State agency requests reimbursement from EPA

Hannah Grover
Melanie Bergolc, a resident of Silverton, Colo., walks along the banks of Cement Creek in Silverton on Aug. 10, 2015, where residue from the Gold King Mine spill is evident.
  • 14 entities are requesting money from the EPA to reimburse them for mine spill-related expenses.
  • More than $1.5 million has been requested by the 14 entities.
  • The money will reimburse for expenses like overtime wages and infrastructure improvements.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Environment Department submitted a request Thursday night for more than $1.5 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reimburse 14 entities for expenses incurred to clean up after the Gold King Mine spill in August.

During EPA work on the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. in August, a crew triggered a blowout that spilled about 3 million gallons of contaminated water into a creek that eventually flowed into the Animas River. The 14 entities in New Mexico — which include the cities of Aztec and Farmington, San Juan County, state agencies and universities — worked to clean up after the spill, and to test the water in the river and in wells.

Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said the 14 entities chose to have the New Mexico Environment Department handle the reimbursement requests rather than having each entity submit its own.

Mayes said the city spent approximately $515,500 after the mine spill. About $304,000 was spent on equipment, including two sensors set up at the water intake points on the river that monitor turbidity and shut off intake during high turbidity times. The Daily Times reported in September that the two sensors cost the city about $100,000.

Travis Sells, of Farmington, stops to look at the Animas River at Berg Park in Farmington on Aug. 8, after it was contaminated with waste from the Gold King Mine spill.

Mayes said the spill raised the question of what the city would do if there was no advance notice of such a spill. The city was able to manually close the intakes to Farmington Lake, which stores the city's drinking water, two days before the contaminated plume reached the city.

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said about $408,000 of the request is earmarked for Farmington.

Farmington and Aztec both spent money on infrastructure improvements following the spill. Aztec has requested about $153,000 from the EPA. The city is paying more than $100,000 to replace the head gate to the ditch that feeds the pump house to the town's water treatment facility. During the spill, the city officials realized the need to have a new head gate, City Manager Josh Ray said.

"It wouldn't seal completely," Ray said.

Because of that, the city had to clean up the pump house after the spill.

San Juan County has requested approximately $94,000. San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the majority of the costs incurred were in overtime wages and travel costs.

Flynn said the environment department itself asked for $367,000.

The requested money will reimburse the entities for expenses from the time of the spill through December, but it will not reimburse them for long-term monitoring that the cities and county have been doing. It also does not include the Navajo Nation, which is part of a different EPA region. Navajo Nation officials could not be reached for comment by deadline Friday.

Flynn said there is no date set for when the 14 entities will start to receive reimbursement money because it depends on how fast the EPA processes the claim.

"We've done a lot of hard work to get it in a form that will be easy to process," he said.

He said the environment department set out with three goals after the spill — get the EPA to reimburse local entities for expenses incurred, develop a long-term monitoring plan and make sure the problem leading to the spill is addressed through a Superfund designation. While the state has developed a long-term monitoring plan, it is not currently supported by the EPA.

While submitting a request for reimbursement is one step toward accomplishing the environment department's three goals, Carpenter expressed concerns about how much time it could take the EPA to process the request.

That was echoed by Ray, who said Aztec was fortunate to have the money to clean up after the mine spill. He said he would have liked to have seen the reimbursement money by now.

"We'll be excited to see a check," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.