Scientists gather, share early findings of Gold King Mine spill monitoring

May 25, 2016

FARMINGTON – Nine months after mining sludge from the Gold King Mine turned the Animas and San Juan rivers yellow, scientists and researchers gathered in Farmington to share what they have learned so far regarding the contamination of the rivers from the spill in August 2015.

Man with bolo tie
Sam Fernald of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, which is housed at New Mexico State University, discusses the recent conference on the environmental conditions of the Animas and San Juan rivers’ watersheds after the Gold King Mine sludge spill during August 2015. (NMSU photo)

“Immediately during and after the Gold King Mine spill, different groups started monitoring the river water, shores and irrigation systems,” said Sam Fernald, director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute, which is housed at New Mexico State University.

“As they have gathered data, they realized there’s a lot of questions about the history of the watersheds, the natural state of the rivers, and the long-term impact. They immediately came up with all of these questions beyond the initial response,” Fernald said.

The conference on May 17 and 18 at San Juan College was a time for 150 scientists from state and federal agencies, New Mexico universities, Native American tribes and numerous cities and counties to exchange information from their early stages of research.

“This conference was born out of the governor’s mandate to the New Mexico Environment Department to develop a long-term monitoring plan,” said Fernald, NMSU professor of animal and range sciences specializing in hydrology.

Conference co-sponsors and collaborators in the long-term monitoring include the New Mexico Environment Department, NMSU, University of New Mexico, New Mexico Tech University, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, San Juan Watershed Group, San Juan County, city of Aztec and city of Farmington.

While the spill sparked fear from those whose livelihood depends on the water, it has proven to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the scientists.

“This was a historic event,” said Kevin Lombard, horticulturalist stationed at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, who is conducting two studies regarding the impact of the spill on the agricultural land. “We have the opportunity to record the impact of the contaminants that were in the mining sludge.”

Recording of the impact is proving to be a collaboration of researchers.

“Everyone is looking at the situation from their expertise, from their piece of the puzzle,” Fernald said. “We have a common goal of figuring out what the questions are and figuring out how to address them and how to get the information out to the public.”

Since the spill, the scientists have gathered data regarding river water quality before, during and after the spill; private wells accessing ground water; the impact of the water quality on the fish; and the impact of irrigated river water on the agricultural land.

The early finding is that the levels of heavy metals being monitored are within federal standards. Only when rainwater increases the rivers’ water levels do the metal levels increase briefly from the riverbank contamination in Colorado. During and since the entire episode, there has been no decrease in the fish population. Soil samples have not found heavy metals in the agricultural fields.

The greatest challenge is the perception of health risks that the spill caused. Lombard said the immediate concern was regarding the quality of drinking water and the nutritional safety of vegetables and forage raised with river water. Early findings have put most of these concerns to rest.

Karletta Chief, a University of Arizona associate professor of soil, water and environmental sciences who is Navajo, is working with the Navajo communities along the San Juan River to determine levels of exposure to the people and the land.

The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute is planning a conference next May, when the researchers will report on their further findings.

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