Preliminary tests show slightly elevated levels of lead in Animas River

Hannah Grover
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Tests done by the city of Farmington on Animas River water after a plume of mine contamination moved out of the area show lead levels slightly above what is considered safe for drinking water, officials said Wednesday.

Preliminary results also showed levels of secondary metals, including manganese and iron, that were above New Mexico safe water standards.

Other than lead and secondary metal contaminants, which affect taste and color, everything else tested within the standards, they said.

Officials warned residents not to use the water for human consumption, irrigation or watering livestock at a meeting held at the Farmington Civic Center to inform farmers and ranchers about the impact of the spill on irrigation ditch water. A breach at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers a week ago.

The meeting included officials from EPA Region 6, which includes New Mexico, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, the New Mexico State University San Juan County Extension Office and the City of Farmington.

Farmington Public Works Director David Sypher said that while the results are encouraging, it is just one data set and did not test the sediment at the bottom of the river.

"All of the metals that were in the river are now in the sediment," said Bonnie Hopkins, New Mexico State University San Juan County Extension Office agriculture agent.

Sypher said the results showed lead was higher than state water quality standards, which are set at 15 parts per million. The city test results show lead levels of 15.4 parts per million, he said.

The results are posted on the city's website,

The New Mexico Environment Department also released data from three samples taken Sunday in Aztec, Farmington and Kirtland. All of the parameters tested were within state water quality standards. However, Hopkins said it will take more data points before officials can determine that the water is safe.

"It's basically like taking a thimble in an Olympic-sized swimming pool," she said.

The results can be found at

While the yellow color has passed through Farmington, Hopkins warned the river could still be dangerous.

"The color of the water is not a good indicator of the safety of the water," she said.

She explained that the yellow-orange color was caused by high levels of iron, which is not toxic for people. Instead, the concerns come from metals that can't be detected by water color, such as lead and arsenic, she said.

The water from the plume also potentially contaminated ditches in the area.

About 20 ditches between the Colorado-New Mexico state line and the Navajo Nation reservation were impacted by the plume of acid mine waste, according to Blaine Watson, the district manager for the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer.

Four of the 20 ditches had only minor impacts and two of the other ditches cross state lines so the department doesn't have full data for them.

The other ditches show discoloration from the plume.

Some of the gates on the ditches couldn't be closed all the way due to debris, which allowed contaminated water to leak in.

Officials said they have no date set for allowing use of rivers stretches exposed to the contamination.

This could mean flushing the ditches with water to remove contaminated sediments.

Officials are also warning people not to take matters into their own hands and open up irrigation ditches.

Tom Blaine, the state engineer, said irrigating with the water in the ditch could spread contaminants.

"I feel the risk is greater than any benefits that might be felt out of it," Blaine said.

Officials are planning on removing the colored residue from the ditches and then taking soil samples before determining how to proceed. Kevin Lombard, an associate professor for New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center in Farmington, is currently taking soil samples for research purposes.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.