FARMINGTON – On the second and final day of a mining conference in Farmington, a question borne out of mounting frustration was raised by a New Mexico representative: “Are we going to benefit from Colorado’s Superfund designation? And if not, do we have to apply?”
The inquiry, posed by Rich Dembowski, chairman of the New Mexico Gold King Mine Citizen’s Advisory Committee, stems from lingering resentment that as the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado pursue the federal hazardous cleanup program, New Mexico, and its concerns, are being ignored.
Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist of New Mexico’s Environmental Department, said requests for an informational meeting about the Superfund listing in New Mexico have gone unanswered by the federal agency.
Yet when New Mexico officials see EPA hearings scheduled in Silverton, Durango and Ignacio, McQuillan said it feels like an outright slight toward downstream interests.
“It’s a reoccurring theme – we’re not treated like stakeholders down here because we’re not in Colorado,” he said. “We’re basically forgotten. But we are stakeholders. Our people use the water.”
For two days, researchers from New Mexico and Native American tribes pored over the science behind the spill, the highly mineralized Silverton mining district, and the possible short and long-term effects of sediment loading in the Animas and San Juan rivers.
McQuillan said the conference was a bit of an attempt to play catch-up to years of research well-known in Southwest Colorado through groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group. He hopes next year’s conference will have more data to compare.
“I think the Gold King spill brought a lot of attention to the existing situation down here,” he said.
“We have this shocking visual of yellow river, and yet the issue’s been around a long time.”
McQuillan said instead, the state environmental department has been more concerned over the high levels of E. coli found in the stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers within New Mexico, which pose a more immediate risk to human health.
“The Gold King spill took a lot of the attention away from that issue that’s still out there,” he said. “That’s why we need a holistic approach to the entire watershed. Maybe this single event will cause that holistic response.”
The EPA listed 48 mining-related sites in its Superfund proposal, all around the Silverton area. However, New Mexico officials maintained Wednesday a real cleanup of the watershed should include other contaminating sites from Silverton to Lake Powell.
“The elephant in the room right now is we don’t trust the government, and that’s focused at the EPA,” Dembowski said. “Why aren’t they answering questions?”
New Mexico officials claim the EPA hasn’t justified important data, such as metal levels in the water returning to pre-spill conditions, and failed to answer simple questions about the temporary water-treatment plant, which led the state to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
San Juan County Commissioner Kim Carpenter, who referred to the post-Gold King spill world as “hell,” made it clear he too is no fan of the EPA.
“There’s a lot of resentment over the mine spill,” he said.
“In every state there’s a fight about water. And sometimes we overlook the fact we have to fight for what we have, not just what we want.”
However, Carpenter said New Mexico communities along the Animas and San Juan watershed are “at the mercy of where it all starts,” and for real cleanup efforts to begin, “the blaming has to stop.”
Virginia McLemore, with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, begrudgingly agreed that although relationships between communities along the watershed might not historically be fair, they must work toward a shared goal.
“For years, Colorado gets the financial benefits, and we have to deal with the metal laden sludge,” she said. “But this is a problem that affects us all, and we have to trust the federal agencies will do their part.”