Gold King mine spill update #AnimasRiver

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

The EPA has a lot of experience in dealing with acid mine drainage from Central City/Clear Creek, Summitville, California Gulch, and other sites. Diverters in Colorado know that if you make a mess you own it under the Clean Water Act.

Here’s a journey back in time from today back to last Wednesday.


Here’s what the EPA had to say yesterday:


EPA is committed to working closely with response agencies and state and local officials to ensure the safety of citizens, respond to concerns and to evaluate impact to water contaminated by the spill. EPA teams are deployed throughout the Animas River corridor collecting data.

EPA Region 8 is also in close coordination with Region 6 and Region 9 and the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Southern Ute Tribe and Navajo Nation.

EPA is sharing information as quickly as possible with the public as experts work to evaluate any effects the spill may have on drinking water, public health, agriculture, fish and wildlife. Regular updates on the response for the public and the media are scheduled throughout the weekend. The latest updates and information on the response at available at: emergency-response.

8/8/15 Update:

• The first two days after the incident, the plume was moving at approximately 4 miles per hour. According to the EPA’s ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology) flyover, as of the morning of Aug 8th, the plume had reached the confluence of the San Juan River. As of 4:00 pm this afternoon, the plume had roughly reached Kirtland, New Mexico. The plume has been visually diluted and the leading edge of it is far less defined. The water is reported to be muddy with an orange tinge rather than solid orange.

• Sampling data from Cement Creek and the Animas River near Silverton from Aug. 5th and 6th show pH and metals concentrations are decreasing to pre-event conditions. We continue to monitor river conditions at multiple locations to detect trends. Rain events and variations in stream flows can cause the pH and metals concentrations to rise and fall.

• The data shows that pH (acidity) levels and dissolved metals in the Cement Creek and the upper portions of the Animas River spiked in the surface water at locations impacted by the contaminant plume. The data shows in the upstream locations the resident time of the plume in any one location was not long lasting. The trend downstream, in the Animas and San Juan Rivers, is expected to be similar or better than upstream, as the contaminant plume passes.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials have been monitoring the effects of the spill on terrestrial and aquatic wildlife since the incident began. CPW is watching for any impacts on wildlife, whether they are acute or chronic. Fish are especially sensitive to changes in water quality. CPW is also monitoring a control station on a clean tributary. [ed. emphasis mine]

• Colorado Parks and Wildlife has indicated they are optimistic that the effects of the spill on terrestrial wildlife will be minimal.

The water in Cement Creek and the Animas River in Silverton is clearing. The adit is still discharging approximately 500 gallons per minute and the trend is that flow is decreasing. The discharge is being diverted into the newly constructed ponds and treated before it enters Cement Creek. The treatment appears to be effective. [ed. emphasis mine]

• A summary of pH and dissolved metals data is available here:


• Continue to treat drainage at mine site.
• Continue to sample the Animas River corridor
• Evaluate and publish data as it is finalized.
• Continue coordination with State, Federal, Tribal and local officials as well as community members, landowners/ water users.
• Continue to provide drinking water and water testing to private well owners.

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Durango’s daily water usage has dropped about 2.3 million gallons in the last two days in the wake of a massive release of mine wastewater into the Animas River.

Thanks to local conservation efforts, the city will be able to maintain water service through the duration of the emergency, said Steve Salka, the city’s utilities director.

On Friday, residents used only about 3.9 million gallons of water, and that allowed him to add treated water to the city’s Terminal Reservoir, he said. Wednesday, before the news of the spill broke, the city used 6.3 million gallons of water.

The city uses the Animas River as a secondary source of water during the summer when water usage spikes.

Right now, the city is relying solely on the Florida River, and utilities can produce about 5.3 million gallons of treated water per day from this source, he said.

Much of the conservation has been possible because major irrigators in town shut down their sprinkler systems.

Bottom of Animas River August 8, 2015 — The Durango Herald via Twitter

From the Farmington Daily-Times (Dan Schwartz, Noel Lyn Smith and Hannah Grover):

“We will not allow EPA to leave until they have compensated us,” Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said during a town hall meeting in Farmington…

At about 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, an EPA team breached a debris dam near the mouth of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo., releasing water contaminated with heavy metals. But state officials say the mine purged significantly more than 1 million gallons.

Mustard-colored water pulsed out of the area, flowing into Cement Creek, a tributary that runs through Silverton and into the Animas River. The plume of pollution entered Aztec early Saturday morning and Farmington later that morning. Officials expect it will reach the Utah border at about 5 a.m. on Monday and Lake Powell Wednesday evening.

