Access to Animas River closed after Gold King Mine spills toxic metals into water

Dan Schwartz The Daily Times
The Daily Times

AZTEC — San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter declared a state of emergency Friday night and closed access to the Animas River throughout the county.

Earlier in the day, Environmental Protection Agency officials said they suspect toxic metals are suspended in a plume of mustard-colored pollution washing down the river. On Wednesday morning, an EPA team investigating the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., breached a wall of sediment releasing at least 1 million gallons of contaminated water. An orange mass of pollution then washed down a creek in the mining town that feeds the Animas River.

EPA officials said late Friday that the plume likely contains arsenic, lead, zinc, copper, aluminum and cadmium, but they were unable to confirm the amounts. The agency has come under fire for waiting nearly 24 hours before notifying impacted communities of the release.

Officials will hold a public meeting to discuss the river contamination at noon today in the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St.

Martin Hestmark, assistant regional administrator for EPA Region 8, said in an interview that probably a "couple hundred" gallons a minute are still seeping into the river. "That's my guess," he said.

New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said the mine is a federal Superfund site — which means it is severely contaminated — and he said estimates of the amount of contaminated water released will increase.

"I can tell you that it was much more than a million gallons," he said in a briefing Friday evening in Aztec. "The amount of contamination that was visible today — it was staggering."

State and local officials who flew above the river in a helicopter estimated the trail of pollution was more than 45 miles long. But they turned back before they reached the mine because they needed to refuel.

Meanwhile, EPA officials are trying to catch the leaking mine waste in a pond near the mine to treat it before more of it reaches the river. The surge that spilled through the breach had a pH of 4.5, which is slightly acidic.

State and local officials expected the plume would pass through Aztec midnight Friday and Berg Park in Farmington by 7 a.m. today.

A San Juan County Sheriff's Office helicopter has been flying over the river about every 30 minutes to track the plume's movement. Officials estimated it is moving at about 1 to 2 miles an hour.

Farmington and Aztec shut down pipes that pump water from the Animas River to water treatment plants, and officials say both cities have weeks of stored water.

Flynn said residents who drink from wells within floodplains should test their water before bathing in it or drinking it. A floodplain map can be found at

Environment department staff will test water samples brought in by residents at the San Juan County Fair from Monday through Saturday for free. However, department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure said the number of test kits are limited.

San Juan County has set up potable water stations for residents at Center Point Fire Station No. 1 at 16 Road 2755, Flora Vista Fire Station No. 1 at 2 Road 3275 and Valley Fire Station No. 4 at 4 Road 6200, according to a press release from the city of Farmington.

The stations will be open from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. today and Sunday.

Residents must bring water containers and no large tanks will be allowed, according to the release.

State, municipal and tribal officials ask that people and their pets avoid contact with the river, not allow livestock to drink its water and not catch fish until further notice. State officials ask that ditch users not draw water from ditches.

Federal, state and local officials are sampling the rivers in different spots to determine contamination levels.

Navajo Nation officials Friday afternoon issued a precautionary notice for the San Juan River, downstream from its confluence with the Animas River in Farmington. Drinking water is "unaffected" from the Beclabito, Gadii'ahi, Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tsé Daa K'aan and Upper Fruitland chapters, according to the notice.

"There's no immediate threat to the drinking water for all communities along the San Juan River," said Merle Chischilly, a senior environmental specialist with the Public Water Systems Supervision Program in the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. He said those communities are using water from the city of Farmington.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said in a statement that county officials notified his office about the spill.

"Although the U.S. EPA continues to state that the contamination does not pose detrimental threats, I strongly urge nearby chapters and our people who reside near the San Juan River to refrain from using the water for any purposes until a thorough evaluation is completed," Bates said.

The speaker added that Navajo Agricultural Products Industry officials have said the spill will not adversely impact water delivery from the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project because it does not receive water from the Animas River.

Before the EPA released more detailed information about the spill, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye criticized the agency's inability to provide information about the contaminants.

"We are demanding from the U.S. EPA an immediate release of detailed information on the type of contaminants that is flowing into the river from the Gold King Mine. This is an all too familiar story on the lax oversight responsibility of the U.S. government," Begaye said.

Don Dufur, an Aztec resident, started following the orange plume down the river at 11 a.m. Friday after hearing about it on the news. He was one of about a dozen people standing on a bridge over the Animas River in Cedar Hill waiting for the plume to come into sight.

"I live down here on the river bottom," he said. "I have animals. I have a well for my house."

He said he depends on the Animas River.

Dufur currently has bottled water to drink while he determines whether his well is contaminated.

"You plan for the worst, hope for the best," he said.

Shane and Amy Dickson stood on another Cedar Hill bridge upstream from where Dufur was waiting and watched as the orange plume mixed with the blue-green water.

The onlookers pointed to a place where people would jump into the river from some rocks. In the deep water the color changed more slowly, but soon it also was orange.

The Dicksons live in Cedar Hill and depend on well water.

Their family has been in Cedar Hill for the past 30 years and have never before needed to ration water.

"I don't think we have a 90-day supply, but we're OK for now," Amy Dickson said.

State and county officials had blasted the EPA earlier in the day saying its response to the spill was irresponsible and cavalier. Many officials said the EPA downplayed the event Wednesday and Thursday.

In a meeting in Durango Friday afternoon, EPA Region 8 Administrator Shaun McGrath said the spill was a "disaster." Dave Ostrander, EPA Region 8 Director of Emergency Preparedness, Assessment and Emergency Response, said it is a "huge tragedy."

"First off," Ostrander said, "I'd like to say I'm very sorry for what's happened."

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

Noel Lynn Smith and Hannah Grover contributed to this report.