Why Is This Colorado River Orange?

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EPA is to blame for the catastrophe on the Animas.

Last week the normally water-colored Animas river turned a mucky bright orange-yellow as it winded its way through La Plata County in southwest Colorado. The city of Durango was forced to stop pumping water from the river and the sheriff closed the waterway to public use.

Rivers in Colorado see their share of pollutants thanks to a history of haphazard mining in the West, but the latest spill – a release of wastewater offering heavy metals, arsenic, and other contaminants into a waterway that flows into the San Juan National Forest – is unique. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that it was the agency itself that accidentally sent the contaminated water from a mine into the river. Oh dear.

At first, the EPA said that 1 million gallons of wastewater had been released, but that number has increased dramatically.

"The EPA now estimates 3 million gallons of wastewater spilled from the mine into the Animas River. They also confirmed lead concentrations had spiked over 3,500 times historic levels just above the town of Durango,” reports Stephanie Paige Ogburn from KUNC.

"Yes those numbers are high and they are scary because they seem so high," she says, "especially compared to the baseline numbers."

"New test results show significant increases in arsenic levels, and some mercury has been detected. Durango and La Plata County have declared a state of emergency."

The spill occurred at Cement Creek, the pollutants will make their way downstream to New Mexico and Arizona, via the Colorado River.

The EPA team had been using heavy equipment to dig into a dam at the Gold King Mine site in an effort to install a drainpipe. But due to water volume and the fact that the dam was made of soil rather than rock, it breached and spewed zinc, iron, and contaminants into a runoff channel leading to a creek.

KUNC says, in reference to the Gold King Mine, "Scientists say it's the largest untreated mine drainage in the state, and problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River's ecosystem."

In defense of the EPA, however, they are working on cleaning up water in the state which plays home to 22,000 abandoned mines which fill with water and pollute waterways.

Peter Butler, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, says the EPA knew there was water sitting at the mine.

“It was known that there was a pool of water back in the mine, and EPA had a plan to remove that water and treat it, you know, slowly," he says. "But things didn’t go quite the way they planned and there was a lot more water in there then they thought, and it just kind of burst out of the mine.”

“I think that they were doing a reasonable job, maybe there were some other steps that could have been taken, that could have prevented it. But I think it was a big surprise for almost everybody,” he added.