DURANGO — On Wednesday morning, 1 million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine were accidentally spilled into the Animas River in Southwest Colorado, turning the river orange, and prompting officials to close the river to users downstream.
The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed it triggered the spill while using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton. The wastewater containes zinc, iron, copper and other heavy metals, prompting the EPA to warn agricultural users to shut off water intakes along the river and local law officials to close the river to recreational users.
The La Plata County Sheriff's Office has closed the river from the San Juan County line — including Durango — to New Mexico. Authorities say they will re-evaluate the closure once the EPA tests are confirmed.
Photo: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald
The spill was triggered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the mine on the upper portions of Cement Creek, about 55 miles north of Durango. The fluid was being held behind loose fill and debris near an abandoned mine portal, the EPA says. The agency called the release "unexpected." At the time of the spill, EPA responders were at the mine evaluating clean-up of toxic materials already leaking into Cement Creek.
In a statement released Thrusday, the EPA said "Due to current and longstanding water quality impairment associated with heavy metals there are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed and populations in the Animas River have historically been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton." Over the next several days, EPA teams will be sampling and investigating downstream locations to confirm that the release has passed and poses no additional concerns for aquatic life or water users.
The plume made its way to Durango on Thursday afternoon, prompting La Plata County health officials to warn rafters and others to avoid the water. Durango stopped pumping water out of the Animas River on Wednesday to make sure none of the waste could be sucked up into the city reservoir. It also suspended the transfers of raw water to a local golf course and Fort Lewis College. Pet owners were advised to keep dogs and livestock out of the Animas.
In Farmington, New Mexico, city officials shut down water-supply intake pumps to avoid contamination and advised citizens to stay out of the river until the discoloration has passed. The EPA has siad the spill would not harm people and that the primary pollutants were iron and zinc.
Reports suggest that 1200 gallons of contaminated water continue to spill into the river at the Gold King Mine site. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be releasing higher flows from Navajo Reservoir on New Mexico's San Juan River to help dilute the contaminated flows from the Animas, before it reaches Lake Powell and the Colorado River.