River of waste: EPA updates Animas spill to 3 million gallons of wastewater

La Plata County Sheriff's Department. 

Colorado's river disaster is another reminder of the dangers of human error.

Southwest Colorado's Animas River is closed to the public, and nearby towns have issued state of emergency orders, after a toxic spill from an old gold mine transformed the river into an orange mess of sludge on Aug. 6.

Ironically, the EPA caused the accident while trying to plan for the treatment of the wastewater. According the agency, EPA workers were investigating the closed Gold King Mine when an accident caused the toxic waste to discharge down Cement Creek, which feeds the Animas.  The waste had been held behind "unconsolidated debris" near an abandoned mine portal

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Originally, the EPA put spill numbers at 1 million gallons. But as of Aug. 10, they updated to say the massive spill spewed 3 million gallons* of wastewater into the Animas north of Silverton, Colo.  By the night of Thursday, Aug. 6,  it had flowed to the popular tourist town of Durango. And over the weekend, it crossed the state border into New Mexico.

The full impacts to the nature and wildlife in and around the river are still to play out, but the disaster is a yet another reminder that accidents and human error do occur with extractive industries, despite best-laid plans. Our elected officials and government agencies must take that into account when planning future sites for industries like mining and oil and gas drilling. 

Speaking at a community meeting in La Plata County on Aug. 7, an EPA official said that in hindsight, adequate precautions were not taken. The plan was to put in a pipe and drain the water and then treat it, but instead heavy machinery working in the area caused the water to be discharged, they explained. 

Cities in the area shut off all pumps at all access points and people have been told to stay out of the water. Sheriff Sean Smith of La Plata County said the closure will remain in effect until more is known.

But even if the river is opened soon, locals in the area may be impacted for months to come. This is going to be ongoing issue even into next spring, said Shaun McGrath an EPA official for Region 8. Run-off from the mountains next spring could require further spring closures, he said.

Meanwhile New Mexico officials have lashed out at the EPA for their slow response in informing them of the hazard headed downstream. Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said that the EPA downplayed the danger posed to wildlife. 

The spill near Baker's Bridge, Colo. Photo from La Plata County.

Photo by La Plata County Emergency Management

*Note: Updated with new data released from the EPA August 9, 2015

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Read the EPA's official response

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