Agreeing that collaboration is key, New Mexico environmental officials extended a hand in partnership to La Plata County during a Wednesday meeting about long-term water monitoring plans.
Four months after an Environmental Protection Agency-caused spill at the Gold King Mine in Silverton sent 3 million gallons of acidic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers, work continues for entities throughout the Four Corners. They want to establish long-term plans to monitor not only the impacts of the Aug. 5 spill but the long-standing issue of abandoned mine drainage and other pollutants affecting regional water quality.
On Wednesday, officials with the New Mexico Environment Department shared the state’s plan with La Plata County in an effort to open lines of communication. New Mexico has worked closely with the Navajo Nation and Utah stakeholders in the aftermath of the spill, but communication with Colorado has been minimal. “Monitoring plans will be separate but should complement one another,” said Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn.
New Mexico met with San Juan County officials in October, when the draft plan was released. It includes identifying the quality of water impounded in Upper Animas Watershed mines as well as mill tailings and waste rock that could discharge into surface water.
An $8 million price tag is pinned to the plan and will be carried out over a maximum five years.
Flynn dismissed the “strange dance” occurring between the EPA and Colorado over the state’s role in causing the spill.
“That’s a side show,” he said. “This type of work, the actual scientific work, is what everyone should agree on. All the other noise is not going to satisfy the public in the long run.”
New Mexico officials said the EPA should take a supportive backseat to local communities’ plans because the latter is closest to the issue and because they disagree with the federal agency’s selective presentation of water quality data.
“Our data has been comparable to EPA data,” Flynn said. “Our analysis and conclusions and how the data is presented are very different.”
That’s part of the reason Silverton prefers that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment take the lead on Superfund conversations. San Juan County and Silverton recently agreed to explore getting on the National Priorities List, which would make the area eligible for the federal funds.
New Mexico Environment Department chief scientist Dennis McQuillan disputed the EPA’s assurance that the watershed has returned to pre-spill conditions. New Mexico officials also disagreed with the agency’s focus on well testing as opposed to surface water.
The state expects to receive a geological report this month on the hyporheic zone, which is the top layer beneath a streambed where groundwater and surface water mix.
The impacts of runoff in the coming spring holds many unknowns. McQuillan said there are other contaminants at play in addition to sediment from the spill, such as natural gas and septic discharge. La Plata County is working on a water plan of its own, and is trying to finalize a cooperative agreement outlining response and cleanup goals with the EPA. County attorney Sheryl Rogers said after a recent conversation with federal officials that it seems unlikely that the agency is going to address groundwater, which has been an ongoing concern.
“They said they would hold themselves to a higher standard, and right now, the conversation is, ‘This background issue existed, and (Gold King) was a blip on the screen and nothing more,’” Rogers said. “I don’t know if that was consistent with early interpretations. Would any other polluter be able to not look at groundwater and include that in their monitoring plan?”
Going forward, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said she wants to explore the logistics of partnering with New Mexico with her fellow commissioners, and called for a unified Four Corners EPA region.
“I’ve been pushing the EPA for years to form a Four Corners region,” she told The Durango Herald. “(The Gold King) issue is a great example of the need for one. There are so many commonalities in this region, and we’re unique.”
Flynn also suggested a leadership meeting with stakeholders from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and native tribes to align water plans.
“In the end, we’ll either show, ‘Hey, this was not a big deal, or ‘there was this impact, and this is what we need to do.’”