Researchers find heavy metals along river after mine spill

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Before you go close icon
EPA Chief Answers Questions About Gold King Mine Spill


DENVER (AP) -- Researchers say they found scattered accumulations of heavy metals along a 60-mile stretch of riverbank in Colorado and New Mexico a month after the Gold King Mine wastewater spill and say that any potential threat to crops and livestock should be studied further.

David Weindorf of Texas Tech University and Kevin Lombard of New Mexico State University said they found patches of discolored sludge containing elevated levels of iron, copper, zinc, arsenic and lead along the Animas River from around Farmington, New Mexico, to just north of Durango, Colorado.

The concentrations of those metals were higher than at other sites they tested on the riverbank and on nearby irrigated and non-irrigated land, Weindorf said.

See more of the spill:

20 PHOTOS
Colorado river mine water spill
See Gallery
Researchers find heavy metals along river after mine spill
In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill. A crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the area near the abandoned Gold King Mine. Tribal officials with the Navajo Nation declared an emergency on Monday, Aug. 10, as the massive plume of contaminated wastewater flowed down the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah, which supplies much of the water to the Southwest. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE) 
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: The Animas River flows through the center of Durango on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Water flows into pits of mine wastewater below the Gold King Mine on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Kalyn Green, resident of Durango, stands on the edge of the river August 6, 2015 along Animas River. 'I come down to the river every morning before work.' said Green. 'The river in a sense of calm for me.' Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: People get their first look at the Gold King Mine wastewater that flowed into the Animas River August 7, 2015 at the 32nd Bridge. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVER TON, CO - AUGUST 7: Water runs through the land that was damaged by the mine wastewater spill August 7, 2015 along Animas River. A crew from Environmental Restoration is on the scene and is flushing water over the land and doing construction on the site. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Mack Goshorn, from Loveland, looks out over the city of Durango on August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Goshorn, a resident of Durango from 1941 to 1955, came back to the city for a funeral of a high school friend. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: The Animas River flows through the center of Durango on August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater pours out of pipes August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
A warning sign from the city is displayed in front of the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater washes up on shore August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Travis Sells, of Farmington, N.M., looks at the orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flowing past Berg Park in Farmington Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
SILVERTON, CO - AUGUST 7: Mine wastewater empties into pits below the mine August 7, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 8: Trisha Rickey sits near the shore of the Animas River after taking pictures of the river August 8, 2015. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Onlookers view the Animas River from a bridge as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
Ducks wade in the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 8: Abby Leatherman and Clifford Field work on cleaning a boat that is done for the season August 8, 2015 at Mild and Wild. Three of the 38 guides that are employed at Mild and Wild showed up for work today since all recreational use on the Animas River has been halted since the spill. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 6: Residents wait as water comes back in anticipation of the mine wastewater coming downstream August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DURANGO, CO - AUGUST 6: Residents sit on the edge of the river while waiting a glimpse of the mine wastewater that spilled into the river earlier in the day August 6, 2015 along Animas River. Over a million gallons of mine wastewater has made it's way into the Animas River closing the river and put the city of Durango on alert. (Photo By Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

None of the high readings was found in ditches that carry irrigation water to crops, Weindorf said. Irrigation systems along the Animas were closed before the mustard-colored plume of tainted wastewater drifted downstream after the Aug. 5 blowout at the Gold King in southwestern Colorado.

About 3 million gallons of wastewater rushed out of the mine after a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently breached a debris dam at an entrance to the mine.

The water tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The EPA has been sharply criticized for causing the blowout and for being slow to notify downstream users, including the Southern Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation.

The EPA has said its tests of water and sediment show concentrations of metals have returned to pre-spill levels, but it's not clear whether the agency tested the same areas Weindorf and Lombard did.

EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said the agency will review the researchers' findings. She said the EPA plans its own long-term monitoring project and has asked the affected states and tribes for their input.

Weindorf described his and Lombard's work as a pilot study and said he didn't want to cause undue alarm, but he believes soils need to be tested over the long term. Over time, the metals they found along the riverbank could be washed into the river, get into irrigation ditches and gradually build up in the soils of land used to grow food and to graze livestock.

"There's a risk those metals could work their way into our food chain or the food chain for animals. That's why we want to do this long-term study," he said.

Weindorf and Lombard have asked the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to fund a three-year study that would closely monitor five or six sites along the river. He estimated it would cost $750,000 to $1 million. No decision has been made.

Weindorf and Lombard conducted their pilot study Sept. 1-3.

Lombard, who works at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Farmington - where the Animas joins the San Juan River - said researchers also took soil samples from irrigation ditches before the polluted plume passed to compare with future tests.

Weindorf and Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, questioned why the discolored material wasn't removed by cleanup crews.

"They need to get out there and remove soil that's contaminated," Begaye told a U.S. House committee hearing Thursday.

Asked about that kind of cleanup, the EPA said it doesn't anticipate any human health problems from contacting or accidentally ingesting river water, and that the risk to livestock was low.

Colorado officials believe risks are low for most human exposure and don't warrant removing sediment, health department spokesman Mark Salley said.

The department advised avoiding any contact with discolored sediment and water and washing after any exposure.

The New Mexico Environment Department hasn't reviewed Weindorf and Lombard's findings but believes contaminated sediment is one of the more serious risks, spokeswoman Allison Majure said. New Mexico plans its own long-term monitoring.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.

From Our Partners