EPA Causes Massive Spill, Discoloring a Colorado River

The Environmental Protection Agency finds itself in a peculiar place. Normally it investigates spills caused by the private sector. Now it's cleaning up a massive spill it caused while investigating a leak at an abandoned mine in southwest Colorado.
August 10, 2015, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The Environmental Protection Agency was investigating a leak at the abandoned Gold King Mine in La Plata County (see Denver Post map) on August 5 when it accidentally opened the mine tunnel, triggering a spill of about a million gallons of wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River, turning the river into "a murky, mustard shade of yellow." 

On Sunday, both Durango, county seat of La Plata, and the county declared a "state of local emergency."

"E.P.A. officials confirmed the leak contained heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, but said it was too early to know whether there was a health risk to humans or animals.," writes Daniel Victor for The New York Times. An EPA-supervised crew was working to clean the spill though it was expected to enter New Mexico.

From the description provided by Bruce Finley of The Denver Post, it certainly sounded unhealthy:

The soupy yellow-orange Animas River contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, aluminum and copper — among other potentially toxic heavy metals — "at varying levels," the officials said in a packed public meeting.

For an entire list of metal concentrations and pH levels, click on the "documents" link on Gold King Mine Blowout Incident page.

"This is a huge tragedy. It’s hard being on the other side of this," said Dave Ostrander, the E.P.A.’s director of emergency preparedness for Region 8. "Typically we respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them.”

The Animas River flows into the San Juan River which meets the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

"And EPA officials at a command post in Durango could not rule out the possibility that contaminants will remain concentrated enough to appear yellow on Sunday when the plume is expected to approach Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon, carved by the Colorado River," writes Finley.

Full Story:
Published on Friday, August 7, 2015 in The New York Times - U.S.
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