NMED scientist talks about monitoring after spill

Dennis McQuillan says his team has been working to pinpoint the origins and extent of contamination in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill

Leigh Black Irvin
Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department, speaks on Monday during a Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee meeting at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Environment Department's chief scientist has presented an update on the agency's efforts over the last year to study the effects of the Gold King Mine spill that continues to be critical of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dennis McQuillan explained his team of scientists and engineers has conducted studies of the complicated watershed system affected by the spill, which in August 2015 released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River.

But McQuillan said it's difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of the water contamination.

"There’s a legacy issue of 100 years or so of mining contamination in the area, so the challenge is to separate that from contamination that might have been caused by the Gold King Mine spill," he said Monday evening during a meeting of the Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee at San Juan College. "It’s very complicated."

Throughout the year, McQuillan said, his team made substantial progress in sampling both water and sediment affected by the spill by using a variety of advanced measuring techniques.

"We discovered evidence of surface water contaminants migrating into the aquifer," said McQuillan, adding that additional research is needed to determine the origin and extent of the contamination.

Members of the Gold King Mine Citizens' Advisory Committee listen as Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist for the New Mexico Environment Department, speaks on Monday at San Juan College in Farmington.

McQuillan also expressed frustration at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's lack of involvement in the studies. The EPA has claimed responsibility for the spill.

McQuillan said some of the federal agency's minimum standards for lead levels are higher than his team finds acceptable. He explained the EPA applies a "recreational" standard to riverside sediment even though people live there.

"They are locked on protecting just recreational users, but we’ve asked them point-blank if they’re aware people live on the river," he said. "They said this question has to be answered by someone in a higher pay grade."

The team is now offering self-sample kits so residents can collect soil and send it in for testing. Kits are available at the Farmington environment department office at 3400 E. Messina Drive, Suite 5000. Call 505-566-9741 for details.

McQuillan said his team is particularly concerned about a mineral that forms in mines called jarosite, which has been found in soil near the spill area.

"Jarosite attaches to aluminum, lead and zinc — the metals hitchhike on the jarosite. When it becomes unstable, it will release these minerals," he said. "This is a huge concern, and that’s why we need to continue analyzing the soil. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but soil analysis is one of the things EPA vetoed and wouldn’t fund. We’re concerned that the bias we’ve seen from EPA will continue."

Another issue McQuillan's team discovered is river water appears to be flowing into groundwater at certain locations.

"We will be doing focus testing in the future, as it’s an important discovery. We didn’t know this before the study," he said.

On a positive note, McQuillan said his team found no evidence the mine spill contaminated water wells nor any evidence of lead in groundwater.

But, he said, more monitoring will be needed, especially as seasonal water flows can kick up sediment and show elevated mineral levels.

Testing on crops and fish has also shown no elevated metal levels.

"There’s also no unusual livestock or wildlife indicators such as distress, illness, etc.," he said. "But we’re not out of the woods yet, and much more testing is needed. Hopefully the EPA will see the contributions (the team has made) and will help with funding for more testing."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.