US EPA pollutes Animas River in Colorado

The Animas River in southwestern Colorado has been grievously polluted with toxic water spilled from one of the many abandoned mines that pockmark the region and the Environmental Protection Agency has claimed responsibility, saying it accidentally breached a store of chemical-laced water.
On Sunday, anger over the spill boiled over after the agency announced that the amount of toxic water released was three times what was previously stated — more than three million gallons rather than one million — and that officials were still unsure if there was a health threat to humans or animals.
The day of that announcement, State Senator Ellen Roberts, a Republican who lives near the river, cried softly as she considered the pollution, adding that she had dropped her father’s ashes in the depths of the river, which pollutants had turned into an unnatural-looking yellow-orange ribbon.
“It is not just a scenic destination,” Ms. Roberts said. “It is where people literally raise their children. It is where the farmers and ranchers feed their livestock, which in turn feeds the people. We’re isolated from Denver through the mountains, and we are pretty resourceful people. But if you take away our water supply, we’re left with virtually no way to move forward.”
On Monday, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper released $500,000 in funds for assistance. The City of Durango and La Plata County have declared states of emergency.
Soon after the spill was detected, city officials stopped pumping water from the Animas into the reservoir that provides drinking water for Durango’s 17,000 residents — taking action swiftly enough that the contamination did not reach the drinking supply. The reservoir still receives water from the Florida River, a tributary of the Animas, but the city has asked local residents to conserve so that the reservoir does not get too low.
Most people living outside the city use wells, and officials say about 1,000 residential water wells could be contaminated.
The river is closed indefinitely, and the county sheriff has hastily recast his campaign signs into posters warning river visitors to stay out of the water. The yellow plume has traveled down to New Mexico — where officials in several municipalities have stopped pumping river water into drinking water systems, fearing contamination — and to the Navajo Nation.
Testing by the E.P.A. — an agency typically in the position of responding to toxic disasters, not causing them — found that the wastewater spill caused levels of arsenic, lead and other metals to spike in the Animas River.
On the day of the accident, a team from the agency had been investigating an abandoned mine about 50 miles north of here. Called the Gold King, it is roughly 1.5 miles long and about 700 feet tall at its highest point. The mine had been abandoned for nearly a century, but between roughly 1890 and 1920 it produced 350,000 ounces of high-grade gold, according to its owner.
For years, the Gold King has leaked toxic water at a rate of 50 to 250 gallons a minute. The agency had planned to find the source of the leak in the hope of one day stanching it. Instead, as workers used a backhoe to hack at loose material, a surprise deluge of orange water ripped through, spilling into Cement Creek and flowing into the Animas. The burst did not injure workers.
In his first interview since the spill, the owner of the mine, Todd Hennis, said the spill was probably the fault of another mine company — the Sunnyside Gold Corporation — that had built retention walls inside an abandoned mine near the Gold King, part of an old cleanup agreement with the federal government. Once the Sunnyside mine filled with wastewater, the water probably spilled into the Gold King, and then into the Animas, Mr. Hennis said.
He urged Sunnyside’s parent company, the Kinross Gold Corporation, to clean up the mess. “They’ve got to step forward and be responsible,” he said of Kinross. A spokesman for Sunnyside, Larry Perino, said the company had no role in Gold King spill.
Since the 1870s, metal mining has both enriched and poisoned this region, turning the earth under portions of southwest Colorado into a maze of tunnels and leaving behind shuttered sites oozing with chemicals. There are about 200 abandoned mines in the Animas watershed. Sunnyside was the last to close, in 1991.
On Sunday night, residents packed a school auditorium in Durango for a meeting with the E.P.A.’s regional director, Shaun McGrath. During a public comment session that lasted more than two hours, residents flouted a sign on the wall that instructed the auditorium’s typical patrons — middle schoolers — to refrain from calling out, jumping up or insulting others during assemblies.
Shouts rang out. A few people cried. One resident questioned whether the agency had refashioned itself into the “Environmental Pollution Agency.” Others demanded to know what would happen to wildlife, livestock, water wells, sediment and river-based jobs.
“When — when can we be open again?” asked David Moler, 35, the owner of a river-rafting company who had approached a microphone. “All I hear is a handful of ‘gonna-dos,’ ” he added. “What should I tell my employees?” Mr. McGrath and his colleagues urged patience and assured residents that they would provide information about health risks once they had it. The agency, he said, is awaiting test results to determine whether the water poses a risk.
“We’re going to continue to work until this is cleaned up,” Mr. McGrath said, “and hold ourselves to the same standards that we would anyone that would have created this situation.”


Local officials in towns downstream from where millions of gallons of mine waste spilled into a southwest Colorado river are demanding answers about possible long-term threats to the water supply.
Colorado and New Mexico declared stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers to be disaster areas as the orange-colored waste stream made its way downstream toward Lake Powell in Utah after the spill Wednesday at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado.
The 3 million gallons of mine waste included high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. Workers with the EPA accidentally unleashed the spill as they inspected the abandoned mine site.
EPA officials said Monday that there was no leading edge of contamination visible in downstream sections of the San Juan River or Lake Powell. But that has done little to ease concerns or quell the anger caused by the spill.
The Navajo Nation, which covers parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, declared an emergency as it shut down water intake systems and stopped diverting water from the San Juan River.
Members of the tribal council were frustrated during a special meeting Monday and echoed the sentiment of New Mexico and Utah officials that the federal government needs to be held accountable.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes discussed the legal implications with his New Mexico counterpart, Hector Balderas, and planned to hold a similar call with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Reyes’ office said Monday.
“We hope to work with our sister states to ensure our citizens are protected and whatever remediation is necessary occurs as quickly as possible,” Reyes said in a statement. “We will continue to evaluate the legal issues as we receive data and monitor the effects on our communities.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the governor is disappointed in the EPA’s initial handling of the spill but the state has no plans for legal action.
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.
The EPA said stretches of the rivers would be closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses at least through Aug. 17.
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.
Tests show some of the metals have settled to the bottom and would dissolve only if conditions became acidic, which isn’t likely, Cohen said.
The best course for the EPA would be to leave the metals where they settle, he said, noting that next spring’s mountain snowmelt would help dilute the contaminants further and flush them downstream.
No die-off of wildlife along the river has yet been detected. Federal officials say all but one of a test batch of fingerling trout deliberately exposed to the water survived over the weekend.
As a precaution, state and federal officials along the river system have ordered public water systems to turn off intake valves as the plume passes. Boaters and fishing groups have been told to avoid affected stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers, which are crowded with rafters and anglers in a normal summer.
Recreational businesses along the rivers said they were losing thousands of dollars.
“We had lots of trips booked. Right now we’re just canceling by the day,” said Drew Beezley, co-owner of 4 Corners Whitewater in Durango, Colorado.
He said his company has had to cancel 20 rafting trips so far, and his dozen employees are out of work until the river is deemed safe to enter again.
“We don’t really know what the future holds yet,” said Beezley, who estimates that he’s lost about $10,000 worth of business since the spill last week. “We don’t know if the rest of this season is just scrapped.”
The EPA has considered adding a section of the Animas River in Colorado as a Superfund cleanup site at least since the 1990s because heavy metals from Gold King and other defunct mines were killing fish and other species.
The designation would have brought federal clean-up funds, but some in Colorado opposed the move in part because of the stigma attached. The EPA agreed to allow local officials to lead clean-up efforts instead.

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