A plume of orange-yellow water gushed into Cement Creek and the Animas River after EPA workers accidentally breached a debris wall holding back the acid mine drainage at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5, 2015. This photograph was taken Aug. 9 at Cement Creek in Silverton.
On Aug. 5, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers inadvertently breached a wall of loose debris that was holding back a pool of mustard-hued wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.
With a sudden gush, some 3 million gallons (about 11 million liters) of acidic, heavy-metal-laden water flooded into Cement Creek, a tributary of the nearby Animas River. From there, the plume headed downstreaminto the San Juan River (a major tributary of the Colorado River), headed for New Mexico and, eventually, Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.
On the way, the plume traveled through Durango and Navajo Nation land in New Mexico, forcing warnings against touching the water,drinking it or using it for irrigation. The EPA is now scrambling to clean up the mess. [See Images of the Gold King Mine Spill]
But how do you clean up a river? The answer, according to the agency and an outside expert, is twofold: treatment and dilution.
The approximate site of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine breach near Silverton, Colorado.
Credit: screenshot, by Stephanie Pappas for Live Science
The Gold King Mine is one of an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines dotting the state of Colorado. Prospectors and mining companiesdug gold-bearing ore and other precious metals out of the ground in the state for decades, but they had little responsibility for cleaning up after the mines closed. It wasn’t until the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed in 1977 that mining operators had to create a plan for cleaning up defunct mines.
That act established funding for states to clean up long-abandoned mines, like the Gold King (which closed in the 1920s). But funds, drawn from taxes on coal-mining companies, are limited. The Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety gets about $2 million a year, and that amount has allowed the closing of 6,127 abandoned mine shafts in the state since 1980. But that state agency has almost no money for environmental remediation beyond simply closing entrances and preventing mine collapse. There have been previous efforts to turn the area around the Gold King Mine into a Superfund site, which would fast-track funds for the containment of any toxic waste. But local opposition sunk those plans. [8 of the World’s Most Endangered Places]
Meanwhile, abandoned mines leak out toxic wastewater all over the state. The EPA was working at the Gold King Mine as part of an effort to slow acidic mine water that was leaking into Cement Creek from the Red and Bonita Mine farther down the mountain. The plan was to build a cement bulkhead to plug the leak, with pipes that would allow the slow release and treatment of water. Instead, the crew’s machinery breached a debris wall that was holding back the nasty brew lurking in the Gold King Mine.
The mine water is toxic because it contains dissolved pyrite, or iron sulfide, better known as fool’s gold. The combination of iron sulfide, water and oxygen results in the formation of sulfuric acid.
“All you need is air and water” to create acid mine drainage, said Ron Cohen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has been involved in mine remediation internationally.
This acidic water then leaches heavy metals — such as zinc, lead and cadmium — from the ground. Arsenic levels also spiked after the mine blowout to more than 25 times the state limit for water safety. The mustard-yellow color of the water is caused by oxidized iron, Cohen said — similar to the rust on an old nail.
“The old-timers used to call it ‘yellow boy,'” he said.
Cleaning up the spill
The EPA’s emergency cleanup is a quick version of typical mine treatment. According to news releases, the agency has excavated four holding ponds below the mine breach. Crews are treating the water in these ponds with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and lime (calcium oxide), which are very basic in pH. The goal is to reduce the acidity of the water.
“When the water is rather basic in nature, considerably above pH 7 [neutral], most of your metals will come out of the] solution,” Cohen told Live Science.
This process is often visible, Cohen said. Seemingly clear water will turn cloudy as the dissolved metals settle out.
The sludge left behind can be stripped of water and disposed of, Cohen said. Once they’re not in their dissolved form, the metals are far less toxic to the environment.
On Aug. 10, the EPA reported that the water released from its treatment ponds was cleaner and less acidic than the water in Cement Creek had been even before the spill. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.
