September 11 - 17, 2003

Questa residents assured water is safe

Mine tailings used as bedding material for water supply system

By William Maxwell, The Taos News

Tests indicate molybdenum is present in the bedding material of a Questa water main.

A Village of Questa Public Works Department crew was performing routine maintenance Aug. 19 on a village water line. Village Administrator Brent P. Jaramillo was doing a routine check when he noticed that the water line was bedded in a sandy material which was not consistent with normal bedding sand.

The village administrator took a sample of the material and photographs and brought it to the attention of Mayor Charlie I. Gonzales. Gonzales ordered that tests be done on the material to determine its makeup.

The village received the results Friday (Aug. 29). The tests confirmed that the material contained molybdenum concentrations consistent with amounts found in mine tailings. This led village representatives to conclude that tailings may have been used for bedding material when the pipes were laid.

Marcus Rael Jr., the village's attorney, said Tuesday (Sept. 9) that mine tailings might have been used all over the village in the 1968 installation of a new water system.

The mayor called an emergency council meeting, during which he informed the council of the situation and his proposed plan of action. The mayor and council ordered that Rael set up a meeting with representatives of the Molycorp molybdenum mine near Questa, the New Mexico Environment Department, the Mining and Minerals Division and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

In order to ensure the safety of the village's citizens, the mayor and council also requested that the village counsel have samples taken from locations throughout the village. The sampling was ordered and 16 samples were taken Monday (Sept. 1).

The samples were taken from locations representing every branch of the village water system. Immediate results were ordered by the mayor and council in order to have them in time for the Sept. 3 meeting with Molycorp and the regulatory agencies. At the meeting the village shared the results of the samples taken of the village's water supply.

The two state agencies and the EPA advised the village that the levels of metals found in the drinking water samples were all below federal drinking water standards. However, they did note that there were no standards for molybdenum in the drinking water.

The EPA, however, has issued health advisories for molybdenum in drinking water in amounts greater than 40 parts per billion. The village samples all contain molybdenum at an average of 6 parts per billion, leading the state agencies and the EPA to inform the village that the water is safe to drink.

Rael said the highest molybdenum level found was 6.5 parts per billion.

The agencies and the EPA are developing a long-term testing program to monitor the molybdenum levels in Questa's water system.

Mark Purcell, with the EPA in Dallas, told local officials that he found no immediate health risk posed from the Questa drinking water supply, based on data provided by the village. He told them the situation needs to be evaluated further.

Based upon the lab results, village officials believe that the tailings have not infiltrated the water lines, and data indicates they will not do so in the foreseeable future, village officials said.

However, in order to forestall even the remote possibility of a break, the mayor and council have ordered Village Counsel Rael to work with Molycorp and the regulatory agencies to immediately ensure that the problem is addressed.

At the time of the installation, Molycorp, in a gesture of good will, offered and provided assistance in the installation of the water system for the village, according to a Village of Questa press release. At the time the pipes were laid, it is believed that the tailings were used as a soft bedding material for the pipes. The village had no knowledge of the tailings being used as bedding material, village officials said.

At the request of the mayor and council, Molycorp has agreed to respond to the village with an answer as to how they plan to work in conjunction with the village to remedy the water line situation. In addition, the mayor was scheduled to meet last week with the Rural Utilities Service Division of the federal Department of Agriculture in order to try to secure funding for the replacement of the water system.

"We are cooperating with the Village of Questa to fully resolve this issue," Bill Sharrer, Molycorp's vice president of environmental and public policy, said in a Sept. 3 press release. "After reviewing all of the data and consulting with state and federal agencies, we believe that the drinking water delivered to Questa homes and the system that supplies it are safe today. We will work with the Village to ensure that the water remains safe."

Rael said the village will arrange for and Molycorp will pay for water testing at people's homes, at no cost to residents. Call the village office at 586-0694.

© 2003, The Taos News. Reprinted with permission.

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