EPA Workers Accidentally Cause Toxic Spill

Entrance to the Gold King Mine on the left, and the runoff from the spill on the right

Entrance to the Gold King Mine on the left, and the runoff from the spill on the right

On August 5th, a team of Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally breeched a contamination dam from the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Co., releasing three million gallons of toxic yellow sludge into the Animas River. The Gold King Mine has been abandoned since the 1920s, and was set to be plugged so that acid drainage would stop spilling into the river system. The crew of workers did not realize how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, so the temporary blockade they set up to keep the contaminated water from pouring out all at once was not nearly as sturdy as it needed to be. The result ended in tragically turning the clear waters of the Animas to a dark orange color for nearly 60 miles. Some have suggested that the spill would have happened sooner or later because plugs at other nearby mines were spilling over causing the water level to rise. This was causing the water pressure behind the Gold King mine to increase slowly, and probably would’ve yielded the same result, even if the EPA workers had not been sent out to plug up the mine. The mine had also been leaking hundreds of gallons of acidic waste per minute from the shaft for years, and this shaft is tied into a system linking many other abandoned mines together.

The contaminated water contains heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, just to name a couple. The public is even more worried because of the unknowns that have also been spilled. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, which eventually flows into Lake Powell in Utah. The spill is not only affecting the local residents in these states, who have had to shut off their wells and now cannot easily access their water supply, but it is also affecting the tourism, which many of these states rely on for income, especially with the Labor Day holiday weekend coming up. It is not safe to swim, raft, and generally recreate near any of these once beautiful and desirable places to visit and vacation. In addition to humans, our wildlife, both land and marine, is being affected as well. The possibility of the toxic substance seeping into the banks could potentially reach the nearby crops and contaminate the soil, causing farmers to lose income as well. The EPA is unsure as to the extent of the damage that has already been done and will be done in the future. The uncertainty is making people angry and scared.

While everyone is pointing the finger as to who is really to blame, the EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, has formally apologized for the spill. Besides the urgent need for cleanup, the next step is to plan so that an accident like this will not happen again in the future. There are thousands of inactive mines across Colorado, and if we don’t have a response plan set in place, something similar or worse, could happen again. In addition, there is a need for new governmental reform on the current laws regarding mining. The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, introduced by Congressman Grijalva from Arizona proposes a solution. It will place federal prohibition on new mines that we know will always produce pollution from runoff, and it will make sure that no mine will be built that can’t clean up after itself.

The EPA has begun the long cleanup process and is using containment ponds to treat the orange sludgy mess. Although some of it has cleared up in certain parts, they are currently testing water samples from all affected bodies of water and some from the water wells owned by Navajo Nation. Some argue that the EPA is not working quickly enough, but as we can all see, this will be a very long, on-going cleanup process considering the distance and reach of the spill.

Armstrong Forensic Laboratory conducts runoff sampling and testing by methods approved by the EPA. If you or your business suspect contamination to your property, call us at (800) 644-4175 or (817) 275-2691 DFW area, or simply fill out our convenient ‘Ask An Expert’ form on our site and we can provide you with a free quote for testing your samples.

Below are a few links to this story:

EPA Chief Apologizes for Gold King Mine spill

Colorado Mine Spill Highlights Need For Mining Law Reform

Utah Tourist Season Affected By Gold King Mine Spill

3 Million Gallons of Toxic Sludge Spilled into Animas River in Colorado