Experts say mine spill has not affected fish

Researchers say more tests are needed to determine the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill on the Four Corners' fish populations

Brett Berntsen
At left, Rich Dembowski, chairman of the Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee, talks on Monday during a meeting at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — While studies have shown that the Gold King Mine spill did not cause immediate damage to local fish populations, experts say more work is needed to determine the long-term impacts the heavy metals released during the disaster could have on aquatic life.

Speaking at the monthly Gold King Mine Spill Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting tonight , Eric Frey with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said a lack of baseline data and pre-event comparisons have limited the conclusions monitoring efforts can draw.

Eric Frey, manager of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's sport fish program, gives a presentation on Monday during the Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee meeting at San Juan College in Farmington.

Frey said samples taken shortly after the Aug. 5 spill showed the presence of heavy metals, such as aluminum and arsenic, in fish tissue but at levels far below the standards for human consumption. Further tests conducted in March showed toxin levels continued to drop. Frey attributed this decline, however, to the fact that fish are often dormant in the winter and less likely to take up contaminants through feeding and other activities. He said additional tests will shed more light on the issue.

The mine spill occurred when a crew from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working to clean up abandoned mining sites near Silverton Colo., accidentally triggered a blowout that released millions of gallons of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

New Mexico has filed lawsuits against the EPA and two mining companies, as well as the state of Colorado for its involvement with the spill. Officials have claimed the disaster has damaged the reputation of the Four Corners, especially the region's fishing industry. The state Department of Game and Fish estimates sport fishing on the Animas River watershed brings in $1.6 million each year.

Despite scientific studies showing fish populations have not plummeted, images of an orange river will live long in anglers' minds.

"The color of the water is why this spill is so important," Citizen’s Advisory Committee member Norman Norvelle said at tonight's meeting.

Frey said his department still receives calls from people wondering if it's safe to fish the world-famous San Juan River near Navajo Dam, even though that stretch of the river was not contaminated by the spill.

At left, Norman Norvelle, secretary of the Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee, and fellow committee members hold a meeting on Monday at San Juan College in Farmington.

And for other local communities, fishing is way of life, rather than recreation.

Rick Nez, president of the San Juan Chapter of the Navajo Nation, said many tribal members used to catch channel catfish in the San Juan River for subsistence. He said that activity has now ground to a halt.

"A lot of people are scared to eat the fish," he said.

To provide answers moving forward, Frey said the state will continue to conduct tests every six months as part of its long-term monitoring plan.

The efforts will essentially be the first of their kind. Frey said studies in the past have focused on mercury — the most notorious contaminant found in fish. But the 880,000 pounds of heavy metals, such as lead and copper, released from the Gold King Mine present new concerns.

"This was an eye opener and let us know maybe we should be monitoring other heavy metals," Frey said.

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