By Patrick Paul
On August 5, 2015, a clean-up crew operating under the supervision of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigating the source of water contamination at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colorado caused a spill of toxic wastewater, now estimated to be three million gallons, to flow into the Animas River, the largest tributary of the San Juan River. The spill, which has turned large portions of the Animas orange, was caused when EPA supervised teams using heavy equipment to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine near Durango. Instead of entering the mine and beginning the process of pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas River. The contaminated water apparently was hidden behind debris near the Gold King Mine entrance. Once disturbed, the mine waste poured into a nearby creek, eventually leading to the Animas River. Prior to the spill, metals-contaminated water was flowing into a holding area outside the mine.
EPA has long sought to designate the Gold King Mine area as a federal superfund site. It has not been so designated, but EPA nevertheless has engaged in remedial efforts designed to investigate sources of nearby contaminated water. The mine has been inactive since 1923.
According to preliminary testing data EPA released yesterday, arsenic levels measured in the Animas River in the Durango area peaked at 300 times the normal level, and lead peaked at 3,500 times the normal level. Those levels dropped significantly after the plume of contamination moved downstream. The EPA also revealed their test results—the mine water contains high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and aluminum. The bright orange color is attributed to the sediment. EPA supported the local sheriff’s decision to close the river to kayakers and tubers though no official health hazard has been declared yet. These metals pose a significant danger to humans in high concentrations. Durango also has stopped pumping water from the Animas into its reservoir. However, no injuries to workers or the general public have yet been reported.
The Animas flows into the San Juan in New Mexico which flows into Utah where it joins the Colorado in Lake Powell, a vital water source to the drought-impacted West.
Of necessity, EPA also is working with the New Mexico Environment Department to evaluate downstream impacts. It reports that its next steps include:
- Treatment of drainage at the mine site;
- Sampling of the Animas River corridor;
- Evaluation and publication of data;
- Coordination with State, Federal, Tribal and local officials as well as community members, landowners/water users; and
- Provision of drinking water and water testing to private well owners.