Scientist warns of future mine spill problems

State Environment Department’s chief scientist says spring run-pff could wash heavy metals in river banks downstream

Brett Berntsen
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.

FARMINGTON — Northern New Mexico has only seen the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to contamination from the Gold King Mine spill, according to the New Mexico Environment Department’s chief scientist.

Scientist Dennis McQuillan shared that warning at a Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting Monday evening at San Juan College.

The committee was established to address residents' concerns after a cleanup crew working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released more than three million gallons of contaminated mine waste into the Animas River near Silverton, Colo., in August.

In an illustrated slideshow, McQuillan explained to the audience that heavy metals, particularly lead, still saturate river banks north of Farmington. As spring run-off begins McQuillan said the contaminants could wash downstream.

From there, he said, one can only imagine where the pollutants will go.

"We know heavy metals get taken up into the food chain," he said.

McQuillan criticized the EPA, railing on the federal agency's slow response to potential health issues stemming from the mine spill.

"I'm amazed at the push-back we’re still getting, especially in light of Flint, Michigan,” he said, referring to a recent scandal involving lead contamination in the city's water supply.

Travis Sells, of Farmington, stops to look at the Animas River at Berg Park in Farmington on Aug. 8, after it was contaminated with waste from the Gold King Mine spill.

People who attended Monday's meeting echoed those sentiments about the EPA, as well as concerns about the health of local residents.

Sam Gonzales, of Flora Vista, said he’s worried about the lack of waterfowl on the Animas River this year. He said he also has concerns about the alfalfa field he irrigates with water from the river.

The state Environment Department has developed its own response measures.

At the meeting, department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure outlined the agency's three-pronged approach to the mine spill. The plan involves seeking reimbursements from the EPA for costs incurred by local entities, designating the source of the spill as a Superfund site and funding a long-term monitoring program.

While efforts to seek reimbursements and a Superfund designation seem promising, Majure said funds for a long-term study remain up in the air.

In March, the Environment Department asked the EPA for $6 million to fund a long-term study. Nearly three weeks later, the EPA countered with an offer of $465,000, according to a letter from the department.

For now, the state department has issued a spring run-off preparedness plan. Efforts include reverse-911 alerts to notify residents if river water reaches dangerous levels of contamination.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times.