Residents look for answers at meeting on Gold King Mine spill effect

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Several residents on Tuesday spoke one-on-one with officials to address outstanding concerns and questions about the effects of the Gold King Mine spill.

Mike and Susan Foutz said they attended the Animas River Recovery Open House at the multi-use building at McGee Park because they were concerned about test results for their well water.

After the mine spill Aug. 5 released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River, the Kirtland couple said test results showed levels of manganese in their well water were five times higher than the national average. They spoke with officials Tuesday about whether the water was safe for watering their garden, where they grow cabbages, beets, turnips, radishes, peppers, cucumbers and squash.

Staff from New Mexico State University's San Juan County Extension Office eased the couple's concerns, explaining that the manganese levels were not dangerous and the water was safe for gardening.

"And that's all we use our well water for anyway," Susan Foutz said.

Still, Mike Foutz said, the couple has long-term concerns about sediment in the river from the spill.

"I know it's going to come down next spring when water is running high," he said. "I'm sure they're going to keep sampling."

In addition to seeking answers to their questions, residents who attended the meeting also learned about testing conducted along the river.

David Weindorf with the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, is using portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to test surface soil. He said results are available in 60 seconds.

Weindorf partnered with NMSU to provide environment assessments of properties along the river.

"Essentially, what we are trying to do is identify which farms' fields have received irrigation, and, if they have received irrigation, has that irrigation water caused any increase in the metal content of the soils," Weindorf said.

So far, he has tested 40 sites, including areas along the river and farm lands that both do and do not use irrigation water.

"All of our levels that we're showing with our spectrometry have shown to be very low," Weindorf said.

Residents at the open house also spoke with officials from the New Mexico Environment Department, Office of the State Engineer, Department of Agriculture, Department of Game and Fish and Department of Health.

Representatives from the five agencies attended the meeting as part of a long-term impact review team created by Gov. Susana Martinez, said Environment Department spokeswoman Allison Scott Majure.

Martinez announced the team's formation Aug. 14, stating its focus will be conducting research and sharing information about the long-term impact of the spill.

"Our intention is to obtain the wide variety of public concerns and to obtain the public's desired level of involvement before we launch the team and the monitoring effort," Majure said.

Also on Tuesday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region confirmed it will start demobilizing water locations on the Navajo Nation.

"By Friday we will have removed nine locations with two water stations remaining in Shiprock, N.M. and Hogback, N.M. The demobilization is necessary due to the water restrictions now being lifted," BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling wrote in an email Tuesday.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has requested appointing a federal disaster recovery coordinator from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in the tribe's recovery efforts, according to press release from his office.

Begaye said in the release that the recovery coordinator would assist the tribe in assessing short- and long-term effects from the spill, determining priorities and activating a recovery support strategy.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.