FARMINGTON – Nine months after mining sludge from the Gold King Mine turned the Animas and San Juan rivers yellow, scientists and researchers gathered here recently to share what they have learned so far regarding the contamination of the rivers from the spill in August 2015.
“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 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 last month 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.
While the spill sparked fear among 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, a 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.
“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,” Fernald said.
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 greatest challenge is the perception of health risks that the spill caused.
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.
Conference collaborators in the long-term monitoring include the state Environment Department, NMSU, UNM, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, San Juan Watershed Group, San Juan County, the city of Aztec and the city of Farmington.