For the past month, a heavy black plastic bag has been sitting in a garbage can behind Andy and Debbie Pierce’s home.
“Nobody came out and asked. No one cares,” Debbie Pierce said. “No one has said what to do with it.”
A small ditch, barely 1 foot wide and 1 foot deep, trickles around the property’s front end and along the southern side of Pierce’s home on U.S. Highway 550, just north of Hermosa Creek. There are about 10 other homes along the lateral gate, which is the last before reaching the creek.
Today, the water passes over a slightly precarious orange tint on the bottom. The mouth of a garden hose running through the Pierce’s yard is stained with a similar hue.
When an Aug. 5 accident at Silverton’s Gold King Mine sent a 3-million-gallon torrent of metal-laden wastewater creeping down the Animas and San Juan rivers, the rusty plume didn’t linger and the waterways soon ran clear.
The same can’t be said for some minor water channels and ditches upstream from Durango in the Hermosa area.
It is unclear just how many small, lateral ditches run in La Plata County. But some, like the Pierces’, still flow with a slight but visible trace of the spill, which was caused when an Environmental Protection Agency crew was attempting to mitigate leakage from the abandoned mine’s portal.
State and federal agencies sprang to action in the days after to treat the wastewater and test the river’s surface water and the sediment accrued on the banks and river bottom. Weeks after the spill, specialists determined the metal levels were nonhazardous.
But some homeowners in the area don’t trust the discoloration lingering in ditches and lack direction on who to contact with questions.
When the ditch was shut off after the spill, the Pierces double-bagged about 10 gallons of tainted muck from the ditch. Debbie Pierce said she hasn’t received any direction on how to properly dispose of it, so the bag has remained in her backyard for over a month. Next door, several more bags dug by neighbors lie in a heap near the lawn.
“It would’ve been handy if the laterals had just been shut off and we wouldn’t have had this problem,” Andy Pierce said.
The Pierce family dog drinks from the ditch, which also feeds their garden where pumpkins and other edible plants grow. For about a week after the spill, the family watered from the house, but the high cost prompted them to resume irrigation.
Linda Kornelson is more skeptical.
Rather than divert from the contaminated pond on her property just across the highway from the Pierces, she has been paying to keep her fruit trees watered.
“(The sediment) is still visible, but it’s not as bad as the ditches,” she said. A few days after the spill, she asked the EPA to test the pond water. Results arrived last week, assuring her the water is non-threatening, but Kornelson said the report was vague and did not address cadmium or chromium levels.
“I don’t believe them,” she said. “And we were waiting for someone to come and dig this out of the pond and ditches, but we haven’t heard anything.”
Andy Pierce agrees that the only viable solution is to completely dig out the ditch – a task he believes should fall to the EPA. The Pierces expected a visit from the agency on Friday afternoon but that didn’t happen.
“The reports don’t have enough information,” Andy Pierce said. “Will this just keep accumulating? Will it go away?”
Local, state and federal agencies are working on better communication strategies for when and if another accident occurs. But trust has already been breached for locals who not only rely on the lateral system as a cheap watering source, they also have questions and don’t know who to ask.
Some said they made calls after the spill and got the “runaround” from different officials, as Kornelson said. Others waited, saying they expected the EPA to be more proactive.
EPA spokesperson Nancy Grantham did not address questions about safe disposal, but said the EPA has received approximately 10 requests from La Plata County residents to sample sediment on their properties.
“Data will be released to homeowners,” she said. “EPA is currently evaluating sediment sample results to make determinations on further actions.”
Inquiries go through the Gold King Mine call-in center. Grantham said the EPA follows up on each one. Call 382-7592.