#AnimasRiver spill: only the latest in 150 years of pollution

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

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

When the Tang-orange plume of acidic water and heavy metal-laden slime blasted out of a mine in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains on Aug. 5, tore through Cement Creek in Silverton, ran into the Animas River and, finally, the San Juan River some 100 miles downstream, it may have seemed like a pristine mountain stream was forever sullied.

That’s not really the case. The Animas River, as clear and clean as it may have looked just prior to the spill, lost its pristine status many years ago, soon after Anglo settlers converged on the region in the 1870s and started tearing up its mountains in search of gold and silver. Since then, the Animas and the San Juan, into which it runs, have been repeatedly battered and abused by the humans who rely on them.

The mining industry was probably the most persistent abuser of the watershed. First, there were the tailings dumped in the river, then the billions of gallons of acid mine drainage that have poured from mine adits into streams and, ultimately, into the Animas over the decades. Even after it left the region, the industry continues its abuse: Before the Gold King mine blew 3 million gallons of orange spooge into the watershed this month, it had been discharging similarly tainted water at a rate of 50 to 250 gallons per minute, or more than 100 million gallons per year, into Cement Creek.

But hardrock mining is only one of the watershed’s abusers. The Animas runs right through one of the nation’s most prolific natural gas fields, and coalbed methane wells are common on its shores. The San Juan’s muddy waters flow between two gargantuan coal-fired power plants before passing through uranium mining country and the Aneth oil field. As Dan Olson, director of the conservationist group San Juan Citizens Alliance, told journalists as they flew over the river a few days after the spill: “This is an industrialized landscape.”

It’s not just industry, either. This landscape has also been farmed, grazed and urbanized. More and more people move here every year and put more demands on the rivers, and more stuff into them. In fact, nutrient loading and bacteria levels are so high on the Animas and San Juan in northwestern New Mexico, that Dave Tomko, with the San Juan Watershed Group, was downright blasé about the orange plume moving towards his community. He figured that naturally high pH levels in the San Juan, along with extra releases from Navajo Reservoir upstream, would buffer the impacts of the acidic plume. Tomko’s major concern was for crops that would go thirsty as irrigation intakes were shut down. As far as the plume’s toxic impact, though, he said: “We’ve got bigger issues than this.”

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Both state and federal health officials say Animas water quality has returned to pre-event conditions after an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater poured into the river after an error by an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew on Aug. 5. The latest water-quality data released Tuesday and Wednesday show heavy-metal and pH concentrations have returned to levels similar to before the incident.

But outstanding questions remain about the nature of sediment in the river. While water quality may have returned to normal, sediment at the bottom and along the river could still contain unhealthy levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum.

“We are waiting for the results,” EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said Thursday of the sediment sampling. “When the data are available, they will be analyzed, and an assessment of longer-term risks will be made.”

State health officials are awaiting similar sediment test results.

Sampling results from the EPA released Thursday show high levels of toxic heavy metals in river water hours after last week’s spill.

The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.

The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.

The company that the EPA contracted to do the work at Gold King Mine is Environmental Restoration L.L.C., based in St. Louis, Missouri. The company declined comment. In a news release, it said it is the prime contractor for EPA’s Region 8. It acknowledged it was on site when the incident took place.

“ER honors our contractual confidentiality obligations to all of our clients, and cannot provide any additional information,” the press release said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday night it will implement a commercial water treatment system at the Gold King Mine in the wake of a spill of 3 million gallons of wastewater this month that left the agency facing immense criticism.

Many conservationists and those angered by the spill have called for some kind of water treatment in the Upper Animas Mining District, where the disaster began. Officials did not say when the system would be in place.

Leeching contaminants from several area mines have long polluted Cement Creek above Silverton and are blamed for sullying the Animas River downstream.

The district has been identified as one of the most polluted former mining areas in Colorado.

“Planning is in place for a treatment solution that includes piping discharge to a lower mine site with a better location for water treatment to continue into the fall,” the EPA said in a statement to The Denver Post. “Longer-term treatment needs and options are being evaluated.”

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