Three million gallons of bright orange wastewater has spilled from an abandoned mine in Colorado, after Environmental Protection Agency efforts to contain the mine’s toxic water went awry last week.
According to the EPA’s onsite coordinator, a team was working to “investigate and address contamination” at a nearby mine when they unexpectedly triggered the spill from the Gold King Mine, which is still pumping 500 gallons of contaminated water per minute into the Animas River, near Silverton, Colorado.
Mine waste from the Gold King Mine filling the Animas River at Bakers Bridge heading down river to Durango. pic.twitter.com/LOiTulZteA
— jerry mcbride (@jerryphotog) August 6, 2015
The EPA has been trying for years to get some areas around Silverton declared a Superfund site — a designation which would direct federal funds toward cleanup — but the agency has been met with local resistance.
The mountains of Colorado are riddled with more than 23,000 abandoned mines, according to the Colorado Geological Survey, and prior to 1977, mining companies could just walk away from the sites, leaving behind dangerous situations.
When a mine is dug, eventually, it will hit water, geologists say. Water then seeps into the abandoned mine, slowly filling it and dissolving toxic metals, such as arsenic and lead, which occur naturally in the surrounding rock. Mines, like the one the EPA was trying to address, then leak the water into nearby waterways. But since mines tend to be connected via underground water, stopping a leak in one place meant addressing the potential for overflow at Gold King.
“It was known that there was a pool of water back in the [Gold King] mine, and EPA had a plan to remove that water and treat it, you know, slowly. But things didn’t go quite the way they planned and there was a lot more water in there then they thought, and it just kind of burst out of the mine,” Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group told local NPR affiliate KUNC.
According to the the EPA, the previous contamination meant that water in the river was already “likely toxic to all trout species, with the exception of brook trout. Brook trout living in this reach… are likely stressed much of the year.”
Butler said he thought the EPA was doing a “reasonable” job, but the agency has been roundly criticized for its handling of the spill.
The EPA’s initial response underestimated — by two million gallons — how much water was going to be released, and critics said the agency was trying to suggest that the additional toxins weren’t a big deal. “Due to current and longstanding water quality impairment associated with heavy metals there are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed and populations in the Animas River have historically been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton,” the EPA said in a statement on Aug. 5.
Environmental groups called foul on this response, saying that just because animal populations are already affected does not mean that increased toxins aren’t a serious problem.
“Endangered species downstream of this spill are already afflicted by same toxic compounds like mercury and selenium that may be in this waste,” Taylor McKinnon, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “These species are hanging by a thread, and every new bit of toxic exposure makes a bad situation worse. EPA’s downplaying of potential impacts is troubling and raises deeper questions about the thoroughness of its mine-reclamation efforts.”
The toxic mineral flow in the Animas River made it to Durango city limits after dark on Thursday night. pic.twitter.com/v6fJJWUBev
— jerry mcbride (@jerryphotog) August 7, 2015
The Governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, told USA Today that her state learned about the spill from Southern Ute Tribe officials.
“It’s completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately,” she said.
The spill of bright orange water had reached New Mexico as of Sunday.
The EPA apologized on Friday for its response. “Our initial assessment of it was not appropriate in that we did not understand the full extent of what we were looking at,” said Shaun McGrath, the regional administrator for the EPA, at a public meeting.
“Some of our earlier comments may have sounded cavalier about the public-health concern and the concern for wildlife,” McGrath said. “I want to assure you that the EPA absolutely is concerned.”
The Navajo Nation has declared a state of emergency, and local farmers are not able to irrigate or water livestock with water from the river.