Time and dilution
The EPA and other agencies are monitoring wildlife and testingwater quality downstream from the mine, all the way into New Mexico. The good news, Cohen said, is that dilution and time will likely go a long way toward mitigating the long-term consequences of the spill.
Three million gallons of water (which spilled out of the mine) equals approximately 400,000 cubic feet. That’s no small amount, but about 8 million cubic feet of water flows through Cement Creek each day, Cohen said. As the contaminated water flows into larger and larger bodies of water, it will become increasingly diluted. Lake Powell currently holds about 560 billion cubic feet of water.
However, that dilution doesn’t negate the ongoing challenges caused by Colorado’s abandoned mines, which tend to wreak environmental havoc on their own. Many leak constantly at low levels, or release toxic waste during the spring melt each year. Others occasionally put out large pulses of contamination. In 2009, thousands of gallons of bright-orange mine waste poured into Clear Creek, west of Denver. Similar spills have happened at the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville, Colorado, and at the Summitville Mine near Del Norte, Colorado. [10 of the Most Polluted Places on Earth]
“We’ve had many of these spills without the EPA’s help,” Cohen said. Many of the mines closed nearly a century ago, leaving no one to hold responsible for the mess.
“There is a real limitation due to resources — both human resources and money resources — to be able to go after these sites aggressively,” Cohen said.
The Animas River as it appeared on August 6, 2015, a day after a contractor working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally let loose three million gallons of toxic sludge. The river flows through the Southern Ute Tribe reservation.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the first to watch a 100-mile-long plume of toxic mining sludge flow through their reservation in the Animas River, has declared a state of local disaster.
“The cost and magnitude of responding to and recovery from the impact of the water contamination from the Gold King Mine Animas River Spill, caused by the EPA on August 5, 2015 is far in excess of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s available resources,” the tribe said in its declaration.
The spill, unleashed accidentally on August 5 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers trying to remediate contamination at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, sent three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River and from there to the San Juan River, then to the Colorado River in Utah. Before making its way to the Navajo Nation, the plume containing heavy metals including arsenic and lead wound through the 1,059-square-mile Southern Ute reservation in Colorado.
The EPA has been sampling the water up and down the spill route, but test results were still pending as of Wednesday August 12. Southern Ute tribal officials are also monitoring the situation, the tribe said in a statement, coordinating responses with other jurisdictions as well. Drinking-water testing is available to tribal members who live in the Animas watershed, the statement said.
“The environmental and economic consequences of this disaster will not be known for some time, but the Tribe is doing everything in its power to respond to this terrible situation and safeguard the health of our tribal members, the aquatic life, and other affected natural resources,” said Tribal Chairman Clement J. Frost in the statement.
Classifying it as a local disaster activates the response and recovery aspects and enables aid to be released. The worst of the plume of toxic sludge has already passed, but the lasting effects on water quality and wildlife is not yet known. Tribal officials said the river will be closed until at least Friday August 14.
Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Durango, Colorado and said the spill had passed and the water had returned to the condition they were in before it happened, theDenver Postreported on August 12. But she did not specify when it might be safe, or advisable, to reopen the river.
Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The EPA has taken full responsibility for the mine waste spoiling rivers downstream from Silverton, but people who live near the idled and leaking Gold King mine say local authorities and mining companies spent decades spurning federal cleanup help. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
AP10ThingsToSee – Melanie Bergolc walks along the banks of Cement Creek in Silverton, Colo., Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. The area is a few miles downstream from the Gold King mine, where a wastewater accident several days earlier allowed water contaminated with heavy metals to pour into the creek that feeds rivers critical to survival on the largest Native American reservation in the United States and across the Southwest. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP)
Utah officials say that contaminated water from a mine spill has likely reached Lake Powell, but the plume is no longer visible and authorities haven’t confirmed the presence of heavy metals in the waters of the reservoir.
Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Spangler says that water-speed calculations and hydrology research show the plume having reached the reservoir 300 miles from the site of the spill in Colorado.
