Yellow sludge from Colorado gold mine in Animas River reached northern New Mexico

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The Animas River in southwest Colorado has been fouled by mine wastewater as the result of a mine plug blowout. (Photo: San Juan Basin Health Department)

SILVERTON, Colo. — A federal cleanup crew accidentally caused a big, and potentially hazardous, mess in Colorado, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

An estimated 1 million gallons of wastewater spilled out of an abandoned mine area in the southern part of the state on Wednesday, turning the Animas River orange and prompting the EPA to tell locals to avoid it.

Yellow sludge spilling from shuttered Colorado gold mine has infiltrated northern New Mexico on Saturday.

Officials said they believe the spill carried heavy metals, mainly iron, zinc and copper, from the mine into a creek that feeds into the Animas River. From there, the orange water plugged steadily along through the small stretch of winding river in southern Colorado and across the state border to New Mexico where the Animas meets the San Juan River.

Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet issued the following statement, in part, on the spill.

“Our top priority is to support efforts to protect the health and safety of the citizens there, focus on cleanup and recovery efforts, and make certain that state and federal agencies are taking all necessary steps to mitigate future problems.” Bennet also said, “The community is rightfully very frustrated with the EPA’s slow communication and response and we are relaying these concerns at the highest level possible.”

“The EPA must recognize the severity of this incident and respond with all the resources available.  An effective command structure on the ground in Durango will be critical to the response, and must include close coordination with other assisting state and federal agencies. ” Bennet continued.

The EPA said it will continue to sample water downstream from the mine until the contamination has passed and it determines there are “no additional concerns for aquatic life or water users.” When asked if the spill could affect drinking water, the EPA spokesperson said she did not yet know.

“When I first saw it, I was speechless, [the river] didn’t look real,” said Durango, Colorado, resident Ian Lucier. “But in person, it truly looks like the river was turned into carrot juice.”

Accounts of the spill’s striking appearance flooded social media as the waste pushed its way downriver.

PHOTOS: Animas River contaminated by gallons of mine wastewater

According to the EPA, the spill occurred when one of its teams was using heavy equipment to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine near Durango. Instead of entering the mine and beginning the process of pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas River. Before the spill, water carrying “metals pollution” was flowing into a holding area outside the mine.

The residents of Durango were asked to help by reducing water usage and to follow the tips below.

  1. Outside: 60% of the average household’s water use is outside. Discontinue outside watering until further notice from the City of Durango.

  2. Shorten Your Shower. Turn off the shower to lather up and back on to rinse off.

  3. Put a Brick in it. Displace water in older toilets with a brick to reduce the amount it takes to flush.

  4. Check your Load. 22% of indoor home water use comes from doing laundry. Adjust your machine for proper load size.

  5. In the Kitchen. Minimize letting the water run during dishwashing by hand -or- make sure you run a full load in the dishwasher.

The EPA began testing the Animas River for hazardous materials on Thursday. EPA spokesperson Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said it is not known what the orange, acidic mess might mean for water users and the river’s ecosystem.

The uncertainty surrounding the situation, along with the images of an orange plume flowing downriver, has left many concerned and frustrated.

“It’s not good for the environment. I’m sure there’s going to be dead fish and plants near the river,” one New Mexico resident told KOAT.

As the mine spill makes its way through the river, authorities have told people to avoid contact with the water. The EPA recommended recreational users stay out of the water, putting a halt to summer kayaking, swimming and fishing for the time being.

Sheriff Sean Smith of La Plata County, Colorado, used his authority to issue a restriction on recreation in the stretch of river within his jurisdiction.

The EPA also asked farmers to shut off irrigation from the river to avoid contamination.

San Juan Corp., the owner of the Gold King Mine, said the EPA had operated in the mine to investigate  the source of contaminated water since last year, after the suspension of work within the mine.

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