While the state’s environment department claims the Cimarrón River is “getting much closer” to conditions that existed before a fuel tanker crashed and leaked more than 1,000 gallons of gasoline into the river in December, signs of the spill are still abundant – from a closed state park to municipal water lines that haven’t yet turned on the tap.
The fuel tanker, owned by Texas-based Fronk Oil, slid off of U.S. 64 about 5 miles east of Eagle Nest and landed in the river just before noon Dec. 27, 2016. The tanker leaked approximately 1,100 gallons of diesel and unleaded gasoline into the water, according to the New Mexico Environment Department.
Fronk Oil, as the responsible party, hired D&H United Fueling Solutions – of Albuquerque – as a cleanup contractor, which arrived to the crash site at 9 p.m. the day of the spill. The contractor initially told the department the tanker only spilled 50 to 100 gallons of fuel.
Some oil-absorbent booms to contain and trap fuel were put in the river by Dec. 29, while the contractor’s excavator and vacuum truck worked to remove contaminated brush, dirt, water and ice from Dec. 30 to Jan. 1.
A fish biologist told the state game commission at a January meeting 300 dead fish and a dead beaver were observed in the river. The environment department visited the crash site again on Jan. 17, observing oily sheens, rainbows and an odor within 100 feet of the crash site.
Allison Majure, spokesperson for the department, told The Taos News April 3 the department continues to oversee cleanup efforts and that based on recent inspections, “We believe we are getting much closer to pre-spill conditions.”
But the spill continues to affect the area. Parts of the Cimarrón River are still closed to the public (mile marker 291 to Perryville Day Use Area of the Cimarrón Canyon State Park, as well as Horseshoe Day Use Area).
Some municipal governments still aren’t pulling water from the river.
The village of Cimarrón relies on the river secondarily, pulling water first from the local reservoir. The fact that the village cannot get water from the river won’t be an issue until “later on in the summer,” according to Leo Martinez, mayor of Cimarrón.
Springer also draws water from the Cimarrón River. The town’s municipal water system, which includes the 424-inmate Springer Correctional Facility, doesn’t usually begin getting water from the Cimarrón River until the first week of April. According to Laura Danielson, water superintendent, Springer is “doing OK” by pulling water from the local reservoir, but is expecting to switch the water system to the river pending approval from the state.
The city of Ratón has “two totally separate sources” of water — the Cimarrón River and Lake Maloya — according to Dan Campbell, Ratón’s water works manager. The latter supplies the city’s residents.
Yet the fuel spill still impacted some users, notably the C.S. Ranch and the Ted Turner-owned Vermejo Park Ranch, located adjacent to the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest.
“It was touch and go there for a while,” said Warren Davis, president of the C.S. Cattle Company, which currently has about 1,300 head of cattle. The ranch crew noticed in late January a number of stock tanks, fed by water lines from Ratón, weren’t filling up.
“We had to jockey some cattle around,” Davis said.
As the issue persisted, the ranch had to start coming up with contingency plans in the event its tanks were dry by calving season.
But the city of Ratón “came to bat” for the ranches by backfilling the stock tank lines with water from Lake Maloya — something that had never been done before in Campbell’s 26 years at the helm of the city’s water supply.
“It wasn’t routine. We had to look at drawings of the system to make sure we had the capacity,” he said.
Meanwhile, local fishing businesses are closely watching what happens with the river cleanup.
Van Beacham, owner of the Solitary Angler, leases private waters below Eagle Nest Lake, which is upstream of the crash site. Following the spill, the lake’s outflow was cut to the lowest levels he’s ever seen (“zero”), effectively drying up a nearly 1-mile stretch of river.
He’s sure the area will rebound once the lake’s outflow is increased and fish can start moving freely up and down the river again.
Wayne Thurber, owner of Dos Amigos Anglers, took a slightly more cautious tone. “Like with any spill like that, even though you feel like you’ve cleaned the area up, that’s not always the case. The stuff penetrates and hangs in there,” he said.
The river isn’t open for fishing this time of year anyway, but Thurber said his company, which is located less than 2 miles from the Cimarrón River, won’t start taking clients to the river until the state declares the area officially cleaned up and a decent volume of water flushes the mountain stream.
“The people who caused the spill need to be fully engaged to restore the river. I’m not a biologist, but I know river cleanups … usually take quite a while. They have to stay committed,” Thurber said.
This isn’t the first time the Cimarrón has been polluted with gasoline and taken a while to come back.
In October 1972, a tanker crashed and spilled approximately 7,000 gallons of diesel into the river, killing an estimated 18,500 trout and decimating the insect population. There was a 60 percent loss of fish even 12 miles below the spill. A monitoring effort found invertebrates rebounded in just a year, while the brown trout population only increased to half of its pre-spill numbers within three years.