The plume lost its bright yellow color before entering Utah early this week, and state officials say their tests taken Monday suggest the water from the Utah portion of the San Juan River is safe to drink.
The Colorado River that supplies water to the Southwest flows from Lake Powell.
Truckloads of drinking water are headed to the Navajo Nation where a mine spill upstream of the San Juan River has residents worried about contamination.
St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance is donating 200,000 bottles of water to Navajo communities. The shipment is expected to arrive Friday.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates says the donations will help alleviate stress in finding potable water for residents.
The organization, Partnership With Native Americans, is planning to deliver 20 pallets of water to Monument Valley, Mexican Hat and Halchita in the Utah portion of the reservation on Monday.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has stopped pumping groundwater for the water system serving Mexican Hat. Crews are hauling water from 30 miles away to top off water tanks so customers aren’t cut off.
The president of the Navajo Nation is advising tribal members not to submit claims for federal reimbursement for the Colorado mine spill.
President Russell Begaye says doing so means Navajos waive any future claim for injuries. Tribal ranchers have had to move their livestock away from the polluted San Juan River, and farmers worry their crops will suffer. Begaye says Navajo elders also might not know what they’re signing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken responsibility for its crew accidentally unleashing 3 million gallons of wastewater last week that flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah. The agency says the form must be submitted within two years of the discovery of the claim.
Begaye says the EPA has distributed claim forms at public hearings across the Navajo Reservation and urged tribal members to sign them.
Colorado authorities are warning that cleaning out irrigation ditches along the Animas River is temporarily discoloring the water again a week after federal and contract workers accidentally released a plume of mustard-yellow muck.
The ditches are being flushed of sediment left behind by the 3 million gallon spill that contained heavy metals.
Colorado and local authorities said in a statement Thursday that farmers and ranchers shouldn’t give the water to livestock until the sediment in the irrigation ditches is flushed out.
That work started Wednesday evening just after the state allowed Durango to take Animas River water back into its water treatment plant. However, the city isn’t yet tapping the river, which supplements its water supply.
Durango’s utilities engineer, Matt Holden, says the city is “proceeding carefully to ensure the absolute safety of our drinking water.”
The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says significant progress is being made as water quality appears to be improving in a major Southwest river system that was contaminated by millions of gallons of toxic mine sludge.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Thursday that the latest testing results show improvements and that the Animas River in southwest Colorado is “restoring itself.”
She spoke during a visit to Farmington, New Mexico, where she announced that the EPA has released $500,000 to help supply clean water for crop irrigation and livestock in northwestern New Mexico.
McCarthy acknowledged the concerns of state, local and tribal officials about the heavy metals now trapped in the river bed and along the banks. She said the EPA will deal with the sediment problem over the long term but offered no specifics.
EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on Aug. 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The toxic plume affected communities in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
Sampling results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show high levels of toxic heavy metals in river water following last week’s spill at a Colorado mine.
The federal agency released its testing data early Thursday following increasing public pressure.
The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.
The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.
EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on Aug. 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine.
New Mexico’s environment secretary is criticizing Colorado’s governor for drinking water from the river contaminated by a mine spill.
Gov. John Hickenlooper put an iodine tablet in a bottle of Animas River water to kill bacteria before taking a gulp Tuesday. He was trying to prove the river was back to normal after 3 million gallons of mine waste containing heavy metals was unleashed last week.
The Farmington Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1KjwIjX ) reports that Secretary Ryan Flynn told residents there Wednesday night that the move was irresponsible and sent a bad message. He said Hickenlooper may as well have lit 15 cigarettes at once.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, got attention in 2013 after saying he drank a form of fracking fluid to prove it was safe.
Colorado is allowing treatment plants to use river water again, but the Animas remains closed to boating.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
“The question that is crowding upon Durango thick and fast is one of water. The mill slimes from Silverton are now reaching us.”
