Acidic wastewater from an abandoned mine above Silverton coursed its way through La Plata County on Thursday, turning the Animas River orange-brown, forcing the city of Durango to stop pumping raw water from the river and persuading the sheriff to close the river to public use.
Residents lined the banks of the Animas River on Thursday afternoon to watch the toxic wastewater as it flowed through Durango city limits. But the sludge slowed as it snaked its way through the oxbow in the Animas Valley, and the murk didn't arrive until after 8 p.m.
The accident occurred about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County. A mining and safety team working on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the discharge, according to a news release issued by the EPA.
The EPA's team was working with heavy equipment to secure and consolidate a safe way to enter the mine and access contaminated water, said Richard Mylott, a spokesman for the EPA in Denver. The project was intended to pump and treat the water and reduce metal pollution flowing out of the mine into Cement Creek, he said.
The disaster released about 1 million gallons of acidic water containing sediment and metals flowing as an orange-colored discharge downstream through Cement Creek and into the Animas River.
The Animas River was closed to tubers, rafters and kayakers Thursday as the toxic plume made its way through Durango. The closure went into effect at 3 p.m., and it will remain in effect indefinitely until the river is deemed safe, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. Government officials aren't certain what toxins and at what levels toxins are present in the river, and, therefore, decided it was best to close the river to public use.
The closure, which applies to all flotation devices, is in effect for the entire stretch of the Animas River in La Plata County.
“This decision was made in the interest of public health after consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, San Juan Basin Health Department and representatives of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe,” Smith said. “EPA test results of the Animas River are expected within 24-48 hours, and the order will be re-evaluated at that time.”
City to conserve water
The city of Durango stopped pumping water out of the Animas River on Wednesday to prevent contaminating the city reservoir.
The Animas is an important secondary source of water for the city during the summer, and residents need to conserve as much water as possible over the next few days until the water is safe to use, said Steve Salka, the city's utilities director.
No formal water restrictions were issued.
At south City Market, Sean Lumen, who was hoisting bottled water onto emptied shelves, said if customers continued to buy water at Thursday's rate, the store would run out sometime Friday.
At Albertsons, front-end manager Shelley Osborn said she initially thought people were buying up bottled water at an unusually rapid rate because it was on sale. Aaron Memro, grocery manager, estimated Albertsons sold two pallets of water Thursday – far more than usual.
During the emergency, Salka will not send raw water to Hillcrest Golf Club or Fort Lewis College for grounds use. The city also will not water any city-owned parks for the next three days to help conserve, he said.
On hot summer days, the city can use up to 9.2 million gallons a day. But the city can pump only 5.3 million gallons a day out of the Florida River.
The city reservoir was about 4.5 feet below capacity on Wednesday, Salka said.
“This couldn't happen at a worse time for me, so I have to be really cautious,” he said.
The EPA downplayed the potential effects on aquatic life, saying there are long-standing water-quality impairment issues associated with heavy metals in Cement Creek and upper portions of the Animas River. As a result, there are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed, and fish populations have historically been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton in the Animas River, the release said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed four cages containing fish in the Animas River to monitor what happens to them, said spokesman Joe Lewandowski. The cages were placed at 32nd Street, the fish hatchery, Dallabetta Park and the High Bridge.
“We'll see if those fish survive,” Lewandowski said. “We're also monitoring to make sure we don't get infiltration into the hatchery, because that could be a problem.”
Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and former chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, said it remains to be seen whether the toxic metal concentrations flowing downriver will impact the few fish species living below Bakers Bridge. But if the plume does have a negative impact on aquatic life, Butler estimated that fish would die within hours of contact with the plume.
The contaminated water made its way to Bakers Bridge in La Plata County by Thursday morning and hit town by Thursday evening. The material was expected to cross the New Mexico state line between 4 and 5 a.m. Friday and arrive in Farmington on Friday evening.
Farmington city officials shut down all water-supply intake pumps to avoid contamination and advised citizens to stay out of the river until the discoloration has passed.
Local officials asked all agricultural water users to shut off water intakes.
What's in the water?
Butler said the water being discharged from Gold King carried high concentrations of iron, aluminum, cadmium, zinc and copper.
While he didn't know precisely the metal levels in the water that surged out of Gold King on Wednesday, Butler said: “I'm sure they were really high.”
Though Gold King has no record of emitting mercury, Butler said “when old mines open up like that, mercury sometimes drains out. Possibly, some other metals might have been released, like lead and arsenic. But there's no evidence of that at this point.”
Butler said Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety scientist Kirstin Brown had tested pH levels – the telltale measure of acidity in water – in the Animas River at Trimble Lane when the toxic plume arrived.
The pH level dropped from 7.8 to 5.8.
“That's a pretty big drop,” Butler said.
Silverton does not use water from Cement Creek, so its water source remained uncontaminated, said William Tookey, the San Juan County administrator who met Thursday with EPA officials.
The Animas River was looking healthier about 24 hours after the discharge in Silverton, he said.
Gold King problems
This is not the first time there has been a water-related accident at one of the mines, but it did come as a surprise to the town, Tookey said.
He was not sure if the release would change attitudes toward the EPA in town. For years, some town residents and local officials have been opposed to a Superfund listing.
“Since it was the EPA that was responsible for this, it may make people less likely to be open to them,” he said.
Butler said everyone invested in improving the Animas River's water quality wanted to get into Gold King, because, for years, it has been one of the two biggest contributors of heavy-metal loads in the Animas Basin.
“They had a plan for handling the mine pool, but something went wrong, and it all came blowing out,” Butler said.
EPA teams will be sampling and investigating downstream locations over the next several days to confirm the release has passed and poses no additional concerns for aquatic life or water users.
“This unfortunate incident underscores the very reason EPA and the state of Colorado are focused on addressing the environmental risks at abandoned mine sites,” said David Ostrander, director of EPA's emergency-response program in Denver. “We are thankful that the personnel working on this mine cleanup project were unharmed. EPA will be assessing downstream conditions to ensure any impacts and concerns are addressed, as necessary.”