A million-gallon spill of toxic wastewater flowed from an old mine into the Animas River in Southern Colorado Wednesday, turning the waterway into a thick sludgy vivid orange and yellow and threatening human health and wildlife for miles.
The release occurred when Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers were using heavy machinery to assess pollutants at the Gold King Mine, about 55 miles north of Durango, Colo. The mine is the property of San Juan Corp. of Golden, Colo., but it has been inactive for several years.
The EPA has been monitoring the site for years without incident, but an apparent misstep made while it was investigating a contamination “unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water into the upper portions of Cement Creek,” a tributary of the Animas River.
Health and environmental officials are evaluating the water as it works its way south to Durango and New Mexico. The Animas River meets the San Juan River in Farmington, N.M., which joins the Colorado River in Utah.
Authorities are warning agricultural users who rely on the river to suspend irrigation, and recreational users are urged to avoid swimming, boating, fishing, and any other activities that involve contact with the contaminated water.
“There’s nothing that can be done to stop the flow of the river,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski told the Denver Post. “We can only wait until the flows slow down. We had a big heavy spring (of rain) here.”
The spill has water authorities in Durango on high alert. Steve Salka, Durango utilities manager, told the Denver Post that the city pulls water from the Animas River in the summer when Terminal Reservoir and the Florida River, its main water sources, run low. Mr. Salka told the Post that the contamination could cause serious problems for Durango.
The Animas is already so full of industrial pollutants that no fish live in it, and it’s uncertain what effect the contamination will have on the remaining life in the river. Authorities in Southern Colorado are warning people to keep their dogs, cattle, and other animals away from the river until it is deemed safe.