— Durango Democrat, 1899
On a scorcher of an August afternoon, a crowd gathered on a bridge over the deep-green waters of the Animas River on the north end of Durango, Colorado. A passerby might have thought they were watching a sporting event, perhaps a kayak race or a flotilla of inebriated, scantily clad inner tubers. Yet the river that afternoon was eerily empty of rowers, paddlers or floaters — unheard of on a day like this — and the mood among the onlookers was sombre. One mingling in the crowd heard certain words repeated: sad, tragic, angry, toxic.
They were here not to cheer anyone on, but to mourn, gathered to watch a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Soon, the waters below would become milky green, then a Gatorade yellow, before finally settling into a thick and cloudy orangish hue — some compared it to mustard, others Tang. Whatever you called it, it was clearly not right.
While the spill occurred just a few miles above Silverton, the impacts hit Durango the hardest. The Animas River courses through the middle of Durango, provides a portion of its drinking and irrigation water, and over the last few decades has become the recreational and aesthetic, wild, green heart of the city. The spill essentially stopped the heart’s beat. Officials closed the river for public health reasons, shutting down hundreds of recreational boaters and tubers, not to mention the local rafting industry. No one yet knows what will happen to the fish, the birds, the bugs and other wildlife that call the river home.
“I’m very sorry for what happened,” said David Ostrander, EPA’s emergency response director, at a public meeting in Durango held just hours after the plume reached town. “This is a huge tragedy. We typically respond to emergencies, not cause them.”
Really, though, the EPA wasn’t the root cause of the emergency. It was, most likely, a disaster waiting to happen and the most visible manifestation of an emergency that’s been going on in the Upper Animas River Watershed for decades. Here’s nine items to help you understand the big picture:
• Pollution in the Animas is not new: The Upper Animas River watershed consists of three main streams, the Animas, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek all of which drain the Silverton Caldera, the highly mineralized collapsed core of an ancient volcano, and which run together at Silverton. Miners started going after the minerals in the 1870s, and the river’s been the victim of their pollution ever since. Mines simply poured their tailings directly into the creeks and rivers until, in the 1930s, downstream farmers got them to stop; the remnants of those releases can still be found under the river bed in Durango and beyond. Then there’s acid mine drainage. The portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides hijack the natural hydrology, pulling water flowing through fractures toward natural springs into the mine tunnels. There, the water reacts with iron disulfide (pyrite) and oxygen to form sulfuric acid. The acidic water dissolves naturally occurring heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum. The resulting contaminated water flows out of the mine adit as if from a spring. By 1991, when the last major mine in the watershed shut down, there were some 400 mines in the watershed, many discharging unmitigated discharges into streams. Not a fish could be found for miles downstream from Silverton, and the impacts to aquatic life were felt in Durango, where, when the mines were still running, sensitive fish were unable to reproduce.
• Superfund has long been on the table, and long been swept off: As mining waned in the late 1980s, federal and state regulatory agencies started looking at how to clean up the mess. Superfund, which comes with a big pile of cash, seemed like the obvious approach. But locals feared that the stigma would destroy tourism along with any possibility of mining’s return. Besides, Superfund can be blunt; the complex Animas situation demanded a more surgical, locally-based approach. So the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and federal and state agencies, was created in 1994 to address the situation. The approach was successful, at first, but then water quality began deteriorating again. The specter of Superfund returned. Many locals, worried about impacts to property values and tourism, have again resisted. Sunnyside Gold Corp. (see below) has offered millions of dollars to further cleanup efforts — as long as there’s no Superfund designation.
