#AnimasRiver: Roles of EPA and Other Responders After the 2015 Gold King Mine Release

From the Environmental Protection Agency:

How is EPA Responding?

EPA is committed to working closely with response agencies and state and local officials to ensure the safety of citizens, respond to concerns and to evaluate impact to water contaminated by the spill.

Staff Deployed

  • EPA has deployed ten On-Scene Coordinators in Silverton, Durango and Farmington, New Mexico. Water quality experts and several technicians and contractors will respond to the discharge as it reaches communities in New Mexico.
  • Two Public Information Officers (PIOs) are also on site in Durango at the Joint Information Center (JIC).
  • In EPA’s regional office in Denver, there are 21 employees and one contractor providing support services to the response.
  • Several incident management team positions are being deployed to Durango.
  • Two Community Involvement Coordinators (CICs) were deployed to Farmington on August 9 and will meet with local Navajo chapter officials and host public meetings. The CICs will also partner with Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA) and Navajo Department of Public Safety to ensure comprehensive outreach to all affected Navajo chapters.
  • We have tapped into several contracting mechanisms to provide support for the response, which includes water quality sampling, drinking water and agricultural water distribution as well as construction and maintenance of the water treatment ponds.
  • Water Monitoring, Sampling and Data Collection

    EPA teams are deployed throughout the Animas River corridor collecting data. We collected water quality samples from nine locations in the river near intakes for Aztec, Farmington, Lower Valley Water Users Association, Morning Star Water Supply System and the North Star Water User Association. Each of these locations will continue to monitor as the release makes its way past these areas. Our Mobile Command Post arrived in Farmington on August 9. At the request of New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED), we are sending additional scientists and technicians to New Mexico to assist with water quality monitoring, sampling and outreach.

    Collection, transport and lab analysis of metals in water is complex and time consuming. Workers at the lab and data experts are working continuously to evaluate and summarize the data.

    The incident, which occurred on August 5, caused a spike in concentrations of total and dissolved metals as the contaminated mine water moved downstream. These concentrations began to trend toward pre-event conditions in the vicinity of the spill by the following day. We continue to monitor river conditions at multiple locations to detect trends. Rain events and variations in stream flows can cause the pH and metals concentrations to rise and fall. EPA is working with state and local government officials to determine when to reopen both drinking water intakes and open the river for recreation.

    The contaminant plume is depositing sediments and we are beginning to assess the impacts of the sediment.

    Mine Discharge Treatment

    We are treating the mine water in a series of settling ponds constructed near the portal. The treatment appears to be effective. We are raising the pH (acidity) of the water with the addition of lime and sodium hydroxide solution to facilitate sedimentation of the metals in the ponds. We are adding flocculant agents (used in water treatment processes to improve the sedimentation or filterability of small particles) to increase the amount of sedimentation. The treated water that is being discharged to Cement Creek has a pH of 5.5.

    Aerial Observation to Determine Extent of Release

    EPA’s ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology) plane observed that the conditions from Farmington to Durango show improvement. While the San Juan River remains discolored, the leading edge of the contaminant plume is no longer visible. These visual observations are a useful indicator, however, water quality data will provide the definitive information about river conditions. Learn more about ASPECT.

    Coordination among EPA Offices and with State, Local and Tribal Governments

    EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, which is responsible for the implementation of our programs within Colorado, Utah and other Rocky Mountain states, is working in close coordination with:

  • EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, which implements our programs in New Mexico and other South Central states,
  • EPA’s Region 9 offices in San Francisco, which implements our programs in Arizona and in other Southwest states,
  • the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah,
  • the Southern Ute tribe and the Navajo Nation, and
  • San Juan County, City of Durango and Town of Silverton.
  • Outreach and Communication

    EPA is sharing information as quickly as possible with the public as experts work to evaluate any effects the spill may have on:

  • drinking water,
  • public health,
  • agriculture,
  • fish and wildlife.
  • For more details, see the section below, and our regular updates on the response, which will be published as they become available.

    Which Other Organizations are Involved in the Response?

  • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – USGS measured increased flows using a stream gauge for 6+ hours on August 9. This resulted in a provisional calculated flow volume of 3,043,067 gallons discharged from the Gold King Mine. EPA’s original estimate of one million gallons discharged from the Gold King Mine was based on an estimate of the size of the adit. A stream gauge is an instrument that measures volume by measuring flow, which is much more precise.
  • U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – we are coordinating with ATSDR in response to public health concerns/questions associated with the mine waste plume. ATSDR has been in communication with local health officials at San Juan Basin Health in La Plata County (Durango) and the San Juan County Health Department in Silverton, Colorado. Public health questions/concerns should be directed to Chris Poulet, ATSDR/R8 at 303-312-7013.
  • New Mexico Environment Department – we are working closely with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to evaluate possible impacts in New Mexico. Potentially impacted water systems have been notified and precautions are in place to ensure drinking water in homes is protected. With NMED, we are providing free water quality testing for private drinking water well owners in the affected area as well as providing water quality monitoring for the five drinking water systems with intakes from the river.
  • Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office has been monitoring the effects of the spill on terrestrial and aquatic wildlife since the incident began. CPW is watching for any impacts on wildlife, whether they are acute or chronic. Fish are especially sensitive to changes in water quality. CPW is also monitoring a control station on a clean tributary. The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment is assisting with drinking water concerns. They indicated they are optimistic that the effects of the spill on terrestrial wildlife will be minimal.
  • Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs – Our Region 9 office in San Francisco is working with the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The discharge has moved quickly and is in the vicinity of the Navajo Nation boundary, near Kirtland, New Mexico. Navajo officials have reacted quickly, assessing their well fields and drinking and irrigation water intake systems and issuing a precautionary “do not use” public service announcement regarding water from potentially impacted sources. The Navajo EPA surface water monitoring program (Shiprock office) collected water and sediment samples from the San Juan River, prior to the impact of the release. Region 9 provided two contractors and four additional personnel to coordinate and conduct increased sample collection and lab analysis.
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