State blasts EPA on Gold King Superfund plan

Brett Berntsen
Mike Carruthers, clears debris on Aug. 15 before opening the Stacey Ditch at Sutherland Farms in Aztec, N.M.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Environment Department is questioning the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to lead cleanup efforts at the abandoned mining district where the Gold King Mine spill occurred.

In written comments issued to the agency on Monday, the department said it supports a Superfund designation for the Bonita Peak Mining District outside Silverton, Colo., but has concerns over the EPA’s willingness to administer the project in an open, objective way.

The NMED said in the statement that the federal agency has demonstrated a “self-serving bias” in response to the spill, which occurred last August when an EPA contractor trying to clean up the area triggered a blowout that released more than 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River. Included in the list of critiques were allegations that the EPA has misrepresented facts and “cherry picked data to downplay the seriousness of the spill.”

The NMED also demanded the EPA provide funding for independent monitoring programs and improve its communication and scientific practices.

The statement was sent on the last day for public comment on the EPA’s Superfund proposal, and less than a week after the agency held a meeting at San Juan College discussing the project.

“EPA will consider NMED’s comments along with all other public comments before the agency makes a final decision on the Bonita Peak Mining District,” EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Claire said in an email. “The agency stands by the results of its thorough, science-based sampling efforts.”

At a recent public meeting, however, NMED Chief Scientist Dennis McQuillan questioned the accuracy of these efforts.

He criticized the EPA's adoption of recreational screening levels in response to the spill. The standards determine harmful amounts of contamination based on what’s safe for campers or fisherman using river. Many San Juan County residents, however, rely on the water for irrigation purposes and are likely to have more exposure to the water than recreational users.

“Will you commit to using screening levels appropriate for residents?” McQuillan asked EPA officials at the meeting.

Rebecca Thomas, a project manager at the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, said she didn’t have an answer, but noted that the Superfund process involves numerous sampling and testing phases.

The NMED has also criticized the EPA for stating that the spill did not affect agriculture. In its comments to the EPA, the department said it's common knowledge contaminated water entered some irrigation ditches, and demanded the EPA retract their statement.

While the Gold King incident captured public attention, the hundreds of other abandoned mine sites that drain into the Animas watershed also pose a threat. The EPA has proposed designating the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site to provide money and other resources for reclamation work.

Peter Butler, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said that it is not possible to rule out another massive blowout. He said it's hard to determine just how much water is backed up in the mining district's vast network of tunnels and shafts.

In its comments on the Superfund proposal, the NMED requested the preliminary study boundaries be expanded to include areas downstream of the mining district. The department also advocated for the creation of an independent panel of federal, state, tribal and local authorities to ensure that the “oversight of the Superfund process is firmly in place.”

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