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Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP

Utah waters tested as mine sludge approaches; impact unknown

By Dennis Romboy  |  Posted Aug 10th, 2015 @ 10:24pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — State environmental quality officials expect to have test results Tuesday from a stretch of the San Juan River contaminated with waste from a Colorado mine.

The Division of Water Quality posted a crew with a pH meter at the state line in southeastern Utah to collect metal samples and pH readings Monday, four times during the day. The pH readings of the water in those samples were "similar to normal background conditions," according to the division.

But the turbid water made it difficult for scientists to tell Monday whether the plume entered the state. The mustard-colored sludge that was so visible in Colorado the past few days has become diluted as it moved downstream.

The water quality division will receive test results Tuesday from samples taken over the weekend to serve as a baseline for comparison to any changes that might be seen once the plume mixes with the river water.

"We're kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now," said Donna Spangler, Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman.

Alan Matheson, the department's executive director, said the Environmental Protection Agency was slow to notify the state about the spill.

"We think the immediate impacts might be modest because of the dilution, but we're more concerned about the chronic impacts of having the heavy metals in the water," Matheson told KSL Newsradio.

Environmental impact

Meantime, those who make a living on the Colorado River system, of which the San Juan is a tributary, wonder not only about business but long-term effects on the ecosystem.

The EPA said the Gold King Mine spill is much larger than initially estimated. It now says 3 million gallons — not 1 million — of water laced with high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals poured into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado. Federal and contract workers accidentally unleashed the spill last week as they inspected the abandoned mine site.

As the Animas River begins to recede it reveals a sludge left behind just north of Durango Colo., on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, from the Gold King Mine spillage that happened on Wednesday north of Silverton Colo. Federal environmental officials say it's too early to know whether heavy metals that spilled into a river from a Colorado mine pose a health risk. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP)

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye declared a state of emergency and said he intends to sue the EPA over the massive release of mine waste.

Begaye called for the EPA to put an independent lab on the river for real-time monitoring of chemicals that might migrate into Navajo irrigation and public water systems. Navajo EPA also will conduct its own tests on the water and sediment quality.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority turned off water pumps to the small Utah towns of Montezuma Creek and Aneth in anticipation of the wastewater hitting the river Monday.

San Juan County trucked in 7,000 gallons of clean water for residents and livestock Sunday. It intends to provide water for at least of couple of days while officials determine the severity of the contamination.

"We're not sure how hazardous it is," said Kelly Pehrson, San Juan County administrator and emergency manager. "We hope the EPA and (Navajo Tribal Utility Authority) will give us word on how long we'll be doing this."

The Utah Division of Drinking Water on Monday said state-regulated water sources and systems should not be affected by the contamination because they don't take surface water directly from the San Juan River.

The Utah water quality division has monitoring instruments in the river measuring continuous pH levels at Montezuma Creek, Sand Island and Mexican Hat. It could not place an instrument at the state line.

New Mexico Environment Department engineers, technicians and scientists test the people's water on Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, at San Juan County's Lee Acres Sheriff's substation in Farmington, N.M. (Photo: Alexa Rogals, The Daily Times)

Division scientists were collecting water column samples at all four sites Monday, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. They intend to continue sampling until at least Friday.

The EPA has said the contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat. Experts and federal environmental officials say they expect the river system to dilute the heavy metals before they pose a longer-term threat, according to the Associated Press.

Stretches of the rivers would be closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses at least through Aug. 17, the EPA said.

The Animas River flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, and the San Juan runs into Utah, where it joins the Colorado River in Lake Powell. The plume is expected to reach the lake Wednesday.

The National Park Service asked people to avoid drinking, swimming or recreating on the San Juan River arm of Lake Powell, though it has not issued an alert for the entire lake.

Economic impact

John Wood, owner of Salt Lake-based Holiday River Expeditions, outfits trips on the Colorado and San Juan rivers during the summer, thought its season on the San Juan ended in June.

"The visual and the press of that kind of deeply devastated ecosystem in general, you could imagine what it does to people's perception of the Colorado River system right now," he said. "It has indirect impacts in the sense that as we cover this news, the Colorado River is not that well understood, especially in the scope of a national news story like this."

When people see stories that cover it as the Colorado River, they're less likely to book trips in general, said Wood, who has run Holiday River Expeditions for 36 years.

Some national news outlets have reported the plume would impact the Grand Canyon, but Wood said that won't be known for some time. Lake Powell sits between the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.

"It's just totally an unknown is what it amounts to. But I get that that headline pulls a lot more people into the story," he said.

"When you see a terrible-looking yellow river, I think human beings are impacted deeply by that. They start to get what degradation to a natural running river is," Wood said. "It's too bad that we can't show all the other smaller, less visual degradations that are going on to the Colorado River system because those, too, are happening all the time, and they ultimately impact our trips."

Wood said common sense tells him some of the heavy metals in the mine wastewater will eventually drop into backwaters and eddies, which are near campsites along the river-running routes. He said it wouldn't surprise him if people would be able to see that in the water as sediments settle out.


When you see a terrible-looking yellow river, I think human beings are impacted deeply by that. They start to get what degradation to a natural running river is.

–John Wood, Holiday River Expeditions


Bayley Hedglin, San Juan County Chamber of Commerce executive director, called the San Juan River one of the county's "bloodlines."

The spill, she said, has "definitely been a big concern," but so far hasn't had the negative impact the county worried it would. Hedglin said she is aware of one cancellation at a rafting company.

Mine wastewater is a problematic legacy of mining in the West, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

When mine water comes into contact with pyrite or iron sulfide that is exposed from mining activities, it reacts with the air and pyrite to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. This acid leaches other heavy metals, like copper, lead and zinc, from the rock. The toxic metals can collect in large pools inside the mines or leak into nearby waterways, according to the department.

Contributing: Dave Cawley, Nkoyo Iyamba

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