EPA outlines plans to assess Gold King health risks

Plans include early response actions to improve the water quality in the Animas River watershed

Hannah Grover
Ben Martinez, engineering and minerals staff officer for San Juan National Forest, discusses plans for the Brooklyn Mine during a meeting Thursday at San Juan College's School of Energy.
  • The EPA is studying hydrology in the mining district, which includes the Gold King Mine.
  • The U.S. Forest Service will work on remediation at the Brooklyn Mine this year.
  • Plans were unveiled in a series of public meetings this week.

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to determine whether there are any linger effects to human health and aquatic life in the wake of the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill, officials said in a series of public meetings this week.

The agency is also working on cleaning up contamination in the Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton, Colo. this year.

The August 2015 spill, triggered by EPA crews working to clean up the site, led to the district being classified as a Superfund site. The EPA is also working on a human health risk assessment and an aquatic risk assessment for the Animas River. The aquatic risk assessment will look at the river from Silverton to Durango.

Rebecca Thomas, EPA project manager, unveiled the plans during meetings this week in Silverton, Durango, Colo., and at San Juan College. Thomas said the EPA will likely complete a feasibility study for the cleanup work and release a plan in June. This will be open to public comments for 30 days and the EPA plans to begin work in late August or early September and continue until it snows.

She said the work will partly  be dependent on the federal budget, which has not yet been approved.

EPA project manager Rebecca Thomas outlines plans for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site during a meeting Thursday at San Juan College's School of Energy.

Thomas said the EPA has asked the federal government for funding for the Bonita Peak mining district.

"I hope if any project gets funded, Bonita Peak is funded," Thomas said.

The Gold King Mine continues to release 550 gallons of water each minute, and Thomas said the water inside the mine has continued to rise. This water is captured in a treatment plant, however 36 other drainage passages in the mining district are continuously draining water into the watershed that feeds the Animas River.

"We have a lot of questions still about the hydrology of the mountain," Thomas said during a meeting Thursday.

The EPA plans on drilling a well into the American Tunnel, which drains the Gold King Mine, this year to help study the hydrology. Thomas said it is also studying seeps and springs in the mining district.

Early response actions may help improve the water quality in the district, although Thomas said they will not be final remedies.

One of these actions is removing high concentrations of lead and arsenic from several sites, including primitive campgrounds.

Another plan is to divert water draining from mines away from the mine tailings, where the water currently picks up additional heavy metals. The EPA also plans on removing tailing piles near surface water drainages and mucking out sediment basins that catch the water from the mines.

The EPA also plans on "keeping clean water clean" by creating diversion channels to transport water from the mountains around the mine sites.

This year, the U.S. Forest Service will focus on the Brooklyn Mine, located north of Silverton near Red Mountain Pass.

"To understand what's going on, someone has to take a lead, so we're taking a lead at the Brooklyn Mine site," said Ben Martinez, engineering and minerals staff officer for San Juan National Forest.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. is also involved in the sampling and remediation work through an agreement with the EPA. Thomas said Sunnyside will investigate and clean up the Mayflower mine site. This include four impoundment ponds near the road between Silverton and Animas Forks, Colo.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety will also investigate the bulkheads that have been placed in mines throughout the district. Colorado is also taking the lead on work at the Aspen Mine and Indian Tunnel.

Meanwhile, a rancher and power plant employee, Justin Yazzie, disputed EPA data regarding water quality. He said power plant water tests show high levels of lead in the San Juan River. Yazzie asked about getting communities tested for lead poisoning.

Dan Wall, who is working on the ecological risk assessment for the EPA, said the aquatic risk assessment will not include New Mexico or the Southern Ute Tribe because current data shows there are a lot of other factors could negatively influence water quality near Durango.

"We can't chase risks that aren't associated with our sites," he said.

Susan Griffin, an EPA Superfund toxicologist, added presence of metals does not always meant there is a risk to human health.

"It's the dose that makes the poison," she said.

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