Experts discuss lingering threats from mines

Officials share historical context and research on the practices that may have contributed to the Gold King Mine Spill

Brett Berntsen
Dennis McQuillan, the New Mexico Environment Department's chief scientist, gives a presentation May 17 on the state's response to the Gold King Mine spill during a conference at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – While the toxic orange plume released from the Gold King Mine spill has long passed, experts gathered at San Juan College today to illustrate sources of pollution that still threaten local water sources.

Part of a two-day, multi-agency conference, the discussion was designed to promote awareness of water contamination issues in the wake of the spill, which dumped more than 3 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas River last August.

“There’s certainly a lot of background issues involved,” the New Mexico Department of Environment’s Chief Scientist Dennis McQuillan said. “But that’s doesn’t mean we want people to throw up their hands and say it’s too complicated.”

Virginia McLemore, a geologist with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, detailed the history of mining in the San Juan Mountains. She noted that prior to the emergence of large-scale operations, prospectors exploring near the Gold King mine site outside of Silverton, Colo., found creek water in the area to be undrinkable due to natural mineral contamination. But when the industry took off in the late 1800s, the issue was exacerbated.

San Juan County Chief Executive Officer Kim Carpenter gives a presentation on the Gold King Mine spill's emergency response, Tuesday, May 17, 2016 during conference on Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds at San Juan College in Farmington.

Thousands of mines sprung up and were allowed to operate largely unregulated, McLemore said. Before 1935, it was proper practice to dump tailings directly into rivers, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that mines were required reclaim abandoned sites.

“The miners didn’t break any rules,” she said. “Because there were no rules to break.”

The Gold King incident occurred after the Sunnyside Gold Corp. attempted to control water running from its large American Tunnel Mine, according to Peter Butler, who gave a presentation on behalf of the Animas River Stakeholder Group.

Rather than operate an expensive treatment station to decontaminate the discharge, Butler said the company opted to install bulkheads to plug-up the shaft.

This backed up the water table and caused leakage to spill out of higher sites like Gold King, which had previously had little discharge, Butler said.

“It was basically a pollution trading scheme,” Butler said.

Robert Runkel, of the U.S. Geological Survey, presented a study which showed that by 2012, the Gold King Mine had become the main source of copper contamination in the Animas River.

Participants at a conference on the "Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds" look over information on poster bards Tuesdayat San Juan College in Farmington.

A crew from the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating this contamination when the blowout occurred. Workers underestimated the amount of water backed up behind the mine, EPA officials said in statements after the incident.

The spill released 880,000 pounds of heavy metals, including lead, into the Animas River, and created a water crisis in four states.

While the EPA is currently treating the water spilling out of the Gold King Mines, some 5,400 other sites sit poised to leak toxic material into the Animas River watershed, McLemore said. The Animas feeds into the San Juan River, which winds through the Navajo Nation before it reaches Utah.

In response to the spill, the EPA is seeking a Superfund designation for the Bonita Peak Mining District, where the incident occurred. The classification would provide funding and facilitate reclamation efforts.

Butler said liability issues often serve as roadblocks for groups attempting to clean up old mine sites. He said parties must attain wastewater discharge permits, which in turn hold them liable for any pollution in the future. A Superfund designation would trump any permit though, and allow third party groups to help with reclamation efforts.

The conference will continue tomorrow at San Juan College, and event organizers have decided to open the afternoon panel discussion – titled “Where Do We Go From Here” – to the public at no charge.

Many questions remain concerning the EPAs response to the spill, and the levels of harmful materials lingering in river sediment.

“This is still a big issue,” McQuillan said. “A lot of heavy metals were released, and we don’t know where they will go.”

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

Participants at a conference on Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds listen to a presenter on Tuesday at San Juan College in Farmington.