Health department will offer well water testing

Brett Berntsen
New Mexico Environment Department liquid water program manager Jim Vincent, helps a citizen fill out the proper paper work on Aug. 10 during water testing at San Juan County's Lee Acres Sheriff's Substation in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Department of Health will offer free, in-home well water testing for Farmington-area residents later this month.

The tests will analyze levels of toxic metals and other harmful chemicals that might be found in drinking water sourced from private or shared wells.

Part of a multi-state monitoring partnership, the free testing program predates the Gold King Mine spill last August – which released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. Since the disaster, however, the importance of testing has grown.

Jim Dunlap, commissioner of the San Juan County Rural Water Users Association, said that the majority of people who use wells for drinking water draw from sites close to the Animas and San Juan rivers.

“If I had one of those wells,” Dunlap said, “I’d have it tested.”

The Department of Health stresses that the test results cannot be used to determine if the mine spill affected wells, but instead will inform residents if their drinking water meets national safety standards.

Heidi Krapfl, a bureau chief at the department, estimated there will be resources for about 50 participants during this round of testing, which will take place April 29 and 30. Additional applicants will be placed on a waiting list, Krapfl said.

Water contamination issues run deep in San Juan County, where gas and mineral deposits can naturally seep into rivers and aquifers.

But after an Environmental Protection Agency crew working near Silverton, Colo., accidentally released a plume of mine waste that turned the Animas River yellow, the subject has reached center stage.

“You get that panic effect,” Michele Truby-Tillen, San Juan County’s flood plain manager, said.

Although the EPA has since deemed the Animas River safe and municipalities have treatment facilities to remove contaminants from drinking water, debate still rages.

The EPA based its findings on recreational screening levels, or what would be harmful to a camper or rafter.

“In Colorado people look at the rivers as, ‘Let’s go fishing. Let’s go play,’” said Allison Scott Majure of the New Mexico Environment Department. “It’s a very different kind of river in New Mexico.”

Majure said thousands of people in San Juan County rely on river water for their lawns, gardens and livestock.

“They deserve a residential standard,” she said.

New Mexico Environment Department District Manager Bob Italiano places bottles of water for testing on a table on Aug. 10 during water testing at San Juan County's Lee Acres Sheriff's Substation in Farmington.

Majure noted the EPA’s standard for lead in residential soil is 400 parts per million. For tests conducted in areas touched by the Gold King Mine spill, the EPA adopted a standard of 20,000 ppm.

The resulting findings were skewed and deceptive, she said.

To collect additional information on the impacts of the mine spill, the state is conducting its own long-term monitoring activities. In the meantime, Majure said it’s important to participate in as much testing as possible.

“Developing a good data set for the future is important,” Majure said.

To sign up for testing contact Alexander Coyle at 505-827-2652.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.