The Environmental Protection Agency has admitted fault and apologized for accidentally spilling more than three million gallons of contaminated water from an abandoned mine shaft into Colorado’s Animas River on August 5th. This mine spill has leaked arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc, copper, and many other contaminants from the former Gold King Mine shaft into the river that flows south into New Mexico.Last week’s spill came when an EPA team was investigating a 200-gallon per minute leak at the Gold King Mine and working to install a pipe to drain rising water and ultimately slow the leak. Unfortunately a loose dirt barrier led to over three million gallons of toxic water exploding into the river. The EPA workers did not expect the water to be so high, meaning that the pipe wouldn’t have worked anyway.
As the toxic plume continues to flow at a rate of five miles per hour, Colorado, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation have all declared states of emergency. The Animas River and San Juan River, one of the Animas’ tributaries, have been officially closed for drinking, fishing, rafting, irrigation, and any other access until further notice. As the plume is moving toward Utah, it changed from a deep yellow hue to a lighter green as the chemicals clear up.Colorado is home to more than 20,000 abandoned mines that have riddled the landscape into an unpredictable shell and are consistently leaking toxic waste into nearby rivers and tributaries. Approximately 9,000 of the mines have been cleaned up, however, there are about 14,000 that still need to be addressed.
For many, this disaster calls to mind the 1978 Emma Lake Incident where the effects of decades of rock mining in the high San Juan Mountains were experienced. On a day where no workers were present, the lake broke through a tunnel of the Sunnyside Gold Mine, located about 70-feet underneath the lake. The entirety of the lake and its sediments shot through the tunnel and along Cement Creek, knocking over a 20-ton locomotive in the process.Retention ponds were being installed over the weekend in order to trap and test the contaminated water. In the meantime, nearby households that rely on wells and many smaller communities that relied on these rivers are all at risk of contamination. At this time, it has not yet been determined if the water poses a threat to humans, wildlife, and plant life.