Committee voices concerns about lead after mine spill

Hannah Grover
N.M. Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, speaks about the Gold King Mine spill during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting on Monday at the San Juan Chapter house in Lower Fruitland. Clahchischilliage chairs the committee.

FARMINGTON — Lawmakers on the Indian Affairs Committee expressed concerns about potential lead contamination in the Animas River in the aftermath of last year's Gold King Mine spill.

During the committee's meeting today at the San Juan Chapter house, members listened to a presentation from the New Mexico Environment Department about the environmental disaster that released more than three million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Data showed a spike in lead levels in the Animas River when the plume of mine waste reached New Mexico in August 2015, said Dennis McQuillan, the state Environment Department's chief scientist. He said data also showed spikes in lead levels during large rain events after the mine spill.

During this year's spring run-off, he said the Animas River was filled to its banks, and if there had been more water, it could have breached the riverbanks and flooded properties. The floods could have left behind sediment from the Gold King Mine, McQuillan said.

Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department, gives a presentation about the Gold King Mine spill on Monday during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting at the San Juan Chapter house in Lower Fruitland.

"We kind of dodged a bullet during the spring run-off," he said

McQuillan said a sediment test conducted this winter in Colorado showed lead levels of 3,100 parts per million in sediment on a resident's private property. He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's residential standards are 400 parts per million.

The spring run-off washed that sediment downstream with the river. When asked by committee members today about where that sediment was now, McQuillan said he did not know.

A study conducted shortly after the mine spill found that in the Animas River system, groundwater generally feeds into the river. But, McQuillan said, there are places north of Aztec where that is reversed and the Animas River feeds into groundwater, which could potentially lead to contamination of wells.

McQuillan also cautioned that the Navajo Nation and Utah could have been impacted worse than upstream communities. He said analysis of the mineral composition of samples taken after the mine spill showed high levels of jarosite, which is made up of zinc, lead and aluminum.

McQuillan said jarosite forms in acidic water and becomes unstable in basic water. When it becomes unstable, it releases heavy metals, such as lead. And downstream communities, such as those on the reservation and in Utah, have basic water conditions, he said.

N.M. Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, asks questions during an Indian Affairs Committee meeting on Monday at the San Juan Chapter house in Lower Fruitland.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, urged the environment department to work closely with the New Mexico Department of Health to test children for lead poisoning.

"Children shouldn't have to suffer over this incident," Cisneros said.

McQuillan said the Department of Health has increased its urine testing.

"Unfortunately, lead goes to blood, not urine," he said.

McQuillan said he did not know of anyone who has had a blood test done to check for lead poisoning. He cautioned that lead is more dangerous for children, saying it can cause permanent disabilities.

"If I lived up there, I would get my children tested," he said about people living near the Animas River.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.