DENVER – Federal environmental officials on Thursday released a final one-year water-monitoring plan in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to examine water and sediment quality, biological communities and fish tissue at 30 locations under a variety of flow and seasonal river conditions along the Animas and San Juan rivers.
After the first year, “the need for additional monitoring and assessment and the entities best suited to undertake further monitoring will be determined,” according to the plan.
The EPA acknowledged fault in the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King incident, in which an estimated 3 million gallons of mustard-yellow mining sludge poured into the Animas, shutting the river for eight days. The inactive Gold King Mine is north of Silverton.
The Animas River tested for initial spikes in heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, copper and aluminum.
The EPA on Thursday also announced that it would make $2 million available for additional monitoring needs designed to complement the yearlong effort.
Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation will monitor the spring runoff.
Spring 2016 is the first snowmelt season in the Animas and San Juan watershed since the spill. There is concern that heavy metal concentrations in the river may rise as flows increase, posing a risk to downstream communities and aquatic life. A large spring snowpack has increased those concerns.
The preparedness plan includes sensors providing real-time data, including turbidity and flow levels. The plan also calls for water quality sampling at regular intervals to track river conditions.
The San Juan Basin Health Department will rely on the real-time data, beyond the periodic sampling performed by the EPA.
“Based on currently available data, San Juan Basin Health believes that use of the river this year poses no additional health risks as compared to previous years, but as conditions change over the course of the monitoring program, we will assess data from all sources in order to improve our decision-making and keep the public safe,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of the San Juan Basin Health Department.
“EPA’s comparison of current and historic data at long-term monitoring sites will be essential for determining if the August incident has changed river conditions,” she added.
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie questioned whether the EPA should commit to more than a year of sampling, suggesting that a more permanent monitoring plan could come as part of Superfund efforts.
Local communities and the state have expressed support for a Superfund designation, which would inject large amounts of dollars into treatment.
“To me, that’s not long term, that’s a start, and sets up the basis for long-term monitoring,” Brookie said.
San Juan County Administrator William Tookey pointed out that monitoring is not as critical to his community because it does not use the Animas for drinking or agriculture.
“Our concern is that there’s adequate monitoring in there so that our downstream partners get the protection and notice they need so it doesn’t put them in a bind,” Tookey said.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt added: “I’m pleased with the cooperation amongst the downstream entities to monitor the spring runoff in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill. With the winter snowpack and ongoing acid mine drainage in the Animas watershed, it’s critical we have this level of cooperation not only this year but throughout the Superfund cleanup process.”
Fall data, also released on Thursday, showed that sampling from 27 locations were below “risk-based recreational screening levels,” according to the EPA. Officials added that the data were consistent with pre-event conditions.
Data are compared to recreational screening levels for long-term exposure. The analysis takes into account such things as how a person would contact the river and for how long.
An EPA spring sampling event is underway, which will be followed by additional sampling in June and again in the fall.
After collecting data for a year, the EPA will assess it, consult with partners and decide what further monitoring or other actions are needed.
The goal is to consistently evaluate river conditions over time to assess impacts to public health and the environment. Researchers will examine fluctuations over time and location based on seasonal factors, such as precipitation and snowmelt.
The sampling locations will span Cement Creek, the Animas and San Juan rivers, and the upper section of the San Juan arm of Lake Powell.