FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s one of New Mexico’s biggest environmental disasters that most won’t forget any time soon.
August 5, 2015, millions of gallons of bright orange mining waste water burst out of the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, flowing down through the Animas and San Juan rivers into New Mexico.
While the water has turned clear once again, there are new worries that the Gold King Mine spill is about to make a comeback in New Mexico, due to spring weather.
More than half a year since the spill, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) believes three-million gallons of waste water spilled from the Gold King Mine, carrying roughly 880,000 pounds worth of heavy metals including lead, cadmium and arsenic. The EPA says contractors they hired for clean-up work were excavating above an old mine drain, which was unknowingly filled with water.
While the EPA contends that the Animas and San Juan Rivers have returned to “pre-spill conditions,” that assurance hasn’t eased water quality fears for many living in San Juan County.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of what looks like, rust, like rusty brown material coating the rocks,” said David Yinguez, a Farmington-area resident who lives near Wild Horse Valley. “Everybody’s scared to do anything with it.”
Yinguez says he won’t fish in the Animas River anymore. Like many, he’s scared of what the mine waste water plume left behind. Yinguez says metal is now easy to find along the riverbanks, where much of it settled after the spill. He often dredges for gold along the Animas, right in the heart of Aztec.
“More than anything, that’s what I find is a lot of copper,” said Yinguez.
Residents aren’t the only one’s who are concerned. The state of New Mexico is also worried about the metal that was left behind in the Animas and San Juan rivers.
“These metals don’t biodegrade,” said Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department.
McQuillan is one of the top people in charge of watching the Gold King Mine spill’s continued impact on the state of New Mexico. His biggest concern is the poisonous, invisible heavy metal that’s still in the river and the riverbed.
“We can see contaminated sediment up in Colorado, it’s moving down toward New Mexico,” said McQuillan.
McQuillan took soil samples for the Environment Department in early March about five miles north of Durango along the Animas River banks. Multiple samples are clearly tainted with orange metals, leftover from the initial plume.
“Samples that we saw like this is August came out with high levels of lead and other heavy metals in them,” said McQuillan.
The New Mexico Environment Department says it’s worried about how contaminated soil will move downstream this spring. As winter snow pack melts, McQuillan says the Animas and San Juan river water will run higher and faster. That water flow is expected to churn up all the heavy metals that have been sitting on the river bed, making the water dangerous to use.
Lead Levels Spiking
According to the EPA’s own data, dangerous levels of lead have already been detected during high water flow events on the Animas and San Juan rivers.
The EPA considers any reading over 15 parts per billion (ppb) of lead in water to be dangerous for human consumption. That measure is called the “EPA drinking water action level.”
According to a chart of EPA data created by the state, lead levels in the Animas and San Juan rivers spiked well over the EPA’s “drinking water action level” during storm events on August 26, September 5, and September 25, 2015.
Both Farmington and Aztec get their city water supplies from the Animas and San Juan Rivers. Currently, the city of Farmington is using turbidity as a measure of when it is safe to open or shut off its water intake supply. Turbidity is a measure that is directly related to how cloudy the water is. Typically, turbidity rises when more water makes its way into the river.
“We can’t measure the lead directly, but the lead is related to the turbidity in the river,” said McQuillan
The city of Farmington is now shutting off its municipal water supply intake when the turbidity of the Animas River rises above 200 national turbidity units (NTUs.)
While municipalities are planning to increase turbidity monitoring and shut off water intakes during storms wihere river water flow increases, there are many others who can’t shut out the Animas River.
The New Mexico Environment Department is concerned that thousands of private wells and miles of private irrigation ditches for crops and livestock will be flooded this spring season. The state expects that will be contaminated river water.
For San Juan County officials, much of the flooding concern is north of Aztec and south of Cedar Crest.
“There’s a bunch of wells right in that area,” said Michele Truby-Tillen, floodplain manager for San Juan County.
San Juan county and state emergency managers are now trying to prepare for the spring with an emergency action plan. If there’s flooding, the county is planning on reverse 911 calling private well users, livestock owners and irrigators. They’re also preparing to layout emergency help.
“At this point, we’re looking at a high runoff because it’s warm,” said Truby-Tillen.
While they’re preparing on their own, state and county officials says their biggest grip is the with the lack of help they feel they’re receiving from the federal government.
“It just seems like the EPA has gone back to setting up a silo to testing only certain areas and not concerned for the broad aspects of what we are concerned with and what the state environment department is concerned with,” said Kim Carpenter, chief executive officer for San Juan County.
San Juan County and the state want the EPA to pay for more monitoring sites and more in-depth testing. The New Mexico Environment Department is seeking to test crops, fish and wildlife, livestock, irrigation ditches, the aquifer and more. For now, the state is preparing to pay for virtually the entire tab, including the cost of some new water monitoring stations on the river.
In the coming weeks, the New Mexico Environment Department expects data to come in from monitoring stations along the Animas and San Juan at Flora Vista, Aztec, Cedar Crest, Farmington and Shiprock. The data includes water temperature, turbidity, oxygen levels and more. NMED says Utah will install two probes soon, and Colorado is also expected to install three to four probes.
For New Mexico, extensive monitoring is expected to be expensive, and the state won’t be able to pay for all of it.
“Our estimate for the first two years to do a good job is $5 million,” said McQuillan. “The state of New Mexico doesn’t have an extra $5 million.”
While the EPA was bashed for its slow response after accidentally digging into the abandoned mine back in August, the state Environment Department now believes the feds should be throwing everything they have at the problem. Instead, state officials think the EPA will be playing catch-up, again.
“Do you think there are long-term risks to this spill and to the people in this community?” asked KRQE News 13 reporter Chris McKee.
“Well, we’re going to get the data to find out,” said McQuillan.
It’s data that could have life or death implications that the state says the feds aren’t collecting right now.
The EPA maintains the rivers have returned to pre-spill conditions. They’re also conducting some testing of public water systems, spring runoff, stream sediments, fish and aquatic invertebrate.