Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Massive Mine Waste Spill Reaches New Mexico

Massive Mine Waste Spill Reaches New Mexico

Just days after workers with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally spilled a million gallons of toxic mine waste into a Colorado waterway, the free-flowing sludge that turned portions of the state's Animas River orange reached New Mexico, where health and wildlife officials say they were not alerted to any impending contamination.

The Animas River in Colorado turned orange with toxins after a spill sent a million gallons of mine waste into a waterway last week. Photo credit: La Plata County Emergency Management
As the cities of Aztec and Bloomfield scrambled to cut off the river's access to water treatment plants, they criticized the EPA for what they said was a lackluster effort in providing warnings or answers about the spill. The contaminants seeping into the river—at a rate of 548 gallons per minute—include arsenic, copper, zinc, lead, aluminum and cadmium.

The Animas flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, which in turn joins the Colorado River in Utah's Lake Powell.

Workers unleashed the waste while using heavy machinery to investigate toxic materials at Colorado's non-functioning Gold King Mine. But the accident, while "unexpected" by EPA's admission, is a reminder that defunct mines still heavy with contaminates exist throughout the West.

The Associated Press writes:

Until the late 1970s there were no regulations on mining in most of the region, meaning anyone could dig a hole where they liked and search for gold, silver, copper or zinc. Abandoned mines fill up with groundwater and snowmelt that becomes tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins which can trickle into the region's waterways. Experts estimate there are 55,000 such abandoned mines from Colorado to Idaho to California and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.

There are a number of factors which contribute to the abandonment of such sites. One is cost, as cleaning up toxic materials can be an expensive endeavor. But more complex is the legal liability involved. According to the Clean Water Act, anyone who "[d]ischarges a pollutant from a point source into a water of the U.S." without a permit can be prosecuted for a federal crime, even if they were trying to clean up pollution. That has prevented green groups from engaging in those cleanup efforts—particularly as an ongoing push for a "Good Samaritan" exception to the law has gone ignored by the federal government, AP writes.

"There's still a whole generation of abandoned mines that needs to be dealt with," Steve Kandell of Trout Unlimited, one of the organizations backing the "Good Samaritan" bill, told the AP.

Yet that ongoing issue is exactly what the EPA crew had been attempting to address last week—and the reason it won't accept help. The Denver Post reports:

Silverton and San Juan County officials have resisted efforts to launch a full-scale federal "Superfund" cleanup to address this problem due to fears of a stigma that could hurt the tourism they count on for business.

"These are historic abandoned mines that have had acid drainage for decades. That is the very reason why we were up there," EPA regional chief McGrath said. "We were trying to reach that drainage coming off the Gold King Mine. They were trying to put in a treatment system.

"We have been in conversations with the town of Silverton ... and the state of Colorado about listing this area under Superfund. And if it is listed then, of course, removal (of waste) is part of Superfund that would allow us to take action up there. We have not been able to move this area to a listing under the Superfund."

In the meantime, cities have closed access of the river to recreational and agricultural users, while health and wildlife officials conduct additional tests to determine the potential impacts of the spill. Long-term exposure to arsenic and lead can be fatal to humans.

Recent heavy rains have also raised the prospect that some of the waste which washed up onshore as it flowed down the Animas last week would rinse back out into the river, causing additional damage.

"It's hard to know what is going to happen as more river flows join it," EPA's on-scene coordinator Craig Myers, in Durango, told the Post. "It is diluting. (The sludge of contaminants) is going to be settling out in places."

La Plata county director of emergency management Butch Knowlton was more direct in his assessment. "The population that lives along this river is at the mercy of the EPA," he said.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

1 Million Gallons of Mine Waste Turns River in Colorado Orange

Shell Dumps ALEC as Oil Giant Prepares to Drill in Arctic

Starbucks, Destroyer of the Seas

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Atlantic puffins courting at Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge in 2009. USFWS / Flickr

When Europeans first arrived in North America, Atlantic puffins were common on islands in the Gulf of Maine. But hunters killed many of the birds for food or for feathers to adorn ladies' hats. By the 1800s, the population in Maine had plummeted.

Read More Show Less
Rescue workers dig through the rubble following a gas explosion in Baltimore, Maryland on Aug. 10, 2020. J. Countess / Getty Images

A "major" natural gas explosion killed two people and seriously injured at least seven in Baltimore, Maryland Monday morning.

Read More Show Less
The recalled list includes red, yellow, white and sweet yellow onions, which may be tainted with salmonella. Pxhere

Nearly 900 people across the U.S. and Canada have been sickened by salmonella linked to onions distributed by Thomson International, the The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Methane flares at a fracking site near a home in Colorado on Oct. 25, 2014. WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

In the coming days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to use its power to roll back yet another Obama-era environmental protection meant to curb air pollution and slow the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Researchers on the ICESCAPE mission, funded by NASA, examine melt ponds and their surrounding ice in 2011 to see how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the biological and chemical makeup of the ocean. NASA / Flickr

By Alex Kirby

The temperature of the Arctic matters to the entire world: it helps to keep the global climate fairly cool. Scientists now say that by 2035 there could be an end to Arctic sea ice.

Read More Show Less
President Vladimir Putin is seen enjoying the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Russia's Health Ministry has given regulatory approval for the world's first COVID-19 vaccine after less than two months of human testing, President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A John Deere agricultural tractor sits under a collapsed building following a derecho storm on Aug. 10, 2020 near Franklin Grove, Illinois. Daniel Acker / Getty Images

A powerful series of thunderstorms roared across the Midwest on Monday, downing trees, damaging structures and knocking out power to more than a million people.

Read More Show Less