Officials from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish said the Gold King Mine spill did not cause immediate damage to local fish populations but also cautioned that more work is needed to determine the long-term impacts the heavy metals released during the disaster could have on aquatic life.
Eric Frey with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said a lack of baseline data and pre-event comparisons have limited the conclusions monitoring efforts can draw.
The Farmington Daily Times reported on the monthly Gold King Mine Spill Citizens’ Advisory Committee meeting where Frey said samples taken shortly after the Aug. 5 spill showed the presence of heavy metals, such as aluminum and arsenic, in fish tissue but at levels far below the standards for human consumption. Further tests conducted in March showed toxin levels continued to drop. Frey attributed this decline, however, to the fact that fish are often dormant in the winter and less likely to take up contaminants through feeding and other activities. He said additional tests will shed more light on the issue.
The mine spill occurred when a crew from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) working to clean up abandoned mining sites near Silverton, CO accidentally triggered a blowout that released millions of gallons of wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers.
New Mexico has filed lawsuits against the EPA and two mining companies, as well as the state of Colorado for its involvement with the spill. Officials have claimed the disaster has damaged the reputation of the Four Corners, especially the region's fishing industry. The state Department of Game and Fish estimates sport fishing on the Animas River watershed brings in $1.6 million each year.
Despite scientific studies showing fish populations have not plummeted, images of an orange river will live long in anglers' minds.
"The color of the water is why this spill is so important," Citizen’s Advisory Committee member Norman Norvelle said at tonight's meeting.
Frey said his department still receives calls from people wondering if it's safe to fish the world-famous San Juan River near Navajo Dam, even though that stretch of the river was not contaminated by the spill.
To provide answers moving forward, Frey said the state will continue to conduct tests every six months as part of its long-term monitoring plan.
The efforts will essentially be the first of their kind. Frey said studies in the past have focused on mercury — the most notorious contaminant found in fish. But the 880,000 pounds of heavy metals, such as lead and copper, released from the Gold King Mine present new concerns.