ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A few days ago, Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist with the New Mexico Environment Department, used his new $40,000 X-ray fluorescence spectrometer to take a reading of sediment in the Animas River near Cedar Hill, a small community on U.S. 550, just south of the Colorado border.
The results showed a lead concentration of 922 parts per million, more than twice the acceptable level (400 parts per million) as set by federal residential standards.
A year after the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, heavy metal contaminants released by the accident are embedded in the mud at the bottom of the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico, a potential threat to fish, wildlife and all those who use the rivers for drinking water, irrigation and recreation.
A crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently breached a containment wall at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., releasing 3 million gallons of water laced with lead, arsenic, cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas, which took the tainted water into New Mexico’s San Juan County and into the San Juan River near Farmington.
Readings such as the one McQuillan took near Cedar Hill set off the kinds of alarms that keep state and local officials vigilant and worried and have brought many community residents together to join with those officials in tackling the consequences of the spill. Still, other residents are confident that the worst is over and life is back to normal.
“Lead is the primary human health concern, head and shoulders above cadmium and arsenic,” McQuillan said.
The high concentration of lead McQuillan detected last week was in the sediment, not the water, which means it is not dangerous unless spring runoffs or rainstorms, such as the ones rumbling through New Mexico this past week, get the Animas and San Juan all stirred up.
“No one should be drinking untreated river water,” McQuillan said. “But right now, with the exception of storm events, the water should be OK for irrigation and watering livestock. Most of the sediment samples we tested the last few days were below 400 (parts per million).”
McQuillan said that, so far, testing of water wells near the rivers has not detected harmful levels of contaminants. But he is concerned about a small section on the east side of the Animas from Aztec north to the Colorado line where it appears that river water is flowing into the groundwater tapped by the wells. That could lead to contamination in wells in that area.
“There is a lot of concern for the people,” said Butch Tongate, state Environment Department deputy secretary. “They are going to have to be on guard for years. Not only for drinking water, but for crops, fish and livestock. But they are using the river as long as it is safe.”
However, state Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, who ranches in Aztec, just southeast of the Animas River, is not disturbed.
“The water is fine. Everything is OK,” Bandy said during a phone interview on Friday. “There are some heavy metals down in the sediment, but unless you drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log, you’re fine.”
Bandy said that except for having to shut down his irrigation ditches for two weeks just after the mine spill a year ago, he has not been troubled by the accident.
Bob Kinslow, manager of the Diamond K Bar Ranch at Cedar Hill, feels the same way. The Diamond K Bar Ranch raises alfalfa, mostly for dairy cattle in other parts of the state.
Just after the spill last year, Kinslow lost more than two weeks of irrigating because he had to shut off his ditches.
“We lost quite a bit of hay and had to do a little reseeding,” he said Friday. “Other than that, everything worked out good. We have had our own (water) testing done, and it’s all good.”
Keith Lee is manager of the Lower Valley Water Users Cooperative Association, which delivers water to about 8,500 customers in the Kirtland area west of Farmington. Lee had to shut down the water system for some days following the spill but said there have been no problems since it went back on line.
“Everybody has people on the system who are concerned, and they probably have a right to be,” Lee said. “But we have been keeping check on the EPA monitors and they seem to have it under control. The water quality is fine.”
Mike Mestas, emergency manager for San Juan County, and Ed Smylie, emergency manager for the city of Farmington, said communicating with people has been the key to dealing with fears about water safety.
“We are letting them know that the water we are sending them is safe,” Smylie said.
The Farmington municipal water system installed sensors that will shut down its intake lines if excessive levels of contaminants are detected in river water. Smylie said that has happened more times than he can count during the last year.
“It’s down right now,” he said during a phone interview on Friday. “It could be down for a few hours up to two days, depending on what’s going on upstream.”
That’s no problem for Farmington because it has a large reservoir that can deliver water to the city’s customers for long periods without having to draw water from the river.
“Because of that, we were in a good position all along,” Smylie said. “We are able to cut off intakes and be able to serve customers, for months if necessary, and help our neighbors.”
Ryan Flynn, state Environment Department secretary, said he is pleased with the way the San Juan County community has come together to deal with the aftermath of the spill.
“I think there is a strong bond between the state, the local government and the community,” he said. “A Citizens Advisory Committee was formed and has been meeting monthly. The way that group has come together to work with state and local officials makes me proud. People coming together and stepping up.”
During the past year, Flynn has overseen extensive water and soil monitoring efforts involving multiple state agencies and has played a key role in a suing the EPA and Colorado mine owners for $130 million in damages and in a separate lawsuit filed against the state of Colorado.
He is stepping down as environment secretary at the end of this week and handing off his responsibilities to Tongate, who will serve as acting secretary until Flynn’s replacement is appointed. Both believe that much is still to be done to clean up the Gold King Mine mess.
“If anyone told you they knew how long this was going to take, they would be lying,” Flynn said.