Almost two weeks after spill, San Juan County emergency measures wind down
SHIPROCK — Farmers in the Shiprock Chapter on Monday were continuing to look for alternative sources of water to irrigate crops and water livestock.
The Navajo Nation has an advisory still in effect that instructs ranchers and farmers not to use San Juan River water. Using the river water has been prohibited since about 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater was accidentally released Aug. 5 from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
On Monday, farmers voted 64-1 to have Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie write a memorandum to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking it to deliver water containers and provide clean water for irrigation purposes.
The move comes after Shiprock Chapter's farm board member, Joe Ben Jr., complained about the condition of about 11 tanks that were delivered to the chapter by a contractor hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Ben alleges the tanks are not suitable to deliver water to farmers because he noticed water inside the tanks was brown and had a noticeable film and odor. A flier notifying residents of a meeting at the Shiprock Chapter house on Monday announced that participants would "address unclean fracking barrels."
Ben said he notified the EPA about the tanks and asked for certification that the tanks were in good condition to haul water. He said Monday that no one had responded to his requests.
During the emergency farmers meeting at the chapter house, Ben explained the situation to farmers and residents.
Sitting on a table were five plastic containers holding water samples — varying in color from yellow to brown — that Ben said were collected from the tanks.
Shiprock Incident Commander David Nez explained in Navajo that it would take a week to remove and thoroughly clean the tanks, followed by another week to return them to Shiprock.
After hearing Nez's explanation, some farmers stressed the need to water their crops as soon as possible.
Shiprock resident Bertha Etsitty said her son has been hauling water for his crops for the last four days.
"It doesn't make it all the way down the crops," Etsitty said, of water poured into irrigation ditches.
Etsitty mentioned she is also growing squash and said the vegetables were healthy looking 12 days ago.
"It hurts," she said about seeing her squash wilting.
Another Shiprock resident, Barbara King-Wilson, said it is important for the farmers to stand together and tell the EPA to supply a filtering system for the water.
San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter clarified Monday evening that when he lifted the ban on using the river, that only applied on the stretch of the Animas and San Juan rivers from the New Mexico-Colorado border to the lower valley area in Kirtland. He said officials with the EPA's Region 9 are still conducting tests on water that flows downstream from there.
Carpenter spoke about the Gold Kine Mine spill at a public meeting at the Farmington Civic Center that was attended by about 40 people.
An EPA official at the meeting presented river testing data showing that spikes in heavy metal concentrations occurring as the plume passed through the area were still well below screening levels for recreational use. Those levels are the first sign that officials should take a closer look at what is occurring and are set well below levels that would produce an immediate health threat, said David Charters with the EPA's national and international environmental response team.
After the plume passed through, levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper in the river water and in the sediment deposited by the plume were either extremely low or couldn't be detected by the tests, Charters said.
"We'll continue to deal with this as time progresses," Carpenter said. He said officials will continue to sample and test the water and sediment and work together on "how to prevent this in the future."
Sgt. Matthew Anthony, with New Mexico Game and Fish, said the department has nearly finalized a plan for long-term monitoring of potential impacts on wildlife that will look at birth rates, long-term absorption of heavy metals and other variables.
Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes said the results of tests conducted by the city of Farmington on Monday will be available on Thursday. If those test results are consistent with results from EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department, the city will resume piping Animas River water to its treatment plant, he said. He said it likely would be about a week before the city starts using Farmers Ditch to supply the plant.
Mayes said the city plans to install two sensors — one for acid mine waste and another for hydrocarbons produced by the oil and gas industry — that will automatically shut down the plant intakes when something is detected in the river.
The city of Aztec may start pumping water from the Animas on Wednesday, City Manager Josh Ray said Monday in an interview. The city lifted its restrictions on residential water use after San Juan County officials opened access to the river on Saturday night.
City officials have stressed that water supplied by Farmington and Aztec municipal systems is safe to drink.
Other emergency relief and testing operations were beginning to wind down in the county nearly two weeks after the spill, said Michele Truby-Tillen, spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management.
Potable and non-potable water stations in the county are closing, as is the well water testing station at the San Juan County Sheriff's Office Lee Acres substation, the city of Aztec RV fill station and bottled water distribution at the Aztec Church of Christ.
A water fair with free water testing for private wells in Farmington and San Juan County is scheduled from noon to 5:30 p.m. Aug. 24 and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Sycamore Park Community Center, 1051 Sycamore St., Farmington.