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NTUA reports leak into river from Shiprock plant

NTUA officials say there is no immediate health threat or any threat to the drinking or domestic water system in the area

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
Navajo Nation
  • NTUA issued an alert regarding the leak via email at 5:35 p.m. Friday after the EPA advised it to do so.
  • The alert says wastewater leaking into the river was being diluted almost immediately, causing no elevation in E. coli concentration downstream.
  • The leak was discovered Dec. 6 and efforts have been underway all week to repair the breach.
  • Officials say an aging underground pipe that is several decades old is responsible for the leak.

FARMINGTON — A small leak into the San Juan River from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority wastewater treatment system in Shiprock was reported by the agency today, and efforts to repair the 10-day-old breach have been underway all week.

NTUA issued an alert regarding the leak via email at 5:35 p.m. today after being advised to do so by officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been kept apprised of the situation since the leak was discovered on Dec. 6, according to Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for NTUA. Agency officials blamed an aging underground pipe for the leak, but they said there was no immediate health threat or any threat to the drinking or domestic water system in the area.

NTUA officials said they were aggressively conducting river sampling for E. coli bacteria in the vicinity of the leak. The results so far have indicated the wastewater leaking into the river was being diluted almost immediately, the alert states, causing no apparent elevation in E. coli concentration in the river downstream of the leak.

The area receives its drinking water from the city of Farmington system, and NTUA officials emphasized that no San Juan River water enters their systems downstream of the Farmington connection.

Kontz said the leak is a small one, and it is coming from a pump in an approximately 8-inch pipe across the river. He had no estimate of how much wastewater was leaking into the river, but he said most of it was flowing into a low point along the river, and that spot was collecting the bulk of the waste.

He estimated the age of the pipe as more than a couple of decades. Such leaks are uncommon, he said, explaining that the section in question sees its pressure increase and decrease, depending on demand and the resulting operation of the pumps.

The repair work itself is complicated, he said.

"The only way to repair it is doing a directional bore under the river, and it's all rock under the river," he said. "So, it's a long, slow process of drilling through that."

By Wednesday night, he said, workers had drilled halfway to their destination. Once they complete drilling, Kontz said, they will pull the new pipe through the bore hole, make the connection and seal the leak.

NTUA officials said they expect to have the repair work completed by Dec. 23.

Members of the public are advised in the alert to avoid the section of the river near the leak until the situation has been remedied. The affected area is near the NTUA lift station located approximately a half mile west of the U.S. Highway 491 bridge in Shiprock.

Kontz said EPA officials suggested the agency notify the public about the leak during a conference call on Thursday afternoon because the repair work was taking longer than had been anticipated.

In an effort to assess the impact of the leak, Kontz said his agency was taking samples from four locations across the river. The first is 600 yards upstream of the leak, while the second is 2 or 3 yards below it. More samples are being gathered 200 yards and 1,800 yards downstream of the leak.

"There is an elevated reading right where it leaks past the pipe," Kontz said, but readings from 200 and 1,800 yards downstream are "relatively the same" as the readings from upstream.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.