August 14, 2015

What reporters on the ground are hearing about Animas River spill

Photo of Gold King Mine spill results. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency.

As the Animas River spill continues to get national attention, New Mexico Political Report reached out to two reporters for an on-the-ground look at the disaster.

Entrance to the Gold King Mine. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency


Entrance to the Gold King Mine. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency

It started with a breach of the Gold King Mine by a team working for the Environmental Protection Agency, sending a plume of orange pollution down the river and eventually into three states and through the Navajo Nation.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor with High Country News and he previously owned and edited the Silverton Standard & The Miner and wrote about the Animas River spill. Tristan Ahtone is a freelance journalist who reported on the spill’s effects on the Navajo Nation for Al Jazeera America.

The two spoke to New Mexico Political Report over the phone on Thursday afternoon.

“There’s a lot of heartbreak and just kind of sadness around it by sure,” Thompson, who lives in Durango, Colo., said.

The river that is normally filled with residents and tourists on rafts is instead empty—and the companies that make money by guiding tours down the river or renting rafts are struggling in the town that depends on tourism.

“I’ve heard estimates that one of the biggest rafting companies could lose up to $150,000 to $200,000 during the shutdown depending on how long it lasts,” Thompson said.

The economic problems on the Navajo Nation from the shutdown of the Animas River are different, but no less serious.

Photo of Gold King Mine spill results. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency.

Photo of Gold King Mine spill results. Photo via Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ve got 27,000 acres of farmland now [without] water,” Ahtone said.

Farmers and ranchers on the nation’s largest reservation are working on emergency plans to keep their crops and livestock alive.

Ahtone sat in on meetings in the Upper Fruitland chapter earlier this week. He said they were discussing a “massive” emergency plan. These including pulling in large water storage tanks and moving livestock to safe pens to protect them from the pollution.

Waivers concern Navajo leaders

Ahtone said one issue that is big on the Navajo Nation is over waivers that the EPA was reportedly handing out. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the EPA to stop handing out the waivers, according to a report by Ahtone for Al Jazeera America.

From Ahtone’s report:

“My interpretation as president of the Navajo Nation is the EPA is trying to minimize the amount of compensation that the people deserve,” said Begaye. “They want to close these cases and they don’t want more compensation to come later.”

The EPA did not return requests for comment.

“I haven’t heard that this is going on in any other communities outside Navajo Nation,” Ahtone said, adding he thinks this makes it “suspect.”

The EPA called the “Form 95” waivers “standard” in a posting about the Gold King Mine spill. But after the spill, there is little trust in the agency.

EPA communication lacking

One thing that both Durango and Navajo Nation residents agree on is that communication from the EPA is lacking.

Ahtone noted that the EPA didn’t inform the state of New Mexico until 24 hours after the breach of the mine caused by a team working under the federal agency. The Southern Ute Tribe ultimately was the one to tell the state about the spill.

“That level of communication has everybody frustrated and angry,” Ahtone said.

The slow pace of reporting test results of elements in the water of the Animas River is also a concern.

“They’ve been really slow at getting water quality samples back and the data back and when they do get it back, they are not interpreting it at all,” Thompson said. “They don’t even give what the drinking water standards are or the recreation water standards. They don’t interpret it at all.”

Thompson did say that Durango was likely a more EPA-friendly place than other areas impacted by the spill.

Still, he said, “There is some frustration there.”

“This is not anything new”

Thompson noted that such blowouts aren’t exactly new to the area—just normally not this large.

When he ran the paper in Silverton, he said it was a pet project to look at “acid mine drainage.”

“That three million gallons of water would have ended up in the river anyway, either at a rate of about 300 gallons per minute—the discharge from the mine—or when the dam eventually broke, as it surely would have,” Thompson said. “There’s a constant, slow-motion mine spill going on every day, and has been going on for over a century.”

And this is just one abandoned mine of thousands that dot the mountains of the Southwest.

Of course, a large orange plume and the national attention means that his pet project is now on the front-burner for many in the region.

Next steps unclear

Which brings up three syllables that are controversial in the area: Superfund.

“I would think this would provide an impetus for Superfund designation which would bring all kinds of resources for cleanup,” Thompson said. “Which could be a great thing, it could be bad I suppose.”

Those upstream, in Silverton, have long opposed a Superfund site because of the impact it could have on tourism, which is a key part of the Silverton economy.

As for what is next for those downstream in the Navajo Nation, they are in a wait-and-see mode, waiting for the all-clear from the EPA according to Ahtone.

“The impression that I get is that everybody—not just the Navajo Nation—everybody is waiting for the EPA to release some sort of results or give some sort of guidance.”

Every discussion on the mine seems to end up back discussing the EPA.