The enduring threats of a 2015 spill - Society for Science Skip to content

The enduring threats of a 2015 spill

Every year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responds to over 100 oil and chemical spills in U.S. waters. When these spills occur, the damage to the local community and environment can be disastrous. Mckayla Gilbert, a high school student from Farmington, New Mexico, wanted to investigate corn growth along a section of the San Juan River impacted by the August 2015 Gold King Mine Spill in Upper Fruitland, NM. The spill negatively affected the waters of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.

The San Juan River merges with the Animas River and, during the spill, 3 million gallons of mine wastewater seeped into the Animas. After the disaster, farmers along the rivers were worried about the safety of the water — they weren’t sure if the water was safe to drink, to water their crops, or give to their animals.

The community depends on corn as a staple crop. Some farmers lost their entire harvest the year of the spill. A community’s livelihood is tied to research like that which McKayla is conducting.

“Chronic toxicity from long term use of the contaminated San Juan River for irrigation is a major concern.” said McKayla, “Exposure to heavy metals over time will eventually affect the environment and human health. Navajo farmers have been growing corn along the San Juan River, since their youth, and they will keep growing corn because that is how they make a living.”

She used Navajo Agricultural Products Industry brand corn as a control, since the water source that irrigates this corn was unaffected by the spill. Mckayla used a specialized plasma mass spectrometer, capable of detecting metals and non-metals at low concentrations. Her work is far from over.  Experiments so far act as just the baseline into further investigations of the effect of heavy-metal-polluted waters on the surrounding land.


McKayla’s research was selected by her local science fair for recognition as a Society for Science & the Public Community Innovation Award winner. This award honors students participating in science fairs around the world who are making a difference in their communities. In 2018, the Society rewarded 24 young scientists with $500 prizes — and Mckayla was one of them.

“This recognition gives me a lot of confidence about science research,” Mckayla said. “It gives me the confidence to approach professional researchers and scientists who work on similar studies.”

After presenting her research at Intel ISEF 2018, Mckayla was invited to attend the San Juan Water Conference to share her impacted corn project. She networked with hydrologists, chemists, geologists, and people who work for the state of New Mexico.

Mckayla plans to continue taking STEM classes, from forensics to biology, and major in neuroscience in college. She will continue her corn project as a long-range study, because it may help farmers.

Competing in science fairs and presenting research to judges helped Mckayla grow. “It helps me build confidence in presentation and delivery as a speaker,” she said. “I learn different experiments and methodologies scientists use to examine environmental problems, how to approach studies, and how to find solutions.”


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