The Environmental Protection Agency on Sunday tripled its estimate of how much contaminated water gushed out of Gold King Mine and slipped into the Animas River in Wednesday’s blowout – up to 3 million gallons from an initial estimate of 1 million gallons.
One million gallons of water is equal to about two Olympic-size swimming pools, meaning about six Olympic-size swimming pools of wastewater came downstream.
The revised estimate helps scientists better understand how much contaminated material Gold King Mine released into the region’s most important waterway, the Animas River, and how the pollution will settle in coming months, Shaun McGrath, EPA administrator for Region 8 in Denver, said to a crowd of more than 500 that gathered Sunday night at Miller Middle School.
The EPA revised its estimate after reviewing a U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge on Cement Creek.
“This is critical information for us,” McGrath said. “Now we have a much more reliable estimate of the volume that will help us with our work on modeling how this behaved and will continue to behave over the coming weeks and months.”
Heavy metals will settle on the riverbed as the tail of the plume travels downstream.
“We do expect over the coming months and years as there are surges in the river that sediment can get kicked up,” McGrath said. “We’ll really need to have longterm monitoring plans.”
Political, environmental and community fallout from the Gold King Mine blowout continued to escalate Sunday as the EPA released preliminary data showing steep increases in the levels of metal pollution immediately after the catastrophe in the Animas River. The EPA confirmed it is seriously considering declaring parts of Silverton a Superfund site.
Also on Sunday, the city of Durango and La Plata County declared a state of local emergency as a result of contamination of the Animas River. The declaration ensures local emergency teams and other responding agencies have more flexibility and resources in dealing with the crisis.
The declaration came shortly after Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, took a walking tour along the banks of the Animas River in Durango. The senators said they want to make sure the EPA responds appropriately and that it provides residents with the information they need.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, who plans to visit Durango on Tuesday, issued a declaration of emergency Sunday afternoon, which makes $500,000 available to assist with cleanup.
As of Sunday, the head of the plume was no longer visible from the air. But the EPA had shut down every water intake from Silverton to Lake Powell. Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said Sunday he plans to file a lawsuit against the EPA as a result of damages to the nation’s water supply.
At the community meeting, the EPA responded to criticism that the agency was taking too long to analyze water samples of the Animas River after the agency released preliminary data Sunday morning but provided no interpretation of the heavy metals until Sunday night, more than 120 hours after the mine blowout.
“We’ve been pushing our lab folks as hard as we could,” McGrath said. “There’s just a process here that takes place.”
The preliminary data released by the EPA shows levels of cadmium, copper, zinc and manganese spiking as the mustard-yellow plume reached Bakers Bridge on Thursday morning, with some metal concentrations surpassing drinking-water “hazard quotients” by several exponents. “Hazard quotients” is scientific shorthand for a more complicated equation that defines the point at which a given metal becomes unsafe in drinking water.
The EPA plans to release a more comprehensive analysis in the coming days that will give residents a better understanding of exactly what was in the plume, what danger it posed to both human safety and aquatic health and whether high metal concentrations will linger in the Animas around Durango.
The Gold King Mine mishap started at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday when a crew working for the EPA accidentally triggered the drainage while investigating contamination at the mine, causing millions of gallons of sludge to surge into Cement Creek and into the Animas River, where the plume traveled downstream, making its way to Durango on Thursday evening.
The city stopped diverting Animas River water into the municipal water system, and many ranchers turned off their irrigation ditches. La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith issued an order to close the Animas River.
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said Sunday night that in response to the city’s call for Durango residents to conserve water, consumption fell 70 percent in the days after the disaster first struck.
At the meeting, the EPA’s McGrath said residents whose well water or irrigation water has been contaminated by the metal pollution can seek compensation from the EPA.
In a news conference Sunday, McGrath said the agency is considering listing parts of Silverton under CERCLA, a powerful federal law that’s commonly known as “Superfund” – a federal intervention reserved for the country’s worst environmental problems that gives the EPA wide berth to address catastrophes.
McGrath said people at the EPA would “see if we can get this on the National Priorities List for a cleanup,” as well as weighing other options.
For two decades, the town of Silverton has resisted the EPA’s attempts to make parts of its mining basin Superfund sites – though U.S. Geological Survey scientists have said the heavy metals flowing out of its mines and into the Animas River constitute the worst untreated mine drainage in the state – arguing the designation would hurt the town’s reputation.
At Sunday’s community meeting, Durango resident Daniel Silva called the disaster “the biggest terrorist act ever done to this river by the EPA,” saying he worked for the oil-and-gas industry, which is forced to take precautions to prevent environmental disasters.
McGrath responded that calling the Gold King spill an act of EPA terrorism “really isn’t appropriate.”
Durango lawyer Richard Ruth went up to the microphone next, saying that in the larger regional context, the Gold King Mine spill was inevitable given the deplorable environmental track record of mining in Silverton. “The problem is a historical one, with the mines north of Silverton continually discharging toxic water into the Animas,” he said. “The EPA was trying to dam up one of the mines, the dam failed, and anyone who’s worked in construction can understand that,” he said, urging the EPA to designate parts of Silverton Superfund sites.
At the community meeting, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and Mayor Brookie said they were intent on seeing the EPA come up with a longterm plan that will protect Durango and other communities downstream from San Juan County’s abandoned mines.
Brookie said while many people are interested in holding the EPA accountable for the Gold King Mine spill, Silverton’s defunct mines place the Animas River and Durango in ongoing danger.
Thanks to emergency declarations, the city and county, too, will have more options and resources to respond to the disaster going forward.
The town of Silverton and San Juan County, Colorado, also declared local disasters Sunday.
The Animas River, emerald in afternoon sun, flowed over rocks coated with bright gold mineral deposits Sunday as contractors for the EPA sampled for heavy metals off 32nd Street.
This type of sampling in the river, wells and soil may be necessary for a long time to come as the EPA works to correct the damage from the release, said Peter Stevenson, an on-scene site coordinator.
Some of these metals, such as zinc, can inhibit plant growth, he said. Others, such as lead, are more of a human health concern.
“A lot of these metals pose longterm health risks,” he said. “We’ll see a good cleanup of the river over the next few weeks.”