Officials throughout the country have blasted the EPA over its handling of the spill. New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary Ryan Flynn said Friday that the EPA did not notify his department of the spill until almost 24 hours after they’d caused it, and he said their initial response to the disaster was cavalier and irresponsible.

Gov. Susana Martinez said in an appearance in Farmington on Saturday that the state’s first notification of the spill came from Southern Ute Tribe officials…

Hayes said EPA Region 6’s objective now is to collect samples in Aztec and Farmington to determine the level of heavy-metal contamination. He said the EPA does not have the necessary data yet to tell the public more about the pollution.

He asked the audience for patience…

McGrath said four personnel from a federal contractor and the EPA were working at the site at the time of the breach.

When asked for the name of the company contracted by the EPA, McGrath paused then said, “I don’t have that contractor’s name.” He then asked if other EPA officials had the name before saying that no one in the room had the information.

Ron Curry, EPA Region 6 regional administrator, said during the conference that the agency is providing continuous updates to state officials.

State and local officials urge residents to avoid all contact with Animas River water until further notice. Residents drinking from domestic wells in the river’s floodplain need to stop, officials said…

There are 1,221 domestic wells within about 1.5 miles of the river, but the data from the state Environment Department also include wells that are outside the floodplain.

Curry said his office will provide a mobile lab and a mobile headquarters at the San Juan County fairgrounds next week so residents can have well water tested.

Several sites at fire stations have been set up for people to get potable water.

“We want to make sure people have drinking water,” District Fire Chief Donovan Mack said.

Residents who get their drinking water from municipal lines, which carry water from city treatment plants, are safe, officials said.

A contractor that operates Farmington’s water treatment plants tested the mustard colored water as it entered Farmington Saturday morning. Its pH was 7.8, “which was a big relief,” said Ron Rosen, CH2M project director. That pH is close to neutral, almost the equivalent of sea water.

Clay particles cause much of the mustard hue in the plume, “but the items you cannot see are the ones we worry about,” he said. Those are the heavy metals, he said.

The uncertainty created by the lack of specific information was causing concern for irrigators like state Rep. Paul Bandy…

Barry Digman said he wishes people would remain calm until the EPA releases details about the contamination.

The spill is bad for the river, he said, but “this is not the Exxon Valdez crashing in the river.”

From the Associated Press (Ivan Moreno and Jacques Billeaud) The Pueblo Chieftain:

The rate of discharge Saturday was down from about 740 gallons per minute on Friday. But three days after the massive spill, the agency said it still didn’t know what the possible environmental and health impacts are.

The agency said it hoped to have a thorough lab analysis of the contaminants — which include lead and arsenic — as soon as Saturday evening or this morning.

“We’re busting our tails to get that out,” EPA regional chief Shaun McGrath said. “We know the importance to people to have this information.”

In the meantime, the EPA said it had finished building two containment ponds to treat the yellow sludge. However, the ponds are meant to immediately address the spill and cleanup efforts will likely take a long time. McGrath could not say whether that means days or weeks.

“This is a long-term impact. The sediment, the metals that are in that sediment are going to settle out to the stream bottom,” he said. “As we have storm surges, as we have flooding events, that sediment can and likely will get kicked back up into the water. We’re going to have to do ongoing monitoring.”

From the Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye will declare a state of emergency in response to the widespread impact of toxic metals now flowing into the San Juan River via the Animas River.

Begaye, along with tribal Vice President Jonathan Nez and Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, confirmed Saturday evening that the plume containing toxic metals that was released into the Animas River this week from a mine near Silverton, Colo., is traveling through the reservation.

A precautionary warning was issued on Friday, advising residents to stay away from the river and to refrain from using its water for livestock and other household needs…

A press release from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority stated that the utility’s water systems from Farmington to Beclabito are not impacted because the systems are fed by a different system isolated from the San Juan.

As a precautionary measure, NTUA shut down the water treatment facility in Mexican Hat, Utah.

This facility serves the community of Halchita, Utah, and will remain out of operation until NTUA receives clearance from monitoring agencies because the facility draws and treats water from the San Juan.

Meanwhile, NTUA’s Kayenta District is refilling the community’s water tank, and customers are asked to minimize their water usage, according to the release.

From The Durango Herald (Shane Benjamin):

U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet said the Environmental Protection Agency must respond without reservation and set the right example for cleanup after unleashing an estimated 1 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River.

The two Colorado senators toured the riverbanks Sunday in Durango, five days after a mustard-yellow plume of wastewater cascaded down the shores of Cement Creek and into the Animas River.

