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New Mexico to address lingering concerns of Gold King Mine spill

Feedback session planned this week with Navajo farmers
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred walks along the San Juan River on Aug. 11, 2015, in Montezuma Creek, Utah. About 3 million gallons of mine wastewater was released Aug. 5, 2015, from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico and southern Utah.

FARMINGTON – As the five-year anniversary of the Gold King Mine spill nears, the New Mexico Environment Department is holding feedback session with Navajo farmers to ease worries surrounding any lingering effects of the spill on crops and irrigation.

The state’s Environment Department will hold a listening session from 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter House to hear the concerns of farmers on the Navajo Nation.

In August 2015, a spill from the Gold King Mine located near Silverton released about 3 million gallons of heavy metal-laden wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River, which eventually flows into the San Juan River and provides water to the Navajo Nation. The water traveled through 215 miles of the northern portion of the reservation. Contractors with the Environmental Protection Agency, who were investigating small leaks on the site, triggered the release when equipment broke into a collapsed tunnel, releasing arsenic, lead and copper into the headwaters of the Animas River.

The EPA released its “Biological Response Report” in 2018, which found the spill had no lasting impact or consequences, backing up earlier reports from other organizations.

But there is a lingering stigma in some areas against using the water from the Animas or San Juan rivers to irrigate crops, according to the New Mexico Environment Department. Its listening session Thursday is part of a larger effort to acknowledge concerns while providing information about the completed crop and water testing.

About 3 million gallons of mine wastewater was released Aug. 5, 2015, from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton. This photo taken from a helicopter shows the plume as it makes its way down the winding Animas River north of Durango.

Another study conducted by the EPA in 2019 found the Superfund site near Silverton did not pose a “serious risk to human health.” The Bonita Peak Mining District – a group of 48 mining sites near the headwaters of the Animas River – was designated a Superfund a year after the Gold King Mine spill.

According to the New Mexico Environment Department, Dennis McQuillan, a chief scientist for the department, will be on hand for the listening session.

McQuillan has previously said the farming industry was still hurting in 2019.

“I’ve talked to farmers who said their sales are down 25% from before the spill because people say they won’t buy food grown on the San Juan. But our agriculture products are safe. The fish are safe to eat. The river is safe for irrigation,” he told the Albuquerque Journal.

The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation has previously provided federal money to the Navajo Nation to test fish in the spill area and to continue addressing the stigma around the river water, despite meeting state irrigation safety standards a year after the spill.

lweber@durangoherald.com

Sep 26, 2021
Five years after Gold King Mine spill, water quality remains a concern
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