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Utah continues to monitor effects of massive Gold King Mine spill

SALT LAKE CITY — No one is quite sure how the long-term effects of the massive Gold King Mine spill will continue to play out in Utah's San Juan River or Lake Powell, but monitoring will persist for years and years.

Erica Gaddis, the newly appointed director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, briefed a committee of lawmakers on the situation during a Tuesday hearing, detailing that 540 tons of heavy metals now rest at the bottom of Lake Powell.

Testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revealed that the heavy metal concentrations had all been flushed to Lake Powell by last July, carried along by the currents in the San Juan River.

Gaddis, who assumes her new role next Monday, said metals such as copper, zinc and aluminum tested above federal standards in 2015 in aquatic life in more than 150 samples. By 2016, only aluminum remained — with counts that exceeded the standard in 126 samples.

The breach of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, happened Aug. 5, 2015, after an EPA official and a contractor on site for remediation attempted to drain ponded water. An estimated 3 million gallons of water and 540 tons of heavy metals left over from the mining operation flowed into the Animus River, moved into the San Juan River and wound up in Lake Powell.

The mine breach area has since been declared a Superfund site, which expedites federal response for monitoring and remediation.

Gaddis told members of the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee that Utah, the three other states impacted and Native American tribes are working together to monitor long-term impacts.

That task is complicated given the extent of legacy mining operations in the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado, where there are 48 historic mines near Silverton.

Gaddis pointed out that over the last decade, it's estimated there has been 877 million gallons of water released, with 8.6 million tons of tailings generated from the life of those mines

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has been reimbursed by the EPA for nearly $464,000 in costs in the initial response and another $212,000 in costs have received preliminary approval by the federal government.

Gaddis said about $20 million has been appropriated by a congressional act to help Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Native American tribes with long-term monitoring.

Utah is also keeping its options open for any potential litigation against the EPA regarding the spill, she added.