“We are going to hold the EPA accountable to make sure that they meet the highest standard of response, and if that standard sets an example for other actors, that will be a good thing,” Bennet said. “But right now, our main concern is addressing this blowout.”[…]

City officials said the mishap highlights the need for a new water treatment plant that would draw from Lake Nighthorse and create redundancy in the city’s water supply. City Manager Ron LeBlanc said federal funding and lifting bureaucratic hurdles with the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Animas-La Plata Project, would help.

From the Farmington Daily-Times (Hannah Grover):

At Saturday’s meeting, [New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez] vowed to “do whatever it takes to make sure the EPA is held accountable.” She also demanded the federal agency send a mobile lab to test water in San Juan County.

Martinez flew over the river in a helicopter before the meeting.

“I can’t even describe it to you,” she said. “It is devastating to see.”

Cement Creek August 8, 2015 -- Bruce Finley via Twitter
Cement Creek August 8, 2015 — Bruce Finley via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Shane Benjamin):

The Environmental Protection Agency typically responds to disasters caused by private interests; it doesn’t cause them. So the agency is finding itself in an unusual position of having to accept blame for the release of an estimated 1 million gallons of toxic mine water that is polluting the Animas River.

Which begs the question: Why was the EPA conducting cleanup work in the Gold King Mine rather than having the mine owner do the remediation work?

Craig Myers, on-scene coordinator for the EPA’s emergency response and preparedness team, said the EPA was assessing the environmental damage at the mine. The results of that investigation were to be used to order the necessary cleanup work by the private company.

“It is rare that we place a private company or private entity under order to do the assessment work, usually because that assessment work feeds into the information we have to have to issue an order,” Myers said Saturday.

As water percolates through the mountain from rain and snowmelt, the water takes the path of least resistance. In the case of heavily mined mountains, the path of least resistance tends to be abandoned mine shafts. But that gives mineral-rich water an easy way to escape the ground and make its way into above-ground waterways.

One way to prevent seepage is to create bulkheads, essentially a retaining wall that prevents the water from entering the mine shaft. But with multiple mine shafts in a mountain, several bulkheads may need to be built to prevent water from infiltrating each one. Build enough bulkheads to the top of the mountain, and water no longer seeps in.

In the Gold King Mine, one of the tunnels collapsed, creating a cavern that retained water. The EPA was trying to assess the enclosure and determine what needed to be done to relieve the water that was seeping from the mine.

Trapped water put pressure on the blockage, and doing nothing – or letting it sit – could have caused a natural blowout.

Instead, the EPA drilled a hole to open the mine. But there was far more water – and therefore pressure – behind the collapse than anyone anticipated…

While the EPA doesn’t usually cause disasters, it is experienced at dealing with them, which puts the agency in a good position to deal with it, said EPA spokeswoman Libby Faulk.

“It’s definitely a different situation for us,” she said.

Said Myers: “There aren’t many other federal agencies that have this expertise. We do this a lot. We have the knowledge to do it. We have the knowledge of how to assess the river and the capabilities to do it.”

From the Associated Press (Kristin Wyatt):

“The project was intended to pump and treat the water and reduce metals pollution flowing out of the mine,” agency spokesman Rich Mylott said in a statement.

The creek runs into the Animas River, which then flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico and joins the Colorado River in Utah.

Officials emphasized that there was no threat to drinking water from the spill. But downstream water agencies were warned to avoid Animas water until the plume passes, said David Ostrander, director of EPA’s emergency response program in Denver.

Officials weren’t sure how long it would take the plume to dissipate, Ostrander said. The acidic sludge is made of heavy metal and soil, which could irritate the skin, he said.

The EPA was testing the plume to see which metals were released. Previous contamination from the mine sent iron, aluminum, cadmium, zinc and copper into the water, said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

Earlier Thursday, the EPA said in a statement that the polluted water “was held behind unconsolidated debris near an abandoned mine portal.”

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

How did this happen?

Southwestern Colorado has a lot of abandoned mines and environmental officials have been in the area for years, working to clear toxic metals and acidic water left behind.

At the Gold King Mine, EPA officials were using heavy equipment for their site investigation to learn the extent of contamination. Not only was there was more mine wastewater than expected, but the water was held back by a dam of soils as opposed to rocks. While the EPA was digging around, water gushed out and started to drain down.

“We typically respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them. But this is just something that happens when we’re dealing with mines sometimes,” said Dave Ostrander, EPA Region 8 Director of Emergency Preparedness.

What’s been the effect on fish and aquatic life so far?