• The problem is massive and complex, but not hopeless: In 1991, the last big mine in the region, the Sunnyside, shut down. Its owner, Sunnyside Gold Corp., planned to plug the American Tunnel, thus stanching the flow of acid mine drainage (which it ran through a water treatment plant), and then walk away. The state wouldn’t allow it: While a plug, or bulkhead, would be a short-term fix, in the long-term the water, and its contaminants, might back up in the mine and find another way to the surface. So Sunnyside agreed not only to bulkhead its mine, but also to clean up abandoned mines nearby — a sort of pollution offset project — while continuing to run the waters of upper Cement Creek through a water treatment facility. That, combined with the ARSG’s extensive efforts, worked: By the early 2000s, zinc, cadmium and lead levels in Mineral Creek had dropped by 50 to 75 percent, and water quality in the Upper Animas had improved significantly (Cement Creek had never supported fish, and never will). Fish appeared just below Silverton, where they hadn’t been seen in probably a century. It was success, without Superfund.
• Then it got even more complex: Sunnyside cut a deal with the state and Gold King mining, a small operation owned by a Silvertonian. Sunnyside would leave, and turn over its water treatment operations to Gold King, along with enough cash to keep it running for a while. Gold King hoped to eventually resume mining the Gold King (not far from the American Tunnel). For decades, the Gold King, like the nearby Red and Bonita mine, had not discharged any water. But not long after Sunnyside sealed its bulkheads, water started pouring out of all of them. “It was not a coincidence,” says Peter Butler, ARSG co-coordinator. The backed up water had found natural fractures to follow into the other mines. Together, the Gold King and Red and Bonita would become some of the biggest polluters in the basin. Initially, their waters were run through the treatment plant that Sunnyside had left behind. But before long, Gold King ran into technical, financial and legal troubles and the treatment plant stopped operating. Water quality for miles downstream once again deteriorated. The fish that had returned to the Animas below Silverton were wiped out. Part of the renewed impetus for a Superfund designation was to bring in funds to resume water treatment as well as figure out ways to clean up the basin’s remaining major polluting mines.
• In the meantime, a piecemeal approach continues: The ARSG, along with federal and state agencies, continue to do what they can to clean up mines. In some cases, this means plugging them, which is what the EPA is working on at the Red and Bonita, and planned to do at the Gold King, when the dam broke. Other methods include diverting water before it gets into the mine in the first place, and removing waste piles at the entrances to mines so that acidic discharge from the mine can’t leech minerals out of the rock. Until the Gold King is plugged, it will continue to discharge acid mine drainage, just as it had before the spill.
• This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened, nor is it the worst: In June of 1975, a huge tailings pile on the banks of the Animas River northeast of Silverton was breached, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water, along with 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings into the Animas. For 100 miles downstream, the river “looked like aluminum paint,” according to a Durango Herald reporter at the time; fish placed in a cage in the water in Durango all died within 24 hours. It was just one of many breaches of various magnitude. Just a decade before, the same tailings pile was found to be spilling cyanide-laced water into the river. In 1978, after the American Tunnel was bored Sunnyside Mine workings got too close to the floor of Lake Emma, the lake burst through, sending an estimated 500 million gallons of water tearing through the mines, sweeping up huge machinery, tailings and sludge, and blasting it out the American Tunnel and sending it downstream. No one was working in the mine at the time, which is either miraculous, or suspicious, depending on who you ask.
• Short-term impacts aren’t as bad as the water looks: Sampling done by the EPA upstream from Durango show that the plume’s peak put the Animas River’s water’s acidity on par with black coffee, and contained elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper. But by the time it reached town, the acidity had been diluted significantly, and levels of those metals were far lower, but still “scary,” according to EPA officials. Still, the plume moved through quickly, lessening harm. A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.
• Long-term impacts are still unknown:As the plume moved downstream, sediment settled onto the river bottom and its rocks, which could affect aquatic bugs. And it’s likely to get kicked up during high water flows. If thick enough, the sediment could even affect the river’s appearance, providing a Tang-colored reminder of this disaster for months to come. Also, water in some domestic wells near the river reportedly had a yellow tint in the days after the spill moved through, but it’s not yet known what other contaminants may have gotten into the water. Irrigators had to shut down their ditches in hot weather, which could damage crops, and the ag economy, just as the river closure is costing rafting companies thousands of dollars each day. The plume moved through critical habitat for razorback suckers and pike minnows further downstream; they may prove more sensitive than the trout. But then, the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico had their own water quality issues before the spill: alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria.
