ALBUQUERQUE – Extensive soil and water sampling would be done along the Animas River in northwestern New Mexico and residents would be recruited to assess the level of heavy metals in their urine under a plan aimed at getting a better handle on the long-term effects of a mine spill that contaminated rivers in three Western states.
New Mexico is developing a plan that will guide long-term monitoring activities in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill, which occurred near Silverton. A draft was released Tuesday, kicking off a 30-day comment period.
Officials are urging tribes, local leaders, concerned residents and researchers to weigh in.
State agencies working with scientists at some of New Mexico’s colleges and universities will be focusing on water quality, sediment and effects on agriculture, livestock and wildlife.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn described it as an “important endeavor to protect New Mexicans and our unique environment.”
The goals include determining whether the spill – accidentally triggered in August by a crew working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – will have any effect on drinking-water sources or if heavy metals are being deposited in sediment along the Animas River and in irrigation canals.
According to state officials, historical monitoring data for public water systems that divert water from the river provides no evidence that maximum contaminant levels for metals have ever been exceeded in the area’s drinking water.
The breach at the Gold King Mine turned the Animas and San Juan rivers a sickly yellow after wastewater laden with heavy metals coursed downstream. Cities shut down water intakes and farmers closed irrigation canals until the plume passed.
The plan outlines a brief history of the area along with geological characteristic and details about the properties of some of the metals found in the mine-waste sludge.
Given the gradient and flow of the Animas south of Silverton, officials suspect mine-waste sediment has been accumulating in the river for decades. They say sediment could migrate into New Mexico during storm events and snowmelt runoff.
The plan calls for investigating the connection between the river, groundwater and irrigation water that ends up recharging the aquifer and identifying possible pathways for contamination to migrate.
Officials want to establish real-time monitoring of the Animas River, study consumption patterns in the area and recruit residents to monitor for heavy metals in their drinking wells and their urine.
Officials warn that more money will be needed for all the sampling, modeling and mapping called for by the plan.
Gov. Susana Martinez declared an emergency in the wake of the spill, freeing up $750,000 in state funds. The New Mexico Environment Department also set aside $500,000 from its hazardous waste fund.
It’s unclear what the final price tag will be, department spokeswoman Allison Majure said.