Colorado Parks and Wildlife set out a series of baskets along the Animas containing a total of 100 fish in all, essentially using them as canaries in a coal mine. So far, they say, only one fish has died. But it’s worth noting that Cement Creek and the upper animas are already troubled waterways with limited aquatic life. Larry Wolk, director of the state’s health department, told us earlier that,”For better or worse this particular stream and river have had contaminant issues in the the past and users of the water have been aware of those contaminant issues. A spill of this type is not necessarily changing that unfortunate prior status.”

What happens next?

The plume will move downstream through New Mexico and Arizona, from the Animas, to the San Juan, to the Colorado rivers and eventually the Gulf of California. That’s because things are still playing out with health, and fish and other aquatic life are affected, and downstream impacts are unknown.

New Mexico officials are angry the EPA did not inform them soon enough about the pollution floating downstream. The state’s environment secretary, Ryan Flynn, said Friday that the agency downplayed the danger the contamination posed to wildlife, adding that potential harm can’t be known until the contents of the wastewater and their concentrations are known.

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn , Peter Marcus and Shane Benjamin):

The Environmental Protection Agency released some water samples Saturday, including pH levels and dissolved metal loads, but it didn’t release the total levels of heavy metals, including lead, zinc, arsenic, cadmium, among others. EPA planned to release a more complete report late Saturday or early Sunday. At least two of the heavy metals found in the wastewater can be lethal for humans with long-term exposure. Arsenic at high levels can cause blindness, paralysis and cancer. Lead poisoning can create muscle and vision problems for adults, harm development in fetuses and lead to kidney disease, developmental problems and sometimes death in children, the EPA said.

One thing was certain: The effects of the environmental disaster will be felt for months. The high-water mark left from the pulse of toxic waste deposited a yellow-orange film along large swaths of the Animas River. As the murky water traveled 50 miles from Silverton, it tumbled over rocks that kept it stirred. By the time it arrived in the Animas Valley near Dalton Ranch, the river slowed, which gave minerals a chance to settle on the riverbed. High-water run-off events are expected to stir those sediments and cloud the river during the weeks and months to come.

“It’s here for a while, no doubt about it,” said Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County’s Office of Emergency Management.

On the positive side, the EPA completed retention ponds Saturday at the Gold King Mine near Silverton and is now treating polluted water flowing out of the mine…

Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed 108 fingerling rainbow trout in three baskets on Thursday to monitor the effects. Only one fish had died as of Saturday – and that one likely died for unrelated causes shortly after being put into the river, according to EPA officials who held a news conference Saturday afternoon.

The Mountain Studies Institute has found small insects in the river near Durango still alive after 20 hours of exposure to the pollution.

“Continued monitoring may reveal substantial impacts to aquatic life over a longer period of time, but it is good news that widespread acute mortality did not immediately occur,” said Scott Roberts, aquatic ecologist with Mountain Studies Institute.

Once the water testing results are back, EPA technicians will analyze what the results mean for agriculture, wildlife and human contact and consumption…

Silverton residents have long opposed a Superfund listing. But McGrath said conversations about a listing are ongoing.

The Animas River remained closed to recreation Saturday, and officials could not say when the river would be safe again to use.

The metals must naturally settle out of the water into the riverbed, McGrath said. The EPA has no plans to actively dredge the river, because it could cause more damage.

Saturday afternoon, the wastewater was moving about 4 miles an hour and it had reached the confluence of the San Juan River in New Mexico…

Knowlton spent Saturday identifying wells and water supplies that are influenced by or next to the Animas River. He said there are about 1,000 residents with wells between Bakers Bridge and the Colorado-New Mexico line. County officials are working to identify how many of those are within close proximity to the river and what kind of earthen materials surround them.

Water moves more quickly through boulders and gravel than it does dirt, clay, sand and fine silts, Knowlton said. The county is working with Wright Water Engineering to identify wells that may need to undergo testing for water contamination, Knowlton said.

“It’s a frustrating situation for all of us in this community, and the impact that has been created in the community is significant,” he said. “But it’s here, we can’t turn the clock back, and there are processes now that we’re going to have to work through to fully understand the impacts and ramifications of the incident.”

From John Fleck’s Water News:

It’s still too early to know how the levels of dangerous constituents match up with our visceral reaction, but the Mary Shinn at the Durango Herald reported some encouraging news yesterday evening: Durango water users have cut their water use by 37 percent, enough to make up for the supply lost when the city had to shut down its Animas River intake. That means that, for now, the nearby Florida River, which remains uncontaminated, is sufficient to supply the community’s needs. This shows again that when the crunch hits, U.S. communities are capable of rising to the challenge of using less water.

More Animas River watershed coverage here.