Monday, August 31, 2015

Water Quality: On the Scene after the Gold King Mine Spill

Interview with Ben Brown

On Wednesday, August 5, 2015, EPA contractors were clearing debris from the opening of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, when the blockage gave way, releasing 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River. Ben Brown, an environmental scientist in the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) Monitoring Section, was one of the first on the scene at the spill’s expected point of entry into Utah. 

How was the decision made to sample the river after the spill?

It wasn’t a question of whether the plume would reach Utah, it was more a question of when. DWQ Spills Coordinator Doug Wong had already arrived at the San Juan River on Friday, August 7th, but we needed more water scientists onsite to begin sampling. I consulted with Erica (Assistant Director, DWQ) about sampling locations late Friday night, prepped my truck and gear, went home, and headed to the river early Saturday morning.

How did you decide where to sample? 

We needed consistent sampling locations to accurately assess the impact of the plume on the river. We looked for sites that we had sampled before so we would have some historical data. We also chose sites that were fairly accessible and located spatially along the path the plume would travel so we could capture any impacts from the plume over time. Three of the four sites had historical DWQ data, and the fourth site filled the gap between the other sites.

What were you looking for? 

A couple of things. We needed sampling data before the plume arrived so we would have a baseline for comparison. The San Juan was really muddy from recent rains, so we probably weren’t going to be able to “see” the plume when it arrived. We tested the river’s pH since it would likely become more acidic once the plume arrived, and a change in pH at our sampling site at the state line could help us determine when the plume reached Utah. Mine drainage contains heavy metals, so we tested for total and dissolved metals and took sediment samples along with a few other general water chemistry tests. We did the chemical tests in the field, measured and recorded instantaneous field readings at the site, labeled the bottles, and kept them on ice for transport. 

What were some of the challenges?

Well, when you go out into the field in an emergency situation, you don’t know how long you will be there or how much equipment to bring. I took down a lot of sampling bottles, a cooler and ice to keep the samples at a consistent temperature, a hydrolab probe for real-time readings, a flow measuring device, safety-grade chains, a calibration solution, a pump to pump water for filtering, chemical tests for field evaluations, waders, gloves. Even with all that preparation, we still ran out of bottles because we were down there longer than we expected. Fortunately, my coworkers were traveling back and forth from Salt Lake constantly, so we were able to get supplies when we ran out.

Because the sites were fairly remote and spread out, we spent a lot of our time driving down rough roads simply to get to the sites. We visited the four sites two times a day, took samples, took photos of the site each time we sampled, prepped and processed samples, and checked the hydrolab probe. We had a lot of 12-hour days.

Communication was a real problem, because we were often out of cell range and reception was spotty at best. We had storm events while we were there, and the resulting flooding washed sediment from tributaries into the San Juan, complicating our sampling efforts and sampling results. On the upside, the high flows probably helped dilute the metals in the plume.

How did you get the samples back so quickly?

A DWQ scientist drove down each day, stayed the night, and another member of our monitoring crew would get up the next morning and drive back to Salt Lake so the lab would have the samples by early afternoon. We repeated this process for over a week. The Department of Safety offered us the use of their plane to fly samples up to Salt Lake, and that was a huge help.

What was the experience like for you?

I love that area of the state, and I’ve floated the San Juan many times on my own time. In fact, one of the reasons I was sent down to sample was my familiarity with the area. It certainly gave me a different perspective of the river, which I’ve seen running blue and clear this time of year. The storms carried a lot of sediment into the river, so it wasn’t what I expected.

The experience was exciting in many ways, and it gave me an opportunity to use my knowledge and monitoring skills to respond to an emergency situation. The team at DWQ did a great job coordinating the sampling and the arrangements for sample pickup, so I felt like we had the support we needed to get the job done. Overall, it was unique and rewarding experience, and I was glad I was a part of it.

For more information about the Gold King spill in Utah, visit DEQ’s Gold King Mine webpage.

