's taking calls in English, Spanish, and in Navajo; which is also an immediate response to some of the questions the community was asking.  And so as we make sure that it’s abundantly clear that we have a responsibility to work closely with the EPA to clean everything that is in the water, the breach has to be addressed, people have to be made whole, drinking water especially.  By making sure that there’s access as there has been a response with livestock and producers.

That we also have a responsibility in the Congress and at the federal level to work with our communities to address all of the mines that still need to be cleaned up.  To make sure that sites that need to be designated as Superfund sites, get that designation so those resources are made available and so that we can make sure we’re addressing all of these abandoned mines.  So that this problem does not happen again.  So we have a short-term crisis, and immediacy to address now, but we also have long-term responsibility.  And so with that, again I want to thank Administrator McCarthy for being with us today, and I turn it back over to her.

Gina McCarthy:
Thank you Congressman, I appreciate it.  So let me give you a little bit of an update of what’s happened over the past few days because I think we’re making some significant steps forward.  As the Congressman indicated, we do have a unified command center.  I believe that we have enhanced communication as a result of having that center up and functioning.  As you know, as we spent a little time yesterday at the Farmington incident command center.  It gave us a good sense of all of the work that’s going on in this state, in cooperation with all of our state partners as well as our tribal partners to actually collect the data that is going to produce the science that is going to tell us that this job is getting done and getting done right.  Because that’s EPA’s commitment, working with our partners.

Now the first thing that I want to point out is there was a statement released from the unified command center yesterday.  And that statement was really representative of I think a significant positive step in our spill response.  It indicated that the Animas River up in La Plata County, that in those areas our water has actually returned back to pre-incident conditions.  So it is a significant step forward.  Now that is a result that we have shared with local communities and with states.  It gives us a sense that we are on a different trajectory than we were before, but clearly we need to continue to work, not just short-term, to look at every segment of the river moving forward.  To see what we need to do to help work with local communities about return of normal usage of these water resources, but we have to do that in collaboration and coordination with them.  And so we are making, I think, a concerted effort around the clock at EPA not only with hundreds of people on the ground, but hundreds of people supporting them in the background.  To make sure that we get our short-term needs solved, but also to make sure that people know that EPA is in it for the long haul as well.  While we look at some of the sediment challenges in any of the restoration issues that may be necessary.

Now we have been working with officials at the state and tribal levels, as you know.  We think that we have turned a corner, as I indicated, in working with them and making sure that we do it seamlessly.  In New Mexico, we hope to have some additional test results for the next segment of the river soon.  We continue to see good news there, but I don’t want to prejudge that.  That is science that needs to continue.  We want to make sure that all of that data is quality controlled.  That we put it in a context that people can understand and that local decision-makers can then use to make their decisions.  So we are confident that we will continue to lay out data every day that helps support all of these decisions moving forward.  And give people a sense that we are actually making really significant progress here.

Now I know that in the meantime there have been challenges and questions about how we keep things moving forward as certain uses has stopped.  Well the good news for New Mexico is that the region has authorized $500,000 to actually support both continued water for irrigation purposes as well as livestock.  We know that was an issue.  I want to assure everybody that those are the kinds of issues that we do collaboratively, that are considered a part of the emergency response here.  They do not need to go through a claims process.  We are actually working in concert with the state to make sure that that is ongoing resources available upfront.  And we’re doing that not just here, but I just left the Navajo nation to talk about all of these issues as well.  I spent the morning with President Begaye and all of his team working through these issues.  Making sure that we were coordinated. Explaining the resources that are readily available under our programs. And then talking about how we meet our continued needs.  And it was great to sit with him and all of the boots on the ground that he has in Navajo nation.

Now I think I want to end by making sure that I take some questions.  But I do want to reiterate that EPA is here to take responsibility.  We are working through these issues.  The very good news is that we see that this river is restoring itself.  That we see those numbers shifting.  That we are working with local communities to make sure that they are looking at the science and making the right decisions on reopening.  We will continue to do that as we, long-term, look at the sediment issues.  But the major risk issue, relative to this spill, is what’s in that water column and how do I continue to make sure that that water column is beginning to restore itself.  We are seeing that happening already.  So our challenge is to continue to do what we’ve done with the Animas, the upper Animas’, to just to keep rolling out that data for those segments; working with local communities moving forward.

So with that, I think I will stop.  And I’m happy to take a few questions.

Matt Howerton:
Administrator McCarthy, Matt Howerton with KOAT Action 7 News.  Can you kind of tell me something real quick?  The Secretary of the Environment Department of the State said that he got valid dated data from the EPA last night.  Is it safe to say that you guys are still reviewing that data right now to see when or if drinking water could be used from the river at all?

