Monday, August 10, 2015

EPA mistakenly releases toxic mining waste into the main river of southwestern Colorado

EcoFlight photo of spill in Durango, via The Durango Herald
The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine at Silverton, Colo., into the Animas River, yellowing it all the way to New Mexico, "meaning about six Olympic-size swimming pools of wastewater came downstream" in "the region's most important waterway," Chase Olivarius-Mcallister, Mary Shinn and Shane Benjamin report for The Durango Herald. The EPA's latest estimate of the size of the spill is three times what the agency first estimated.

The spill began around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday when a crew working for the EPA used heavy equipment to enter the suspended Gold King Mine to investigate pollution and gradually release it but went too far, CNN reports. Durango lawyer Richard Ruth said at a public meeting Sunday that the spill was inevitable: “The problem is a historical one, with the mines north of Silverton continually discharging toxic water into the Animas. The EPA was trying to dam up one of the mines, the dam failed, and anyone who’s worked in construction can understand that.”

The Animas is a popular kayaking stream.
(Durango Herald photo by Jerry McBride)
EPA estimated Sunday that lead and arsenic levels in the river through Durango were up to 3,500 and 300 times the normal levels, respectively. "Officials said those levels have dropped significantly since the plume moved through the area," report Steve Garrison and Joshua Kellogg of The Daily Times in Farmington, N.M. "The mine continues to discharge 500 gallons per minute, EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath said in a teleconference call Sunday afternoon, but the polluted water is being contained and treated in two ponds by the site of the spill."

"The EPA confirmed it is seriously considering declaring parts of Silverton a Superfund site," the Herald reports. "For two decades, the town of Silverton has resisted the EPA’s attempts to make parts of its mining basin Superfund sites—though U.S. Geological Survey scientists have said the heavy metals flowing out of its mines and into the Animas River constitute the worst untreated mine drainage in the state—arguing the designation would hurt the town’s reputation. . . . Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said Sunday he plans to file a lawsuit against the EPA as a result of damages to the nation’s water supply." EPA said it expects no lasting effect to human health. "EPA and the New Mexico Environment Department said they will test private domestic wells near the Animas to identify metals of concern from the spill," CNN reports.

UPDATE, Aug. 11: "The EPA has said the contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat. Experts and federal environmental officials say they expect the river system to dilute the heavy metals before they pose a longer-term threat," Susan Montoya Bryan and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press report. "Dissolved iron in the waste turned the long plume an alarming orange-yellow - a look familiar to old-time miners who call it 'yellow boy' - so 'The water appears worse aesthetically than it actually is, in terms of health,' said Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines."

UPDATE, Aug. 12: Ranchers and farmers are looking for alternative water sources, Noel Lyn Smith and Hannah Grover report for the Times. Lucy Lujan told the newspaper that she fears losing a corn crop that she was going to sell to pay for her grandson's college tuition: "You don't realize how much you rely on irrigation water."

No comments: