County Sheriff closes Animas River due to gallons of contamination of mine wastewater


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

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SILVERTON, Colo. — A mine plug blowout caused about 1 million gallons of orange-colored wastewater to spew into a tributary of the Animas River and down toward Durango, the San Juan Basin Health Department said Thursday.

Crews are working to assess the damage from the blowout on Wednesday at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton.

La Plata County Sheriff, Sean Smith, issued an order to close the Animas River to all watercraft including canoes, kayaks, tubes, rafts and other flotation devices, on Thursday afternoon.

The closure affects the areas from the north County line (San Juan County, Colorado) to the south County line (at the Colorado/New Mexico State line) until further notice.  The sheriff’s order also required that all watercrafts listed before, must be removed from the River within the locations determined previously.  

“This decision was made in the interest of public health after consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, San Juan Basin Health Department and representatives of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe,” said Sheriff Sean Smith. “This Order shall remain in effect until it is determined that the river is safe.  EPA test results of the Animas River are expected within 24-48 hours, and the Order will be re-evaluated at that time.”

RELATED: Read the full Sheriff’s Order here   

Drinking water has not been affected, but officials said the mine water is acidic and contains a high amount of sediment and metals.

Photos of the river, including those taken by passengers on the scenic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad route, show the river has turned to a dark orange color.

The EPA said the wastewater spilled into Cement Creek, which flows into the 126-mile Animas. No injuries were reported at the mine.

The EPA is recommending people stay out of the river, which is popular among recreational users, until the pulse of the mine water passes.

The wastewater has been flowing south toward Durango and is expected to reach the town by 3 p.m. Thursday. All agricultural water users have been asked to shutter their water intake as the foul water approaches.

“The water associated with the release is obvious and highly discolored,” the San Juan Basin Health Department said in a news release.

Owners were advised to keep pets and livestock out of the river until testing can be done to determine the wastewater’s content.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists are monitoring the impact on fish and other wildlife in the river, a spokesman said.

The river flows through Durango and into the San Juan River in Farmington, N.M.

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