I have worked in the DWQ Monitoring Section for 10 ½ years as an Environmental Scientist. My primary role is to coordinate statewide field sampling programs. Some of the key field projects I facilitate include the Utah Comprehensive Assessment of Stream Ecosystems (UCASE), National Aquatic Resource Surveys (NARS), Ambient Water Quality Intensive surveys, and the Fish Tissue Contamination Program. I have a degree in environmental studies with an emphasis in watershed science and a minor in wildlife biology from the University of Montana. I was born and raised in Utah and currently live in Kamas where I have plenty of access to enjoy the outdoors. Most of my time away from work involves being outside where I enjoy backpacking, hiking, rafting, skiing, hunting, snowmobiling, ice-fishing, camping, gardening, and landscaping. I feel very fortunate to have a job that lets me travel the beautiful state of Utah and gives me an opportunity to work on a wide array of water quality issues.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Water Quality: Walk a Mile in Someone’s Shoes

By: Jenny Potter


Working for the Division of Water Quality (DWQ) for the last two-and-a-half years as the office manager, I have been fortunate enough to work on several aspects of what we do here, including attending and preparing for board meetings, attending managers’ meetings and retreats, and helping get documents prepared and ready to be mailed out.

When it comes to the paperwork, I have a pretty firm idea of how and what we do. But looking at “why” has always been a question I could not actually answer. It takes “walking in someone else’s shoes” and seeing what it is like to protect this great state’s water. And I and my fellow office admins had that opportunity when we visited Willard Spur a few months ago.

If you look at the pictures, you can see it’s not a bad view at all for a day at the office! As I watched half of our team get on the airboat and head out to view Willard Spur, I was struck by how beautiful the water, the mountains, and the wetlands truly are. There were tons of tiny fish right near the shore, and we even had the chance to see pockets of fish eggs for the carp that live in the Spur. As I walked around and really looked at things, I saw another perspective of what we do here at DWQ.

Photo credit: Jenny Potter
As I stood there it hit me: this is what we do, this is what our team works so hard for, this is why we protect this amazing state we live in. Utah has so many amazing places, you literally just have to walk out your back door there are places just like this everywhere. I began to feel a sense of ownership in what I do for DWQ, that paperwork and those tasks that seem trivial aren’t trivial at all. The steps it takes to get a permit out, to protect water and species that live in the water — every single thing we do has an impact. From the monitors who check the water, the permit writers who get permits done, the staff in the office who make sure the paperwork is complete and accurate — all of it impacts how the waters are protected and how we serve our great state of Utah.

I was so proud to watch half of our team return from their trip out on the Spur, and see their faces of joy, because sitting behind a desk all day can become predictable and at times seem unimportant. Seeing how what we all do contributes to protecting these precious waters made each of us beam with pride — for the careers we have with DWQ, our dedication to our work, and how it truly does make a difference.

Next it was my turn to get out and see what the Spur was all about. I went out on the second ride, and as soon as the airboat was turned on I felt my view change for what I do for DWQ.

Photo credit: Jenny Potter
It was hot, very hot out there, and the temperature that day reached 100 degrees and climbing. We were there early enough that we didn’t hit the highest temps of the day, but I imagined the teams of men and woman who do this every day. I realized that my coworkers at DWQ have to go out to do their jobs no matter the time of year and face extreme heat and cold. They do it every day, no matter what, because they are dedicated to protecting the water and ensuring that we preserve this beautiful land for future generations.

Next time I sit at my desk to do the paperwork and prepare for a meeting, I will remember this trip that forever changed the way I view what our team does. We all have a stake in the differences we make in this amazing state, it doesn’t take much to pick up the garbage, keep things better than we found them, and make sure we are not dumping things into our water. Each step we can take help make the jobs of those protecting the water that much better. And I’m proud to be a part of it.

Want to learn more about what we do at DWQ? Visit our webpage to find out more about our programs to protect Utah’s waters.

Our DWQ admin team!
From left/top: Jenny Potter (Office Manager), Marsha Case (Archivist),
Ilene Staker (Office Tech). Left/bottom: Office Techs Ally Gagon,
Nicole Froula, and Paula Harvey. Photo credit: Lonnie Shull
I am the Executive Assistant for the Director or Water Quality (DWQ) as well as the division’s Support Staff Supervisor. I am a records officer and notary for the division, and I have been with DWQ for 2 years. Prior to working with DWQ, I worked for the Division of Child and Family Services and the Juvenile Justice System. I have a degree in Criminal Justice, but will have my BA in Business Management with an emphasis in human resources in the coming year. I love what I do, but love my family more, and anytime I can spend with them outside is time well spent. You can find me and my husband Jeremy and our children camping, hiking, fishing or any other outdoor recreational activity we can enjoy in our beautiful state!


