Colorado mine spill three times worse than first reported, emergencies declared

Yellow mine waste water is seen at the entrance to the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colorado, in this picture released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taken August 5, 2015. © EPA
Three million gallons – not one million, as first predicted – of toxic mining sludge has leaked into the Animas River from a mine in southwest Colorado, the EPA says. The Navajo Nation and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have declared emergencies over it.

The Navajo Nation also plans to sue, as the toxic water is running through their territory.

Hickenlooper declared a state of disaster emergency on Monday in order to "ensure public safety and minimize environmental impacts." The order will allow the state to move $500,000 from the state emergency fund towards response efforts.

“By declaring a disaster emergency, we are able to better support impacted businesses and communities with state resources. We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to work together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again," the governor added in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation also declared an emergency as some of its communities feel the impact of the spill. Intake systems at some drinking water networks have already been shut down, the Associated Press reported.

The US Environmental Protection Agency had originally reported that one million gallons of waste product from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado had spilled into the Animas beginning on Wednesday. The EPA determined the updated amount using a stream gauge, according to the Associated Press.

In addition to arsenic and lead, federal officials said the spill contains, cadmium, aluminum, copper, and calcium.

The spill occurred on Wednesday, as the EPA was investigating the abandoned Gold King Mine along with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

A crew looking to pump out wastewater accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine, triggering the release of waste into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River in San Juan County.

La Plata County and the city of Durango, just south of Silverton, have declared a state of emergency as the EPA and other officials are still determining the environmental and health effects of the spill.

Water samples collected near the site of the spill found higher-than-average levels of arsenic and other metals, EPA toxicologist Deborah McKean said Sunday, according to the Denver Post. Yet those levels are diluting as the waste plume moves down river, she said.

"Those concentrations increase for a few hours and then decrease again by the next sampling period," she said. "Those numbers are high and they are scary because they seem so high. However, risk associated with exposure to a chemical is a matter of how much of the chemical you are exposed to."

Some residents along the Animas have reported discolored drinking water. EPA crews are checking water samples, McKean said. The river will require ongoing monitoring, as future storms will kick up toxic sediments, the EPA said.

The bright orange toxic sludge has crossed the state border into New Mexico, reaching the New Mexico municipalities of Farmington, Aztec, and Kirtland. The Animas flows into the San Juan River in New Mexico, and the San Juan flows into Utah, where it joins the Colorado River at Lake Powell. The leading section of the plume was headed toward Utah and Montezuma Creek near the town of Bluff, according to reports. The plume could reach Lake Powell by Wednesday, experts said.

Meanwhile, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said over the weekend that he will take legal action against the EPA for the spill.

“They are not going to get away with this,” Begaye said Saturday, according to KOB-TV.

The toxic plume is winding its way through the Navajo Nation, Begaye said, speaking in northwest New Mexico before a crowd of concerned residents who live near the San Juan River.

“The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources,” Begaye said.

“I have instructed Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take immediate action against the EPA to the fullest extent of the law to protect Navajo families and resources,” he added.