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Conference will address Gold King Mine spill

Two-day conference at San Juan College will include information about local water sources both before and after Gold King Mine spill

Brett Berntsen
bberntsen@daily-times.com
Employees with Environmental Restoration LLC work at a temporary water treatment holding facility at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 10 after Environmental Protection Agency workers released more than 3 million gallons of water polluted with mine waste into the Animas River.
  • A conference in Farmington will look at water contamination after the Gold King Mine spill
  • Panelists will address topics ranging from health of fish populations to pollutants in the food web.
  • Panel called "Where Do We Go From Here?" on Wednesday afternoon will be free and open to the public.

FARMINGTON — Experts from across the state and the nation will convene at San Juan College this week, to discuss water contamination issues in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill.

The two-day conference starts Tuesday morning, and will feature presentations on the condition of local water sources both before and after last year’s mine spill. The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute will host the event, in collaboration with other organizations.

“This conference will facilitate the exchange of data and ideas among four states, three Environmental Protection Agency regions, two tribes and numerous local and municipal agencies,” Sam Fernald, the director of the institute, said in a press release.

Water contamination issues such as heavy metal seepage and elevated bacteria levels have existed for years in San Juan County. But after a crew from the EPA working near Silverton, Colo., accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of water polluted with mine waste into the Animas River last August, many questions have arisen.

“It grabbed a lot of the attention because of the immediate risk,” Paul Montoia, a water resources specialist with the city of Farmington, said. “But it’s important we pay attention to all the risks associated with our water supply.”

Panelists will address a spectrum of subjects, from the health of fish populations to pollutants in the food web. Registration costs $175 for those who want to attend, but event organizers decided to open the Wednesday afternoon panel discussion to the public at no charge.

“I think a lot of people will be interested in that final session,” said Catherine Ortega Klett, a water research institute event organizer. “We started getting requests that people would like to attend, but couldn’t afford it.”

The presentation — titled "Where Do We Go From Here?" — will address options for local agencies in the aftermath of the mine spill.

While the EPA has declared surface water contamination levels have returned to pre-incident conditions, many argue pollutants remain in sediment.

Montoia said a common concern is that the heavy metals released during the disaster settled to the bottom of the river where it flattens out near Durango. As winter snow pack melts and river levels rise, Montoia said contaminates may be stirred up and swept downstream into northern New Mexico. Heavy metals, including lead, were found in the mine waste.

Discolored water from the Gold King Mine spill is seen draining from the Animas River into the San Juan River on Aug. 8 at the rivers' confluence at Among the Waters Park in Farmington.

State officials have also criticized the EPA for adopting recreational screening levels, which determines if water is safe for rafters or fishermen, in the wake of the spill.

"The is EPA probably not being quite a vigilant as what we’d like to see," Montoia said.

To address concerns, EPA staff members will attend the conference, according to agency spokesperson Christie St. Claire.

Prior to the spill, the EPA had detected harmful levels of contaminates flowing from the Gold King Mine into the Animas River, St. Claire stated in an email. The accident occurred while trying to address the seepage problem, and the EPA is moving to designate the surrounding Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site to mitigate future incidents. St. Claire noted that 5.4 million gallons of acid mine drainage is discharged every day from the 48 historic mines in the district.

The New Mexico Environment Department has developed a response program of its own. The department is currently trying to secure federal funding for a long-term monitoring plan, which calls for additional scientific studies and community outreach programs.

The forum at San Juan College is the first of its kind, but event organizers plan to make it an annual occurrence.

"People are going to remain concerned about this," Montoia said.

For more information on the conference visit animas.wrri.nmsu.edu.

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