• The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause: It’s true that EPA officials took a “cavalier attitude” (EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath’s word) in the first hours after the spill, downplaying the impacts and failing to notify those downstream. And they admit that before tinkering with the mine, they should have taken better steps to mitigate a possible disaster, such as drilling into the mine from the top to assess the situation without the danger of busting the dam. Had they not messed with it at all, though, the gathering water and sludge might have busted through the de facto dam sometime anyway. Clearly, the water quality issue goes far deeper than this one unfortunate event.
If initial public reaction is any indication, the disaster has woken Durangoans up not only to how important the river is, but also to what’s been going on upstream. And they’re likely to exert whatever pressure they can on their neighbors up in Silverton to accept, even embrace, Superfund and a comprehensive cleanup effort. They speak from experience: Durango was the site of a massive federal cleanup of a uranium tailings pile in the early 1990s, and tourism and property values did just fine. Moab, Utah, another tourism mecca, is currently in the middle of a similar cleanup. The hordes of visitors mostly seem oblivious to it. Such is not the case, however, with our Tang-hued river.
From left, Richard Root and Melvin Jones, both equipment operators for the Shiprock Chapter, fill troughs and barrels of water on Tuesday for Sarah Frank, a Shiprock resident who relied on the San Juan River for her water. The Gold King Mine spill has forced her to seek alternative sources of water for her livestock. (Alexa Rogals — The Daily Times)
SHIPROCK — With the Animas and San Juan rivers still off limits, local ranchers and farmers are looking for alternative ways to get water for their livestock and crops.
Restrictions on the rivers were put into effect after toxic metals flowed from a mine north of Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River and then into the San Juan River.
In response to the situation, officials with the Shiprock Chapter started hauling water to residents who need it for their livestock.
Melvin Jones, an equipment operator at the chapter house, delivered water Monday and Tuesday to residents in Shiprock.
“There are quite a few people on the list right now, so we’ll probably be hauling water all week and into next week,” he said.
Jimmy Lujan looks over the field at his farm in Upper Fruitland on Tuesday. The crops at the 24-acre farm have already started to wither. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)
On Tuesday, he delivered water in a 1,000-gallon tank to Sarah Frank’s residence in southeast Shiprock. As Jones filled her large storage tank with water, Frank removed lids from three steel drums and an assortment of plastic containers to hold the remainder of the water. Frank’s residence is less than 10 miles south of the river, which was the main source of water for her 30 sheep and 13 lambs.
“They really drink water when the grass is dry,” she said.
Frank said she asked chapter house officials for help because she was worried about her sheep.
“They said they would help to haul water. I was so glad to hear that,” Frank said, adding that the delivered water could last up to four weeks.
Meanwhile, in Upper Fruitland, the corn at Jimmy and Lucy Lujan’s 24-acre farm had already started to wither on Tuesday from lack of water, and the couple fears they have lost a crop of newly planted alfalfa. Lucy Lujan said she had hoped to sell the corn to pay for her grandson’s tuition at San Juan College.
“You don’t realize how much you rely on irrigation water,” she said.
Since the plume of contaminated water flooded the San Juan River, the Lujans have been using tap water for their small herd of sheep and to irrigate their crops. The couple said they have always had plenty of water, but now they are afraid they will lose all of their crops this season.
Tommy Bolack relies on both the Animas and San Juan rivers to irrigate his 12,000-acre B-Square Ranch in Farmington. He learned about the Gold King Mine spill a day and a half before the plume reached Farmington and turned off the ditches on the southern portion of his property, which is irrigated by the Animas River.
“It’s best to let that water go by,” he said.
Early warnings helped farmers prevent crop contamination, said D’rese Sutherland, one of the owners of Sutherland Farms.
