A toxic wastewater spill that has turned the Animas River in three states a mustard yellow color and is disrupting life in several Southwestern communities is now estimated to be three time larger than originally reported.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Sunday that three million gallons of wastewater from the old Gold King Mine, located a few miles southeast of Telluride, Colo., in San Juan County, were released from a debris dam that had formed inside the mine.
EPA cleanup crews who were working at the shuttered mine breached the dam with heavy machinery Wednesday morning, causing the release of heavy metal-laden wastewater that had accumulated over the course of several decades.
Test samples show the wastewater contains high levels of arsenic, lead, copper, aluminum, and cadmium. Officials in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah have expressed concerns that the spill could pose a long-term problem because the concentrations of metal would eventually settle on the bottom of the river where they would be stirred up again and again by future storms.
By Sunday the mustard-colored water stretched more than 100 miles from its origin, flowing through Durango, Colo., into the New Mexico municipalities of Farmington, Aztec, and Kirtland. By Monday, the spill had reached the Utah border.
The spill prompted La Plata County and Durango to declare a state of emergency. The Navajo Nation is working to keep residents informed of the pollution and advising residents to avoid contact with the water and to keep their pets and livestock away from it.
Authorities in Utah are planning to shut two wells that provide water to the town of Montezuma Creek, and a municipal water tank serving Halchita, Utah, was filled with clean water shipped in from Arizona. The City of Durango pulls some of its water from the Anima River, but it had stopped drawing from it before the wastewater reached the area.
EPA officials say it is too early to tell how extensive the environmental damage will be. The Animas River was already heavily polluted by acid mine drainage before the spill and had become barren of fish. Efforts to rehabilitate the river and reintroduce fish populations have been ongoing for years with little success.