New Mexico Departments Lift Most Precautions Related to Toxic Waste Spill

Aug. 17, 2015
The precautions were put in place following an Aug. 5 toxic waste spill into the Animas River

The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has lifted several precautions it put in place following the Aug. 5, 2015 Gold King Mine Spill into the Animas River. NMED has lifted the precaution against using domestic well water in the floodplain, and the bans on the county’s drinking water systems’ supply connection to the Animas and San Juan Rivers, public recreational use of the rivers, and drawing canal or river water into ditches in the county also have been lifted.

“Alarming levels of lead, cobalt, cadmium, arsenic, iron, manganese and other heavy metals were evident in the initial pulse of contamination at Cement Creek and the Upper Animas River,” said Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. “With Gov. Martinez’ leadership and Executive Order declaring emergency, the state team immediately mobilized to create and communicate safety precautions for New Mexicans barring river and well water use, while we simultaneously worked to collect surface and well water samples in San Juan County.”

On Friday Aug. 7, NMED began collecting water chemistry and other data from the rivers immediately following the state’s Aug. 6 notification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the approach of contamination from the Gold King Mine Spill. Sampling and analysis continued throughout the following days. The data show that all levels of contamination related to the Gold King Mine spill are below all applicable state water quality standards including those established to protect human health.

The geochemical and water‐level data collected by NMED provide no evidence that private water wells are at risk of contamination from the mine waste in the river. The state’s environment and health departments, along with EPA, continue to assess the full impact that the Gold King Mine Spill will have on New Mexico.

“Due to New Mexico’s rapid response, and collaboration with the EPA we are today able to lift the prohibition against using well water from Animas floodplain wells,” Flynn said.

Flynn, along with Game and Fish Department Director Alexa Sandoval, and Health Department Secretary Retta Ward, also lifted the ban on San Juan County’s drinking water systems’ supply connection to the Animas and San Juan Rivers and on the public’s recreational use of the rivers with certain prudent health practices.

Recreational users of the Animas and San Juan rivers may notice some discoloration in the sediment along the river banks due to the spill. While there is continuing concern by New Mexico officials for long‐term river health and for that of aquatic life, the environment and health departments do not anticipate adverse human health effects due to exposure to contaminated sediment during typical recreational activities.

The departments recommend that the public may use the rivers with the following prudent health practices when contacting sediment and surface water as recommended by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease registry:

  • Do not drink untreated water from the river.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with the sediment and surface water.
  • Avoid contact in areas where there is visible discoloration in sediment or river water.
  • Wash clothes after contact with sediment and surface water.

“As the Animas River re‐opens, I strongly urge all New Mexicans to follow some basic recommendations when using any rivers or lakes for recreational purposes,” said Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Retta Ward, MPH. “The recommendations include wearing suitable clothing, using safety gear and immediately showering and towel drying after getting out of the water. Take extra care not to ingest surface water. When you consume untreated water from surface sources, you run the risk of ingesting harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses and other potential contaminants.”

Along with recreational use, catch-and-release fishing is also recommended at this time “The department suggests that anglers practice catch and release of fish in the Animas and San Juan Rivers that have been impacted by the spill,” said Alexa Sandoval, director of New Mexico’s Game and Fish Department. “Until Game and Fish can determine the level of contamination in the fish, we are strongly recommending that anglers not eat the fish they catch. We are working to determine the level of contamination in the fish and we will notify the public of the results of our tests.”

Flynn, along with Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte, and State Engineer Tom Blaine, initiated the plan to flush irrigation ditches, in order to reduce the Gold King Mine Spill’s potential contamination effects on San Juan County’s crops and livestock.

“We encourage San Juan County Ditch Superintendents to start flushing ditches immediately. Flush from the diversion to the first sluice for 12 hours. All head gates should be closed and only return gates should be open during this flushing operation,” Blaine said. “Twelve hours following flushing, normal irrigation and livestock watering operations may resume.” 

Source: New Mexico Environment Department

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