The Environmental Protection Agency spilled 1 million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine into the Animas River Wednesday, turning it orange and threatening aquatic life in the river.
The EPA says it triggered the toxic spill while using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton.
According to health and environmental officials, the wastewater contained zinc, iron, copper and other heavy metals. The agency says the release of the wastewater was “unexpected.”
“There’s nothing that can be done to stop the flow of the river,” said Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We can only wait until the flows slow down. We had a big heavy spring (of rain) here.”
Lewandowski said the EPA is testing to determine the river’s metal levels and results should be returned by mid-Friday.
Downstream in Durango, hundreds of people gathered along the Animas River to watch as the blue waters turned a thick, radiant orange and yellow just after 8 p.m., nearly 34 hours after the spill started.
“It is a sad day. The fish could be gone,” said Daniel Silva, 37, who was fishing near Durango as he does every day after work. “I am safety-orientated. Working in the oil fields, we take measures every day to prevent leakage. Why didn’t they? If this kills the fish, what do we do?”
After people told him the contamination was coming, he stopped fishing, and his daughter, who was swimming, got out of the water. And they waited on a bridge.
Residents are being asked by city officials to cut back on their water use, and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office has closed off part of the river — from the San Juan County line, which includes Durango, to New Mexico.
The spill was triggered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the mine on the upper portions of Cement Creek, about 55 miles north of Durango. The fluid was being held behind unconsolidated debris near an abandoned mine portal, the EPA says. The agency called the release “unexpected.”
Deputy Stephen Lowrance of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office said authorities are keeping people away from the Animas. In Silverton, signs have been posted warning of the danger, and the sheriff’s office sent out a public health advisory to stay away from Cement Creek and the Animas River.
“The river looks pretty nasty,” Lowrance said. “It doesn’t look like water; it just looks like sludge.”
On Fox’s Varney and Co, the host gave credit where credit is due: “All thanks to the EPA – this is the very same agency, by the way, that is tasked with protecting the environment.”