by Robert Sabie, NM WRRI GIS Analyst
In August 2015, an accidental release of three million gallons of water from the Gold King Mine sent a plume of heavy-metal-laden water down Cement Creek near Silverton, Colorado into the Animas River. The plume eventually flowed into the San Juan River and subsequently into Lake Powell. The impacted communities criticized the initial communication efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as national media published pictures of the yellow plume. Since the spill, the various entities involved in the response have put a strong emphasis on scientific transparency and communicating monitoring results to the communities. The three annual conferences hosted by NM WRRI have been part of the continuing outreach campaign to bring the various research groups and impacted communities together. Much of the communication is done by national, state, and local agencies; community-led stakeholder groups; and teach-in events.
Because scientific information is often not easily conveyed, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and researchers from the University of Arizona (UA) developed two separate risk assessments. For example, the UA Gold King Mine Spill Diné Exposure Project used a symbolic traffic light approach for identifying safe (green), caution (yellow), and unsafe (red) risk levels for water use based on ongoing water, plant, and soil sampling efforts. In addition to participating in workshops, staff from US EPA and NMED maintain websites with links to information, data, and response efforts.
Stakeholder groups provide regulatory agencies monitoring data and community input on how to move forward to improve water quality in the Animas and San Juan watersheds. Groups such as the San Juan Watershed Group, San Juan Soil & Water Conservation District, and the Mountain Studies Institute all conduct research and monitor the watersheds. These groups make their findings available on their respective websites and at community meetings. The information gathered by the organizations is critical to inform regulating agencies during the planning and implementation of reclamation efforts. A good example is the Citizens Superfund Working Group, which was established to provide citizen-developed goals to the US EPA throughout the cleanup process of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site (includes 26 mining-impacted locations within the mining district).
University researchers, along with agencies and stakeholder groups, continually host community teach-in events to present the most current results from the monitoring efforts. The events engage the general public and often generate detailed discussion of the remaining concerns. For example, at a recent teach-in event at the Navajo Shiprock Chapter House, community members asked researchers many questions about the risk of consuming crops grown within the watershed. A survey at the end of the meeting indicated participants found the teach-in very informative.
After the initial response efforts and the continued coordination of monitoring efforts, communication is becoming more effective, potentially resulting in an overall improved watershed as the abandoned mines along Cement Creek and the Animas are reclaimed.