Gina McCarthy:
Well actually, it is safe to say that we’ve transmitted information to the unified command center; what we want to make sure to do because we’re in a partnership.  EPA’s not the one that’s going to make some of these critical decisions.  So what we do with that information is we make sure we get it in.  We put it into a form that people can understand who need to make decisions. We share it with them.  And as a unified command indicates, it is not going to be EPA’s decision about a statement.  It’s going to be a unified statement.  Because we want to make sure that we know that EPA has a challenge here, and our challenge is to make sure that we are meeting the needs of these communities in partnership.  And so that’s the issue that’s going on now.  Everybody’s looking at the data.  We’re making sure that that data is readily understandable.  And we’re making sure that our statements are collaborative statements that the entire unified command supports.  And so we’re hoping that that information gets out today.  I will tell you that because of the collaborative nature of this, it’s not as easy as it seems to get everybody to agree on the words, but we feel like the words matter.  Because EPA is the science but these folks have to really be confident of the decisions they make, and the science behind it needs to be as clear as possible.  So as soon as we can get that information out to everybody’s needs, EPA’s not holding it, we’re just making sure that we’re collaborating with everybody moving forward.

Matt Howerton:
Regarding the contractor Environmental Restoration LLC, those actually do read the work.

Gina McCarthy:
Yes.

Matt Howerton:
Is there anything punitive, I mean what kind of conversations have you had with their management?  I’m just trying to get a better understanding [inaudible].

Gina McCarthy:
Well the contractor was really looking -- was doing its work under the direction of U.S. EPA in consultation with the Colorado Bureau of Reclamation and Mines.  So we know that -- I don’t want people to think that this wasn’t a concerted effort to continue to look at the mining challenges in a technically correct way using really good professionals.  So what we’re doing is an independent analysis as well as an internal EPA analysis on what led to this incident.  So I think I just want to make sure that people aren’t premature in terms of blaming a contractor using a bulldozer.  EPA is here; we are taking full responsibility and over time, we’ll take a look at it and we’ll have a transparent independent analysis of what happened and how we make sure this never happens again.

[inaudible commentary]

Gina McCarthy:
We’re over here.

Female Speaker:
You had mentioned the Navajo nation.

Gina McCarthy:
Yes.

Female Speaker:
The tribe is warning citizens not to sign standard form 95 saying that it’s protecting the EPA above Navajo people.  And not to sign it because they won’t be allowed any future claims.  What’s your response to that?

Gina McCarthy:
Well actually, I just spent maybe more than a couple of hours or more with the tribe.  And we didn’t have a direct conversation about this issue.  But we did have a great conversation when we were talking with all of the boots on the ground folks.  And their concern was, and what I understood the issue was, was they were concerned about whether or not there needed to be a traditional claims process to continue to do the immediate response on helping to deliver water for irrigation, and for livestock, and for hay.  That’s necessary during these interim times before they can really see whether the uses have returned to normal and how we work through this immediate short-term challenge.

When we explained that that is not a claims process issue, that is actually an issue where we collaborate government to government.  And we’re able to meet those needs in a normal process.  In a way that doesn’t require claims to be filed and reimbursement.  They seemed extraordinarily happy to have that understanding.  And we will continue to work with the Navajo.  The Navajo have been our partners for a long time.  Jared Blumenfeld is actually here, he was with me.  He’s the regional administrator.  We have a good trust relationship, and we’ll keep working through that through this process.

Male speaker:
The tribe has also very publicly said they do plan to sue the EPA.  Is that the kind of partnership and collaboration you’re looking for?

Gina McCarthy:
Well you know EPA’s not unfamiliar with all -- with litigation, but frankly none of that tone or tenor was in the discussion we had this morning.  And we hope to continue to build a relationship with the new president.  And we spent a lot of time talking about next steps.  They are full partners right now in terms of being able to sample.  And we have explained to them that EPA is taking responsibility to work with them on [inaudible] sample.  How often, how we split those samples, how we develop the trust, and what happens later, we will deal with and it will not hinder our ability to continue to work with them in full partnership.

Male speaker:
[inaudible] we’ve gone over this really several times.  While the water is certainly changing color, you can definitely see that there’s a lot of that orange sediment still very much on the banks.  You can see it drawn in lines across rocks [inaudible].  What is really just the risk out there to people still because they’re still very much a presence I think that people have -- an idea that people have that it’s dangerous out there.

