Spill controversy flows on: EPA rejects request for $6 million for spring-runoff preparedness plan

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Farmington, N.M. – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has rejected a request of roughly $6 million for a “Spring Runoff Preparedness Plan” developed in response to last fall’s disastrous Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River.

The denial was announced at a Gold King Mine Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting held April 25 at San Juan College.

NEW MEXICO ENVIRONMENT DEPARTMENT CHIEF SCIENTIST DENNIS MCQUILLAN

New Mexico Environment Department chief scientist Dennis McQuillan speaks to the Gold King Mine Citizens’ Advisory Committee on April 25 in Farmington, N.M. Photo by Waylon Plenty Holes.

Environmental agencies from New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Utes, and the Navajo Nation had requested the funding because they believe the current plan set forth by the EPA is not extensive enough, according to a March 23 letter addressed to the EPA.

“The objectives and monitoring as currently defined in EPA’s Post-Gold King Mine Release Incident: Conceptual Plan for Surface Water, Sediments, and Biology do not provide for ongoing timely reporting on water quality to inform decisions about public health or other uses of the river,” said the letter, which was signed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Environment Program, and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA responded to the request in an April 6 email stating that less than 8 percent of the funding will be currently made available because of what it called a lack of information in the work plan.

But in an April 21 letter to the EPA, the New Mexico Environment Department denies there is a lack of information, also stating, “instead of assisting us in devising an acceptable form to the plan […], the April 6 email only causes delays to the important work that needs to be completed in New Mexico right away.”

The spill occurred Aug. 5 of last year at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. EPA personnel and their contractrs accidentally destroyed a plug that was holding back wastewater trapped in the mine. Orange-colored water contaminated with heavy metals poured into Cement Creek and downstream into the Animas River. From there it traveled into the San Juan River in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

The EPA was castigated for not informing states and affected municipalities until the day after the spill, and although the agency took responsibility for the spill, it has also been criticized for its response.

Recently, the Silverton Board of Trustees and the San Juan County Commission approved a joint resolution seeking Superfund designation to help clean up the historic mining site. Previously, locals had resisted the designation because they feared it would hurt tourism.

The GKM Citizens’ Advisory Committee is made up of San Juan County stakeholders and citizens who serve to help communicate to the public the State of New Mexico’s long-term monitoring goals of the GKM spill. They also hope to tackle perceived transparency issues with the EPA.

“Part of the reason we have this committee is because the EPA is not responsive,” said one NMED official.

NMED chief scientist Dennis Mc- Quillan said that the spill will be monitored for at least a decade.

“This is outrageous. If I lived in a house and this was the back yard, I wouldn’t let my kids play in that and I’d get my kids tested for lead,” McQuillan said about the EPA’s claims that contaminants have washed out.

With spring runoff happening now, many citizens are concerned about the safety of their water.

“What are we to do?” asked rancher Sam Gonzales, calling the EPA’s response “criminal activity.”

“If this were any of us, we would be in jail if we caused a spill like this,” Gonzales said.

Jace Begay, a farmer and rancher from Shiprock, said that since the spill, he has to travel long distances to haul water. He feels that the reports concerning the spill focus mostly on the Durango and Farmington areas, neglecting the Navajo reservation residents.

The NMED said it did obtain permission from the Navajo Nation to perform testing on tribal lands as part of their ongoing monitoring.

Navajo Nation member and engineer George Baloo admits that even with his education and expertise, he would have difficulty reading all the reports because “[the data] is enormous” and will take time to analyze.

“If there’s any consolation to give you all, it’s that there are going to be some criminal indictments based on what happened with the blowout,” said Navajo Nation San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez, referring to a field hearing held by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on April 22 in Phoenix.

Upcoming events regarding the GKM spill include a two-day conference hosted by the New Mexico Water Resources Institute to “bring together academics, agencies, representatives, and community members and provide a forum for addressing concerns and questions over the Gold King Mine spill and the continuing monitoring efforts.”

The event will take place May 17-18 at the San Juan College in Farmington, N.M.

The next GKM Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting will be on May 23 at 5:30 p.m. at the SUNS Room located on the San Juan College campus.

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