EPA: Gold King Mine sediments no longer in rivers

Official says stigma still impacts farmers selling crops

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
  • EPA scientist: The water quality is improving in Cement Creek.
  • An official says spring runoff likely washed heavy metals from the Gold King Mine spill out of the San Juan and Animas rivers.

FARMINGTON — Scientific data shows the water in the Animas River is safe for irrigating crops and watering livestock, according to presenters at a conference featuring scientists from universities and government agencies.

The second annual Conference on Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds with Emphasis on the Gold King Mine and Other Mine Waste Issues today at San Juan College also featured other people who have been monitoring conditions in the rivers.

One challenge for scientists is identifying to what degree metals are naturally occurring in the river and which metals are coming from mines in Colorado.

Participants in a Gold King Mine spill conference take part in a panel discussion Wednesday at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

Kathleen Sullivan, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist, said heavy metals released into the river during the Gold King Mine spill likely are no longer in the sediments in the rivers.

Sullivan said there are naturally high levels of aluminum and iron in the river because of the composition of the bedrock. She said the EPA looked at the ratio of arsenic and lead to aluminum or iron in the river to identify the plume released by the Gold King Mine spill.

The ratio peaked while the plume was passing through the area.

"For the amount of aluminum in the river that day, the lead was unusually high," Sullivan said.

She said only a small fraction of the heavy metals released into the river during the spill reached Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona during the immediate aftermath of the spill in August 2015. The rest of the metal was deposited as sediment, but Sullivan said the EPA believes the metals from the Gold King Mine spill are no longer present in the sediment and now have been deposited in Lake Powell.

Kate Sullivan, center, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, answers questions during a panel discussion on the long-term impact of the Gold King Mine spill Wednesday at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

"The San Juan River saw most of the mass pass through during the spring runoff," she said.

Sullivan said the EPA believes the Gold King Mine metals deposited in sediments passed through New Mexico in low levels over three to four weeks during the spring runoff in 2016.

A Look Back:Mine spill, water quality will be discussed during conference

To test that hypothesis, Sullivan said the EPA took samples during the spring runoff this year. She said the EPA expects to see lower ratios of lead to aluminum in this year's samples.

Sullivan said the metals in the plume of acid mine drainage were mainly picked up after the water left the Gold King Mine. She said the water exiting the mine picked up a large amount of metal from a waste pile outside the mine. Sullivan said the EPA is currently in the process of testing that pile.

Gold King Mine Citizens Advisory Committee member Rich Dembowski speaks Wednesday during a panel discussion on the mine spill's long-term impacts at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

During a panel presentation, Bonnie Hopkins, an extension agent for New Mexico State University, said one of the biggest issues still facing the area is the public stigma associated with the spill.

When Farmington's Growers Market opened for the 2016 season following the Gold King Mine spill, only three vendors showed up to sell their products. She attributed the small number of farmers selling their products to the stigma surrounding crops grown using water from the Animas River.

This year, the Growers Market saw improvement. Hopkins said 11 vendors brought crops to the first market of the season earlier this month.

During a panel discussion, Sullivan said the acid mine drainage from the Gold King Mine is effectively being treated, although drainage from other mines needs to be addressed. She said samples from Cement Creek — which feeds the Animas River — show the water quality is improving.

Steve Austin, a hydrologist with the Navajo Nation EPA, said community outreach is still needed to communicate that the river water is safe.

"Building that trust is key," he said.

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