EPA presents update on Superfund designation

Federal officials say Gold King Mine spill reopened the issue of abandoned mines, leading to more monitoring and testing

Noel Lyn Smith
Nate Ellison, left, talks with Steve Austin, a hydrologist with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, during a meeting on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house about the Bonita Peak Mining District.

FARMINGTON — Staff from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shared information last week about cleanup work at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

The mining district, located north of Silverton, Colo., was added to the Superfund list in September and consists of 48 identified abandoned mines and mine-related sources.

The Superfund designation came a year after the Gold King Mine, which is in the district, was breached and released more than 3 million gallons of metal-laden water into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

A crowd listens to a presentation about the Bonita Peak Mining District on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Although attendance was small at a public meeting Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house, staff from EPA Regions 9, 8 and 6 and the Navajo Nation EPA gave presentations and answered questions for two hours.

Enrique Manzanilla, director for the Superfund Division for Region 9, said the EPA recognizes the August 2015 spill was "an unfortunate incident" and acknowledges that restrictions placed on the San Juan River after the spill had economic and cultural impacts on residents.

Enrique Manzanilla, director for the Superfund Division for Region 9 under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

But the spill reopened the issue of abandoned mines, he said.

"I think that's a good thing," Manzanilla said, adding the agency has built a treatment site at the mine since the spill.

He also added: "Gold King Mine was leaking before the incident, but now it is being captured, and 95 percent of the metals are being removed."

In addition, the spill placed a focus on securing resources to conduct long-term studies on the Animas and San Juan rivers, he said.

"I think it is safe to say it is probably the most it has been monitored in many, many years," Manzanilla said, adding the EPA is providing funds to states and the Navajo Nation to complete its own monitoring.

Rebecca Thomas, Superfund Project Manager for Region 8, said there are more than 300 sites in the mining district, but the agency used existing data to "identify those which we believe are the greatest sources of contamination."

Her presentation included photographs of drainage activity from adits, which are passages leading into a mine for access or drainage.

Rebecca Thomas, Superfund project manager for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 8, speaks on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Thomas said the Gold King Mine contributes about 500 to 700 gallons per minute of contamination, which is now being treated. Overall, the amount of water released from the entire district is 5.4 million gallons each day, she said.

Data collected this year comes from, among other sources, surface water and sentiment, and there is a concern about risks to fish, animals and people who use the district for recreation or ceremonies.

Steve Austin, a senior hydrologist with the tribe's EPA, said the number of testing sites on the San Juan River increased from five to 10 since the spill, and testing will continue next year.

"The only times we were seeing evaluated levels in metals of concern were during major storm events, so we recommended the river not be used for livestock. We tried to shut off the irrigation canals during those storm events," Austin said.

Nate Ellison, a hydrologist with the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, talks with a visitor on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house about the Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes the Gold King Mine.

Bloomfield resident Diandra Conn attended the meeting because she is concerned about the economic impact on families who use the San Juan River for livestock and agriculture purposes.

Conn is also a member of the Yellow River Alliance Committee, which is in the beginning stages of an independent study about the Gold King Mine spill.

"It gave me more insight about the Gold King Mine and where they are at right now," she said about the EPA work.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said community members remain concerned about the health of the San Juan River.

Yazzie said residents understand the spill was unintentional, but they are looking for the EPA to complete rehabilitation of the area and for the federal government to complete its due diligence.

"We hope to move forward in good communication and cooperation," he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.