Extensive study shows, fortunately, no lasting impacts from Gold King spill

Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018 12:50 AM
(Courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency) The Gold King Mine exposed adit, which is about 10 feet wide and 15 feet high.

Aesop gets the credit for telling us that “appearances are often deceiving.” That he said it over 2,500 years ago should have left plenty of time for the lesson to sink in.

The results of a three-year water quality study on the Animas River – begun the day after the Gold King Mine spill, on Aug. 5, 2015, by San Juan Basin Public Health in partnership with other state, federal and county agencies – provide fresh proof of the adage.

The study found no lasting impacts from the spill that turned the river an otherworldly hue of yellow, forced closure of the waterway to public recreation and led irrigators from the upper Animas Valley to the Navajo Nation to close gates and ditches at a time of year when water is most critical to crops and livestock.

The testing examined 200 river water samples and nearly as many sediment samples (and water taken from more than 100 private wells from Durango north to Silverton) for 13 different heavy metals and other possible contaminants.

For some, the test conclusions run counter to common sense. How could those millions of gallons of contaminated water, enough to turn the whole river that shocking color and send photos viral on the internet worldwide, not leave a an equally shocking legacy of contamination in the Animas and along its banks?

Appearances suggested there could be no other result. Science argues otherwise. And already, naysayers are disputing the results, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency, which paid for the $460,000 study, of hiding the true nature of the disaster to lessen its liability for causing the spill in the first place.

At this time, with a nod to Aesop, we place our faith in science, and feel relieved that the river weathered the spill so well. Meanwhile, a look at the Animas River this morning will show it as a low-flowing, discolored shadow of itself.

More of a rock-garden in places than the river we know and love, it has suffered from drought and the aftermath of the 416 Fire. Mud, ash and debris flows have had very real impacts on the waterway this summer, killing both native and introduced species of fish and decimating the river’s “Gold Medal” trout-fishing stretch through town. The bad news for aquatic biology likely continues south to the river’s confluence with the San Juan.

Fortunately, appearances may still be deceiving. River systems are amazingly resilient, and officials with Colorado Parks and Wildlife expect the Animas to rebound.

It will take some time, but with Superfund efforts finally underway to reduce the amount of toxic metals entering the river at its headwaters, we are optimistic about the future of the Animas River. Not just in town, but along its entire 126 free-flowing miles.