NM EPSCoR Teams Study the Animas River Spill

Natalie Rogers August 31, 2015

NM EPSCoR is committed to the state of New Mexico, and we are no stranger to examining the effects of natural (or unnatural) disasters on water and the environment—for example, team members during our last grant were able to study the effects of the Las Conchas Fire on the Valles Caldera. This month, several people on the Uranium Team and the Geothermal Team have formed a collaboration among New Mexico Tech, University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University to research the long-term impact of the recent Animas River contamination from the Gold King Mine. Bonnie Frey, Uranium Team co-lead, wrote the following report about their experience.

I am writing you today to let you know about a collaborative effort on the part of several people in the EPSCoR community in response to the recent spill of mine-related contaminants along the Animas River.

Members of the Uranium Team (Dan Cadol, NMT, and Jose Cerrato, UNM) are collaborating with a member of the Geothermal Team (Laura Crossey, UNM), a former NM EPSCoR PI (John Wilson, NMT), and several new professors (Jesus Gomez-Velez, NMT; Andrew Luhmann, NMT; and Ricardo Gonzalez-Pinzon, UNM) to investigate how quickly a river recovers from the accidental release of contaminants into the system. The team has applied for an RAPID proposal with NSF and has been in communication with the New Mexico Environment Department, NMSU, the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, and Colorado University Boulder about their plans. The team has also contacted a colleague at Dine College and the Dine Environmental Institute about co-investigating resulting contamination along the San Juan River in the Navajo Nation.

Team members plan to bring samples to the analytical laboratories at their associated universities for analysis. These laboratories are also represented by members of the Uranium Team (Bonnie Frey, NMT / NM Bureau of Geology; and Abdul-Mehdi Ali, UNM). Some of the equipment to be used in the analyses were purchased with funds from past and present NM EPSCoR projects. 

The first trip of team members was made from August 17-18. The group included Dan Cadol and Jesus Gomez-Velez, both faculty members at New Mexico Tech, and University of New Mexico students Sumant Avasarala and Patrick McLee. They visited the Animas River for an exploratory field campaign, sampling seven sites actively used by EPA and strategically located to understand key controls of solute fate and transport in this river system. At each site, the team collected samples from surface water, shallow alluvial water, and sediments. The samples were delivered to two laboratories: (1) the Analytical Chemistry Lab at the NM Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources and (2) the Analytical Lab in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Dept. in UNM. Water samples are being analyzed for major and minor cations, anions, trace metals, and stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen. Sediments will be used for leaching and sequential extraction experiments.