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Experts discuss moving past mine spill

Scientists at a multi-day conference continued to raise concerns about long-term effects resulting from the Gold King Mine spill, particularly as the Animas River's spring runoff starts

Brett Berntsen
bberntsen@daily-times.com
Shiprock farmer Gilbert Yazzie voices his concerns during a discussion of the environmental condition of the Animas and San Juan watersheds on Wednesday at the Henderson Fine Arts Building at San Juan College.
  • Scientists say heavy metals from the Gold King Mine spill have formed a compound called jarosite.
  • As spring runoff begins, the jarosite may dissolve and wash down the Animas River.
  • Because many rely on the river for agriculture, experts worry the toxins will spread through the food web.
  • Organizers plan to make this week's conference an annual event that fosters collaboration.

FARMINGTON — Long-term effects from the Gold King Mine spill remained the focus of today's conference at San Juan College, as scientists and local officials addressed the public on how to move forward from the disaster.

The discussion concluded a multi-day conference on water contamination issues surrounding the Gold King Mine spill last August, when a crew from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working near Silverton, Colo., accidentally released millions of gallons of mine waste into the Animas River.

While the EPA has since declared the river safe, experts at the conference warned of lingering issues.

Scientists at the conference presented evidence that heavy metals released from the blowout have formed into a compound called jarosite, and remain settled on the river bottom near Durango, Colo. As spring runoff begins and the river chemistry changes, the jarosite may dissolve and heavy metals may wash downstream once again.

"I’m having déjà vu," said Dennis McQuillan, New Mexico Department of Environment's chief scientist.

Steve Austin with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, center, takes part in a discussion about the environmental conditions of the Animas and San Juan watersheds on Wednesday at the Henderson Fine Arts Building at San Juan College.

Concerns also remain over health risks from exposure to the mine waste. Many people in the region use the river for agricultural purposes, and experts worry this can spread the toxins throughout the food web.

"The EPA model for exposure is focused on a hiker drinking water," said Karletta Chief, a professor at the University of Arizona. "But the reality is much more complex."

She said screening levels need to be adapted to address the risks associated with everyday water use.

The EPA has been criticized for its involvement and response to the spill. However, officials at the conference said the outcry symbolizes a fundamental lack of trust in the government, which needs to be rebuilt within the community.

"We’ve got to stop blaming people and move forward," San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said.

San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter, left, takes part in a discussion of the environmental conditions of the Animas and San Juan watersheds on Wednesday at the Henderson Fine Arts Building at San Juan College.

EPA representatives attended the conference. Jane Watson is a department chief at the agency’s region 6 office, which encompasses New Mexico. She was at the conference and said she took extensive notes on the public's concerns to present to agency officials.

Moving forward, the EPA is seeking a Superfund designation for the mining district surrounding the Gold King site. The classification would provide funding for reclamation efforts on the dozens of mines that still pose a threat to local water sources.

Experts say the Superfund designation will not prevent occasional blowouts, though, and local agencies should focus on how to prepare for future incidents.

The city of Farmington, which draws its drinking water from the Animas River, has installed sensors that can detect contamination and automatically shut down supply pumps.

The state has developed a long-term monitoring plan that collects data from a variety of sources. Bio-monitoring and well-water testing services are also underway in San Juan County.

The conference, which brought together a broad spectrum of scientists, ranging from geologists to fish biologists, is expected to become an annual event. Speakers said it's important exchange information to fully conceptualize the issues at hand.

"We're need to look at this in a holistic way," McQuillan said. "It's going to require lots of collaboration."

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