NM uses Gold King Mine spill settlement dollars to monitor watershed after federal dollars dried up
Water findings to come soon, despite staffing and data issues among states and Indigenous nations working to make sure Animas and San Juan Rivers are healthy
The Animas River between Silverton and Durango in Colorado within 24 hours of the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by riverhugger via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)
In 2015, the Animas River turned yellow copper when toxic waste water was released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a company contracted by the federal government.
Water health is still a concern today.
That’s why New Mexico officials, along with other states and tribal nations, continue to track water quality, even after some federal funding ran out.
Recent data from this multi-state and tribal partnership should come this summer or fall.
How we got here
The Environmental Protection Agency and workers from the Environmental Restoration LLC released three million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King Mine in 2015 that polluted a tributary of the Animas and San Juan Rivers.
The federal government took responsibility for the incident, and Congress allocated $4 million per year from 2017 to 2021 available to monitor the San Juan River watershed through the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act.
Since the spill, the federal environmental protection agency worked for five years with New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
The EPA spent over $18 million to watch the health of the Animas and San Juan Rivers, along with some tributaries, following the disaster.
Congressional funding for that effort ran out in 2021. But the states and tribal nations are still getting things done on their own, having picked up the tab in 2022 and committing to keep going for years to come.
Shelly Lemon leads the New Mexico Environment Department’s Surface Water Quality Bureau. She attended a watershed conference in Farmington last week to explain the monitoring plans and discuss how the state is working with others to track the quality of the Animas and San Juan Rivers.
Since the waters run across various state and tribal lands, the entities have to work together to collect and analyze samples.
So far this year, Lemon said, officials have finished four water sampling events, the most recent one wrapped up in early June. She said there’s one additional collection event planned for October and three more in 2024.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Navajo Nation are gathering samples near the Colorado border and downstream from Farmington, Lemon said. New Mexico is analyzing those water collections, sometimes teaming up with Utah to get it done.
Colorado is taking care of tracking its own section of the river.
Lemon said one of the goals is to make all this data publicly available. She said officials are currently verifying data from last year before uploading it online sometime this summer or early fall.
She said the states and tribes also plan to create annual reports that assess the current condition of the San Juan watershed and its trends. The first yearly report should come out in the fall, Lemon said.
This multi-jurisdictional effort could be a solution to a watershed-monitoring problem in New Mexico environmental advocates have brought up. It takes about a decade for the New Mexico Environment Department to monitor all of its watersheds, and a lot can change in that time period.
For example, it’ll likely be years until the state conducts an in-depth assessment of watersheds damaged by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, drastically recomposing the region’s landscape.
This ongoing state and tribal water tracking effort is a more consistent way to keep track of the San Juan watershed’s health, Lemon said.
“This is providing a more continual dataset for this watershed,” she said.
The sooner states or tribal nations are aware of issues, she said, the earlier they can take care of them.
“With more data, obviously, current conditions can be better assessed and communicated, and we can take action more timely,” she said.
Lemon said all the states and tribal nations involved have had to figure out how to pay for this work on their own since the federal government left.
“Each state and tribe is responsible for funding their portion of this effort,” she said.
New Mexico is using dollars from a few different sources.
Lemon said the state is pulling from the $48 million pot New Mexico received in a settlement that took years for companies and the federal government to agree upon following the spill. Colorado is doing the same with its own $5 million settlement, said John Michael, spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Other New Mexico funds are coming from the federal Clean Water Act, which the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is also using, according to spokesperson Summer Begay.
The other parties involved didn’t immediately respond to inquiries from Source NM about their funding sources.
New Mexico Environment Department spokesperson George Estrada said the water in the Animas and San Juan Rivers is doing “fairly good,” according to state and federal data collected in recent years.
A few high contamination levels in the water stood out.
He said high levels of dissolved lead exceeded healthy water quality standards. He also said phosphorus, nitrogen and e-coli were other present pollutants of concern and exceeded standards for either aquatic life or human recreation.
Some of those pollutants are what Lemon said officials want to keep monitoring.
Elevated levels of metal in the water, leftover from the 2015 spill that caused mine wastewater and tailings to flood into the river, is something Lemon said still demands attention.
She added that the rivers could have too many nutrients, sediments, minerals or bacteria, or unhealthy temperatures.
Lemon brought up e-coli specifically, a bacteria that can cause people to get sick. New Mexico hasn’t tested for that yet, but she said she hopes the state will get those samples from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in the October 2023 collection run.
There also isn’t data yet about dissolved organic carbon in the rivers, which Lemon said can help officials understand the metal concentrations in the water. She said “recurring errors” have caused the lack of data but didn’t expand.
“We’re missing a little bit of data, but we’re trying to work on issues,” she said.
Lemon said there are other pollutants the states and tribes might want to sample for in the future, such as PFAS chemicals. Those are known as “forever chemicals” found in many everyday products that cause harmful health impacts, and have popped up repeatedly around New Mexico.
There are a few internal working issues with the water project, such as large staff turnover at state and tribal water agencies that’s also causing capacity issues processing samples. Lemon said that’s not slowing down data collection, though.
She said there are also data management issues.
“Trying to assess data across the jurisdictions is really complicated,” she said. “So we’re trying to figure out how to come up with a method that’s simple and easy to understand.”
Lemon said the states and tribes want to continue the water quality monitoring beyond 2024.
“But every year we reevaluate and figure out where we’re at,” she said.
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