The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety accidentally spilled 1 million gallons of mine wastewater into Cement Creek on Wednesday, August 5, turning the tributary of the Animas River orange.
EPA employees triggered the spill while investigating contamination at the Gold King Mine. Since beginning operations in 1887, the mine has shipped more than US$8 million in ore, according to NarrowGauge.org.
— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice) August 6, 2015
“And right now where that has hit, it is bright orange. It’s like Orange Crush, but a really thick Orange Crush,” said Jonathan Thompson, a senior editor with environmental magazine High Country News.
On August 6, the La Plaza County Sheriff, along with representatives of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the EPA, and other officials, issued an order to close the river to all flotation devices and watercraft, such as canoes, kayaks, and rafts, from both the northern and southern county lines until further notice.
An irrigation ditch flows clean water into the Animas River south of Hermosa. pic.twitter.com/f8Dh9xHSRD
— jerry mcbride (@jerryphotog) August 6, 2015
Since the stream now contains “high levels of sediment and metals,” according to the San Juan County Health Department, authorities have urged Colorado residents to avoid contact with the Animas River and to cut back on water use until officials make sure it’s free of contamination.
Sheriff Sean Smith said the EPA test results will arrive within 24 to 48 hours, and that once they have them the order will be reevaluated. Colorado Parks and Wildlife are currently monitoring the river for any impact on the fish that inhabit the stream.
Home to many mines, the San Juan Mountains above Durango, Colorado, has several ponds full of heavy-metal-laden water.
Thompson told KUNC that in the 1970s the city experienced similar spills, where tailing ponds were bleached “and they dumped a lot of things into the river.”
Many mines above the Durango area leak small amounts of toxic water on a constant basis. The pollution renders the creeks in the Silverton area unfit for aquatic life, which in 1975 suffered a historic spill of 127 million tons of waste material.