Monday, August 17, 2015

Radon: Silent Killer Lurks in One Out of Three Utah Homes

By Jan Poulsen, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Radon levels by county
My name is Jan Poulsen, and I am a lung cancer survivor. I want to share my story in the hopes that it might prevent even one person from getting lung cancer.

We have all heard many times that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer. But did you know that the second leading cause of lung cancer is radon gas? Each year, approximately 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer, and about 22,000 of those die from radon-induced lung cancer.

I’m one of those people whose lung cancer was caused by exposure to high levels of radon in their home. In May 2007, I got a phone call from the doctor who had performed a biopsy on a mass in my lung. He said, “I am sorry to tell you that you have lung cancer, and it is inoperable. I would say you have about four months to live.”

Lung cancer? But I had never smoked!

I made an appointment with an oncologist, and the next thing, I knew, I was in the hospital about to have my entire right lung removed. I underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments following the surgery. It took some time, but I slowly got my strength back. I was found cancer-free after five years and released. Then, during my sixth year of remission, an MRI showed a very large tumor in the front of my brain and a smaller tumor in the back of my brain, most likely due to the spread of the lung cancer. I had brain surgery to remove the large tumor, and a month later had a radiation procedure, to remove the smaller tumor. I was in remission until last November, when I had to have the radiation procedure again to remove 6 more tumors from my brain. I am currently undergoing a new treatment that is working well for me.

Lung cancer is the “bad boy” of cancers. It is the deadliest of all cancers and kills more people annually than the next four cancers — breast, colon, pancreatic, and prostate — combined. People assume that if you have lung cancer, you must be a smoker, but that’s not true. There are no routine screenings for lung cancer, and many times there are no symptoms. So by the time it is detected, it is at stage 3 or 4 and has already spread.

So how does radon fit into the picture?

Photo credit:
Radon is a naturally occurring gas caused by the decomposition of uranium-bearing granite in our soil. It is all around us, but becomes dangerous when it becomes concentrated in our airtight homes. You can’t see, smell, or taste it, and unlike carbon monoxide, it does not make you sick immediately.

As I said earlier, my lung cancer was caused by radon gas. Shortly after my diagnosis, we had our home tested for radon. An earlier test when we bought the home came in at 2.2 pc/l. After a big remodel and digging a walk-out basement, our second test came back at 24.9 pc/l, six times the EPA-recommended action level! Apparently disturbing the soil and knocking out walls created new avenues for radon to enter our home. We had a mitigation system installed, which brought our radon level down to 1.7 pc/l.

The only way to know if your home is safe from radon is to test it. There is an easy short-term test that you can order from the Department of Environmental Quality. The kit costs about $8 and includes the processing fee. Just follow the directions on the package, leave it in your basement or lowest level of your home for two to four days, mail it in, and wait for the company to email you the results. If the level is higher than 4.0 picocuries/liter of air, you will want to contact a certified radon mitigation expert to do further testing or install a radon mitigation system.

Mitigation isn’t as expensive as you may think. It can typically can be done for $1500 or less. The cost of my lung cancer treatment to date is running upwards of $1.25 million, so mitigation is pretty cost-effective if you think about it.

So please test your home for radon. Preventing lung cancer is so much easier and less costly than treating lung cancer.

Please join me on Saturday, August 22nd for a 5k fun walk for LUNGevity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of lung cancer and funds for lung cancer research. The event takes place at Sugar House Park. Registration and check-in begin at 8:00 a.m. We will have lots of information about lung cancer and radon, a light breakfast, and a raffle with some amazing prizes! For more information, to register for the walk, or donate, go to

I am currently retired, but I spent over 20 years as a travel agent, and was a volunteer at school, church, and with the Cottonwood Heights Figure Skating Club. For ten years, I managed the only synchronized skating team in Utah. My husband is a pediatric dentist, and we have two grown daughters. No grandchildren, but three granddogs! I had to retire from the travel industry and my volunteer work when I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Now my mission is to again volunteer, but this time I hope to be saving lives by sharing my story about how radon has affected my life. I am a proud member of the Utah Radon Coalition and the Utah Radon Policy Coalition, and a local advocate and organizer for LUNGevity.