This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As much as 80 percent of the 880,000 pounds of metals released into the Animas River by last summer's Gold King Mine disaster remain upstream, according to recent estimates, which has Utah and other downstream governments concerned that spring snowmelt could trigger another plume of pollution in the coming months.
That possibility has led Utah, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Colorado's La Plata County to launch an independent effort to monitor and respond to water quality crises in the San Juan and Animas rivers. Ultimately, the partnered governments would like to create a real-time reporting system capable of sending risk estimates and warnings to residents when metals-laden sediment is on the move.
The plan, said Erica Gaddis, assistant director of water monitoring at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, is to place multiple probes in key locations along the river to gather real-time data on the water's turbidity the amount of stirred-up sediment flowing through the water column. The partners will also collect weekly water samples and test them for heavy metals from the mine spill, including lead, cadmium, zinc and copper. The data will then be analyzed to determine the correlation between turbidity of the two rivers and the concentration of heavy metals.
The cooperative agencies, as well as representatives of the state of Colorado and the Environmental Protection Agency, met this week in Durango, Colo., to hammer out details. Utah and New Mexico have begun to implement parts of the plan, though it is unclear whether the EPA will help fund the initiative.
According to a statement from EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham, the EPA is supporting the monitoring plan and providing the involved governments with "technical and infrastructure support to help stakeholders better coordinate their monitoring plans and share environmental data." Additionally, according to the statement, the EPA is providing $2 million to support any long-term monitoring actions undertaken in the affected areas.
New Mexico officials, however, question the degree to which the EPA actually intends to cooperate.
At the center of the dispute is the question of whether it is necessary for local governments to continue independent water quality monitoring. The EPA has its own monitoring plan in place; according to Grantham's statement, the next round of sampling will take place at the end of the month, with additional samples to be taken in June and in the fall. Unscheduled samples will be taken during storm events this summer.
But Ryan Flynn, secretary of environment for the state of New Mexico, said that while the data released by the EPA seem accurate thus far, the statements it's made about that data have been "false and misleading in a number of circumstances."
For example, he said, the EPA publicly stated that the initial plume did not impact any irrigation ditches downstream. But New Mexico officials have pictures of "ditches … that have yellowish-orange pumpkin soup" in them.
The EPA has also created a set of action levels thresholds that determine when the concentration of a contaminant warrants attention and possibly remediation specific to the Gold King Mine incident that are higher than the levels normally used by the EPA, Flynn said.
"I don't believe they are manipulating the samples or the results," he said, "but when it comes to communicating those results, the EPA is totally misleading the public and the states about what is actually occurring."
As for the $2 million, Flynn and Gaddis said there is no way that sum will cover the expenses already accrued by the governments intended to receive it. The EPA funds are expected to reimburse Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation.
Utah alone, Gaddis said, has spent $400,000 to monitor the immediate aftermath of the event from August to October, and just recently had a request for an additional $200,000 for monitoring approved by the state Water Quality Board.
The EPA's $2 million offer comes as an affront to New Mexico, which Flynn said recently scraped together more than $100,000 from an exceptionally tight budget to buy turbidity probes and other equipment for the spring runoff plan.
"We are a poor state, and we have some real stress on our budget because of oil and gas prices," Flynn said, "but this mission is critical to protecting our communities."
New Mexico and Utah have announced plans to sue the EPA for reimbursement and for compensation for damages caused by the Gold King Mine incident. But downstream communities can't afford to wait for the EPA to come through, Flynn said.
"Spring is coming. The snow is melting. The stream flows are increasing," he said. "The time is critical, and we need to move forward."