Richard Root, an equipment operator for the Shiprock Chapter, fills up a trough with water for livestock at a residence in Shiprock. (Alexa Rogals — The Daily Times)
“We’ll be fine for a few days,” she said, adding that rains and cloud cover have helped the crops on the 80-acre farm north of Aztec.
But, she added, “If we don’t get water on some crops within the next week, we will start losing some.”
Sutherland said she has been in contact with the New Mexico State University San Juan County Extension Office to secure emergency water supplies.
The extension office started delivering irrigation water Tuesday afternoon, said agriculture agent Bonnie Hopkins. On Tuesday, about 20,000 gallons of water were delivered to farmers and about 10,000 gallons were delivered to livestock owners, she said.
The office can deliver water to farmers and ranchers who are not on the Navajo Nation. Residents can call 505-334-9496 to get on the water delivery list. Farmers with market vegetables and fruits will be prioritized because their livelihoods depend on the produce.
Four Corners Economic Development will also host a public meeting at 2 p.m. today at the Farmington Civic Center, 200 W. Arrington St., to discuss the county’s irrigation options with officials from the extension office, the state Office of the State Engineer and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and email@example.com. Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.
Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.
A sample finds lead level in the Animas River nearly 12,000 times higher than the acceptable level set by the EPA
It usually takes years or even decades for health problems from metals to develop
(CNN)While the mustard-yellow hue of the Animas River is fading, leading toxicologists say there could be health effects for many years to come from heavy metals such as lead and mercury that spilled into the water.
“This is a real mess,” said Max Costa, chair of the department of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine. “These levels are shocking.”
Exposure to high levels of these metals can cause an array of health problems from cancer to kidney disease to developmental problems in children.
“Oh my God! Look at the lead!” said Joseph Landolph, a toxicologist at the University of Southern California, pointing to a lead level in the Animas River nearly 12,000 times higher than the acceptable level set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA accidentally spills chemicals into Colorado river 02:36
One of the samples of mercury was nearly 10 times higher than the EPA acceptable levels. Samples of beryllium and cadmium were 33 times higher, and one of the arsenic levels was more than 800 times higher.
‘A major, major problem’
“This is a major, major problem,” said Jonathan Freedman, a toxicologist at the University of Louisville, who until recently worked as an investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
Typically it takes years or even decades for health problems from metals to develop.
Spokespersons for the EPA did not respond to emails Monday regarding the levels.
The mayor of Durango, Colorado, said experts from the agency were “noncommittal” about the health effects of the contamination during a community meeting Sunday night.
“There was no good discussion of what these levels mean, and that’s what’s frustrating. I’m a fairly smart guy, and I walked away without having answers,” said Dean Brookie. “It wasn’t a great confidence builder.”
According to the EPA, Wednesday’s spill caused a spike in these metal concentrations, but levels “began to return to pre-event conditions” by Thursday.
However, according to the EPA’s own data, there were still very high levels of metals on Thursday. A lead sample was more than 300 times higher than the EPA acceptable level, for example, and an arsenic sample tested 26 times the acceptable level.
EPA spokespersons did not respond to emails Monday asking how many residents rely on the Animas River for their drinking water and how many farms use the water for irrigation.
Cadmium is a particular concern for crops, Costa said, as it’s readily absorbed.
“Of all the toxic metals, it goes into plants like crazy,” he said.
It’s also not clear what the levels of these metals would have been once they reached the input point for drinking water systems and whether the systems cut off their connection to the river water in time to avoid the contaminants.
One thing, however, is for sure: these metals don’t disappear. Even if they go down to low levels in the water, they could likely be in the sediment and could be kicked up into the water at any time.
“This was such a horrible accident,” Landolph said. “I served on the EPA scientific advisory board, and I have the utmost respect for the agency. I wish them godspeed in cleaning it up and containing it.”
This is an international declaration, and law in the making, that is very much relevant to the EPA disaster. One of the approaches to identifying claims is standards. This is one. It is also Navajo fundamental law.