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EPA releases mine waste into Colorado River

Pollution in the Animas River from mine

from the La Plata County Sheriff’s Department.

Cement Creek and the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, are running yellow tonight after an accidental release of mine waste. On Wednesday, Aug. 5, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was investigating contamination at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County. The work ruptured a dam that had been created by rockfall and released at least a million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek.

The water with dissolved solids has turned the creek and, downstream, the Animas River a bright yellow. Heavy rains in the area on Aug. 7 have added to the runoff. Initial tests suggest the release of large amounts of copper, lead and manganese in solution.

The EPA’s Gold King Mine Release Incident report currently states:

The large pulse of water dissipated in about an hour. Today the water in Cement Creek and the Animas River in Silverton is clearing. The adit (mine entrance) is still discharging lower flows into Cement Creek. Today, EPA is rebuilding settling ponds to treat these flows – the upper pond will be completed by early afternoon, and the lower pond by COB or early tomorrow. EPA will treat the mine water diverted to the ponds with caustic soda and flocculent once the ponds are built.

The EPA has brought in a specially equipped aircraft to fly from the New Mexico border to the mine to take photographs. Flight will continue as the agency assesses the movement of the pollution plume downstream.

On Aug. 6, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith closed the Animas River to watercraft for the entire length of the river within the county. The city of Durango, Colorado, draws drinking water from the Animas River and the Florida. “All pumping of raw water from the Animas River was discontinued” Aug. 5. City residents have been asked to reduce their use of water and to cease any outdoor watering until the city’s water supply has been fully restored.

On Aug. 8, the Southern Ute Tribal Government reported that the yellow plume was seen “at Weasel Skin Bridge (south of Durango).” The tribe does not obtain any drinking water from the Animas River. They urge members to stay away from the river and to keep livestock away from the river until it is found to be safe. The tribe and the EPA will be testing water wells along the river next week.

Today’s Denver Post describes the pollution:

An initial torrent tearing down from Gold King’s collapsed portal (elevation 11,458 feet) wiped out a Suburban — gray, now yellow – and ripped out trees and culverts as it raged into the main stem of the Animas. This raised the acidity of Cement Creek to a level (pH 3.74) comparable to black coffee, EPA officials said, and in the Animas below Silverton at a level comparable to orange juice or Dr. Pepper (pH 4.8). And it spread the mustard-yellow sludge.

According to the Post, the mine waste continues to flow into Cement Creek at the rate of 548 gallons per minute. The Cement flows into the Animas and the water from the Animas River will flow into the San Juan River and then into the Colorado River.

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