Group to discuss mine spill health risks

Brett Berntsen
Megan Oller, an assistant engineer associate with Western Solutions Inc., measures water flowing out of Gold King Mine on Aug. 10, 2015.

FARMINGTON – A researcher with the New Mexico Department of Health will give a presentation at San Juan College on Monday about potential health impacts from the Gold King Mine spill.

Heidi Krapfl, a department bureau chief, will lead the discussion at 5:30 p.m. as part of the monthly Gold King Mine Spill Citizens' Advisory Committee meeting. The committee is composed of local residents and was established to facilitate public discourse in the wake of the spill, which released 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas River last August.

Monday's meeting comes shortly after a multi-agency conference on water contamination issues surrounding the disaster. Scientists at the conference presented evidence that the toxic material released during the spill remain trapped in river sediment, and could be released back into the water during spring runoff.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Dennis McQuillan, the New Mexico Environment Department's chief scientist said.

McQuillan said heavy metals such as lead can be taken up into the food web and affect the health of humans and livestock.

Justin Yazzie, a Shiprock resident who attended the conference, said he won't plant his alfalfa fields this year due to such concerns.

"I'd rather wait," Yazzie said.

Studies testing heavy metal levels in San Juan County residents were underway prior to the spill. But Alexander Coyle, who runs a bio monitoring program at the Department of Health, said public interest has skyrocketed after the incident.

His program tests water and urine samples from residents who rely on private domestic wells. He said coming to any definitive conclusions on health effects from the mine spill will take time, however.

“We don’t know what heavy metals in your system means for your health at that particular time,” Coyle said. "We can only tell through long-term testing."

The Citizens' Advisory Committee meets at San Juan College on the fourth Monday of every month. For more information visit their website at

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