Gina McCarthy:
Well I know that we have to assure people.  And one of the -- the work that we’re doing now is to make sure that we explain why the water column is such a significant issue to deal with.  And what the impacts are or are not from the sediment itself.  We will work through those issues.  And that’s one of the reasons why we’re giving enough space to decision-makers.  To get data as quickly as we can, but allow them to put it into the logic context for them as they make their health-based decisions.  And so we’ll work through those issues.  But this river, you know I don’t want people to look at it and suggest that EPA is saying we’re all done.  What I’m suggesting is that the water column is the big issue in terms of a risk for people boating and taking other activities.  And so there is an opportunity now to take a look at that data and make decisions, but we know that the sediment is an issue.  We know that this is not an issue where you have an oil that actually can be absorbed through the skin.  This is an issue where soap and water and rinsing is really what you need to do if you come in contact with that.  But we are in no way saying, “We’re leaving, all things are done.”  The sediment will be looked at and frankly, the sediment is where that longer-term responsibility is for this agency.  And we will meet that responsibility.

Female Speaker:
Where is the EPA at right now as far as testing the sediment?  I mean, what specific heavy metals have you found?

Gina McCarthy:
Well we are testing both the water column and the sediment, and we have been doing that with all of the local communities participating as well.  I don’t have any information to release at this point.

Female Speaker:
I understand there’s 50 plus mines that have ceased operations, can you give us an idea about where those are?

Gina McCarthy:
Actually, we can certainly talk about following up with you.  I don’t have that information in hand.  But I think we do know where the mines are.  And I think the state of Colorado knows and the governor has spoken to this issue.  One of the good conversations we had in Durango yesterday was the need to not just look at this incident but to recognize that this incident you know is a reflection of the need to address much more broadly the entire Animas River watershed.  And as you know, for 17 to 20 years the EPA has been having conversations about designating that area as a Superfund site.  And it’s because we believe that there needs to be significant federal resources to address this issue.  And I think EPA takes full responsibility for the spill, but certainly that 3 million gallons wasn’t EPA’s.  And we need to do a better job to make sure that there isn’t another spill waiting to happen.  And we know that that’s one of the reasons why we have to continue to look at these mines.  And in the meantime, have great conversations with Durango, and with Silverton, and with the state of Colorado moving forward.  And as the congressman indicated, this is going to be a longer-term conversation that will likely need a lot of congressional input in terms of how we address these mining challenges.  It is in no way unique to Colorado to have these challenges and we’re looking at them more broadly.

I’m sorry, you had a chance.  Right back there sir are you with press sir?  

Male speaker:
No, I’m not.

Gina McCarthy:
Can we take that question afterwards?

Male speaker:
Well I’d kind of like it to be in public.  10 years ago, I was working as a project manager for the contractor here.  We had one of your people show up and give us tickets for not retaining the girth that was on our lots.  For the fact that it might [unintelligible] and it might go into the river.  We had $7000 worth of fines that were [unintelligible] fines that were normally $50,000 fines.

Gina McCarthy:
I get your point; you’re asking if we’re holding ourselves to the same standard.  Absolutely and we are holding ourselves to a higher standard.  So it’s a good point.

Male speaker:
I want to know when you’re going to pay up.

Gina McCarthy:
We will hold ourselves to the highest standard we can.  Yes sir.

Male speaker:
The $500,000, is that enough?  And to add to that question, do farmers know how to access that [inaudible].

Gina McCarthy:
Yeah, they should.  We actually -- the toll-free number works and were working with the communities.  We can follow up and if there’s any questions, but the $500,000 is an immediate effort to address the issue.  It is not the final answer.  We are dealing with that as the river and the water quality improves to see what we need to do on a short-term basis, but that in no way reflects the need to look at the full breadth of the problem.  One more question please.  Yes.

Female Speaker:
So what is President Obama’s responses actually to the tribe side that have been affected by this?

Gina McCarthy:
Well his response, as it always has been, is he has a tremendous respect and admiration for our tribes and for the need to actually develop a much stronger relationship between the federal government and our tribal governments.  And so he has been working hard at that, as the tribes know it, as we have.  But I spoke to the White House about my interest in coming down here.  They encouraged it, I’m going to brief them tomorrow.  So they are keeping a close watch on this and the President will be very interested to make sure that were treating our tribes with the respect that they deserve as a sovereign nation.

Female Speaker:
So do you know when he’s going to make a public statement on that?

Gina McCarthy:
I do not know whether he feels he needs to.  If he feels he needs to, he will.  But he knows I am here to talk about the seriousness that the federal government takes this.  And in particular the responsibility that EPA is actually indicating here by having all of our senior leadership here on the ground, boots on the ground.  To make sure that we resolve this issue in a way that everybody will see both our seriousness and our level of commitment.  Look, the EPA is an agency whose sole responsibility is public health and the environment.  Nobody wants to do this the right way better than we do.  Thank you very much everybody.
 
[end of transcript]

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