Scientists are developing robots that might someday be able to creep through the pitch-black mines to help prevent spills. A 2015 spill from Colorado’s Gold King Mine unleashed 3 million gallons of water that fouled rivers in three states with toxins. (Jan. 31) AP


HOGBACK — Researcher Brandon Francis placed a handheld X-ray fluorescence spectrometer directly on a patch of soil he'd just cleared of dried vegetation and set the device to begin a 90-second screening.

The equipment detects and identifies metals such as calcium, potassium, copper, arsenic and lead in soil.

New Mexico State University is among the government programs and universities conducting a three-year study that focuses on the Gold King Mine spill's impacts to soil, water and plants.

MORE: Gold King Mine spill study group to discuss health screening results

The spill was triggered in August 2015 when contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were conducting cleanup work at the mine, located north of Silverton, Colorado.

More than three million gallons of toxic wastewater rushed into a tributary that feeds the Animas River, which meets the San Juan River in Farmington.

Francis was working Monday with Kevin Lombard, the project's principal investigator, to test 75 points on the 2.5-acre farm, located north of U.S. Highway 64 in Hogback.

The locations are randomly selected by an electronic GPS device and, at every 10th site, up to six inches of soil is bagged for further testing at a NMSU laboratory in Las Cruces.

Several sites are tested

Today was the third time testing and soil sample collection was done in that field, which had dried cornstalks in one section.

Francis said the field grew corn, melons, squash and cucumbers last year and was irrigated by water from the San Juan River.

The farm is one of the study's collection sites. Other sites are located near the New Mexico and Colorado state line and in Cedar Hill, Aztec, Flora Vista, Waterflow and Shiprock.

MORE: Navajo Prep group earns $10K scholarship for mine spill study

Farmers and land owners volunteered to have their properties tested, and they receive test results from the team.

"So far, we're not really seeing anything that's too troubling. I mean, we're actually helping to show there is nothing to worry about," Lombard said.

Results and information about the study, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service and the New Mexico Environment Department, has been shared in public sessions since the 2015 spill.

Spill caused worries about agriculture

Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter is among the areas on the Navajo Nation known for farming and tribal members travel to the region to purchase produce.

But when the spill happened two years ago, many worried whether crops were safe to consume and concerns mounted about the economic impact to the area.

MORE: EPA: Gold King Mine sediments no longer in rivers

While the primary focus of the study is to monitor heavy metals in soil, water and plants, it has an added purpose.

"It's an effort to restore producer and consumer confidence in the region because people are hesitant to grow and, at the same time, some people are hesitant to buy," Francis said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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