Gold King mine spill 'still hurting' New Mexico 4 years later

Theresa Davis
Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE – Environmental Protection Agency contractors triggered the release of three million gallons of yellow wastewater from the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado into the Animas and San Juan rivers on Aug. 5, 2015.

The spill flowed through New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation, all of which sued the EPA for damages.

"Agricultural uses ground to a halt," New Mexico's May 2016 lawsuit states. "Potable water was hauled in by truck for human and livestock consumption. Tens of thousands of local residents, farmers, anglers, and tourists could not access or enjoy the rivers."

EPA contractors were investigating small leaks at the inactive mine when heavy equipment broke into a collapsed tunnel, sending acidic water laden with 540 tons of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and copper into the river.

The EPA paid state and tribal governments for emergency water tests, but initially denied 79 economic damage claims.

In August 2017, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt – who resigned in July 2018 – visited the spill site and said the agency would reconsider the claims. The New Mexico Environment Department said Friday that it was unaware whether any of those payments have been made.

Water from the Gold King Mine spill is seen flowing down the Animas River, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, at Berg Park in Farmington.

NMED chief scientist Dennis McQuillan said there is ongoing monitoring to determine long-term effects of the spill.

"Dozens of mines are leaking acid mine water into the watershed," McQuillan said. "Gold King was just one of those."

Under new administrator Andrew Wheeler, the federal agency, its contractors and mining companies asked for dismissal of the lawsuits, arguing the EPA had immunity and was already working on cleanup.

Environment Department general counsel Jennifer Howard said a federal judge in Albuquerque rejected that argument in March, so the lawsuits "should definitely start proceeding at a faster pace."

A November 2018 EPA report showed fish had elevated metal levels in the weeks after the spill, but returned to pre-spill levels by spring 2016.

The mouth of the Gold King Mine, located north of Silverton, Colo., is pictured on Aug. 10, 2015, several days after a crew working on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency breached the mine, causing toxic wastewater to enter the Animas River.

Research by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico Game and Fish, Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Basin Public Health and Colorado Parks and Wildlife echo that claim.

"The farming industry is still hurting," McQuillan said. "I've talked to farmers who said their sales are down 25% from before the spill because people say they won't buy food grown on the San Juan. But our agriculture products are safe. The fish are safe to eat. The river is safe for irrigation."

McQuillan said the federal WIIN Act (Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation) will provide money for the Navajo Nation to test fish in the spill area and start outreach to address the misconception that the river water is unsafe.

New Mexico State University principal investigator Kevin Lombard and researcher Brandon Francis prepare to collect soil samples on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 at a farm in Hogback.

In 2016, the EPA designated the area around the spill site as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which opens up money for cleanup and places the site on a priority action list. Howard and McQuillan agreed that was a positive development, but Superfund cleanup is a slow process.

"It was a significant issue four years ago and remains a significant issue," Howard said. "The motivation for our lawsuit is to have EPA step up to the plate and address the economic impact this (spill) had on agriculture and tourism for our state."

Brandon Francis, a researcher with New Mexico State University looks at a soil sample reading on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 at a farm in Hogback.