GOLD MINE SPILLS TOXINS, THREATENING WATERWAYS ACROSS SOUTHWEST

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By Miriam Raftery

Updated August 11, 2015 with a statement from the Metropolitan Water Authority.

August 10, 2015 (San Diego’s East County) – More than 3 million gallons of toxic waters contaminated with heavy metals from the King Gold Mine in Colorado were accidentally released by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees working at the site.   The spill has turned clean waterways in three slates a sickly mustard color from a flow moving at four to five miles per hour.

The toxic plume has flowed into major rivers in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico and is expected to soon reach Arizona, where it could potentially taint Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the United States and a major source of drinking water for San Diego, California as well as Las Vegas, Nevada. However the Metropolitan Water District has issued a statement indicating it does not anticipate an impact on local districts' water supplies in our region.

The EPA initially listed the spill at 1 million gallons, but has now tripled that estimate.  The EPA has long known about the toxic pool of water in the mine that had begun seeping out, killing fish in nearby waters.  The federal agency sought SuperFund designation to bring in federal funds for cleanup, but local leaders resisted that designation, fearing a negative impact on tourism.

The EPA had a plan to remove the water and treat it slowly over time, but a breach occurred when the water burst out of the mine through  unconsolidated debris at the mine, located in San Juan County, Colorado.  There are 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado alone, the U.S. Geological Survey reports. Many, like this one, were created before 1977, when a federal law was passed that holds mining companies responsible for the impacts of spills.  So taxpayers are left bearing the burden of cleanup from messes such as this.

The Los Angeles Times describes this particular mess as a “fluorescent sludge” that is “threatening crucial waterways across the Southwest.”

CNN reports that early samples showed lead at 11,000 times higher than the EPA allows, arsenic 800 times higher, and  mercury at 10 times higher  in water taken from the Animus River in Colorado. Other heavy metals and toxins were also found in dangerously high concentrations includin beryllium, cadmium, zinc, iron and copper.  Such high levels can cause problems ranging from cancer to kidney disease to developmental problems in children. A New York University School of Medicine called the levels found “shocking.” Health experts interviewed by CNN say the impacts could last for years.

EPA’s director of emergency preparedness, David Ostrander, met with angry residents in the region stating, “I’m very sorry. This is a huge tragedy,” the Durango Herald in Colorado reports.

Along major waterways including the Colorado River, the impacts have been devastating.

River rafting businesses are temporarily shut down; one operator estimates he has lost $150,000 so far this month and some may be forced to close permanently due to loss of revenues during their busiest season.

Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper has declared a state of disaster emergency, directing a half million dollars in state money toward protecting public safety and minimizing environmental impacts.

New Mexico’s state engineer Tom Blaine complained that the EPA took no action to alert the state of New Mexico or its residents of the spill’s potential danger, CNN reports.   

According to CNN, the Navajo Nation’s president, Russell Begaya, has announced he plans to file legal action against the federal government.  “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 resource.”

Farmers along the contaminated waterways have been told not to use the water for irrigation or to provide water for livestock—some with little to no notice.  Without rain soon, food crops could be at risk, as well as livestock and the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.

The EPA is monitoring private well water and tests by municipalities of drinking water remain pending.  Intakes from the contaminated rivers for public drinking water have been shut off along the route and residents asked to conserve water.

As the water flowed toward the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, the National Park Service issued an alert warning recreational users to monitor the situation.  Officials there say most river sediments are expected to settle out of the water before reaching Lake Powell and thus far the alert has not been extended to the entire lake, only the portion where the San Juan River flows in.

The Metropolitan Water District issued a statement today which reads:

While Metropolitan shares concern for our partners in the Colorado River Basin following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (USEPA’s) Aug. 5 accidental release of contaminated mine drainage in southwestern Colorado, we do not anticipate any adverse water quality issues for the District or its member public agencies as a result of the spill.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead will provide significant protection between the spill and Metropolitan’s Colorado River Aqueduct intake at Lake Havasu.  It is anticipated that water quality constituents present in the mine discharge would be at background or non-detect levels by the time supplies reach Metropolitan’s intake several years from now.

As you probably know, during a site investigation USEPA inadvertently breached loose rocks that had been holding back drainage at the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado (see graphic below from USA Today).  As a result of the spill, more than 3 million gallons of acidic mine drainage containing metals such as manganese, zinc, copper and lead were released into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River which eventually flows into the Colorado River.  The location of the Gold King Mine spill is about 850 miles upstream from the CRA intake at Lake Havasu. 

Due to the serious nature of this event, the local Colorado jurisdictions declared a State of Emergency.  USEPA is containing and treating ongoing drainage from the mine site.  USEPA also is conducting ongoing monitoring, both through water quality sampling and visual observations, and continuing to coordinate with all affected parties, including water users.  Water quality data reports and updated response activity information is published on-line at www.epaosc.org/GoldKingMine.

Metropolitan will continue to regularly monitor its source water supplies for metals and other potentially harmful constituents.  We also are coordinating with our upstream Colorado River partners to assess any impacts of this event.  Please contact Dr. Mic Stewart at (213) 217-5696 if you have additional questions.

Contaminated water continues to flow out of the mine, though the release rate has slowed from 740 gallons a minute last Friday to about 550 gallons a minute by the middle of this week. The EPA says it has completed construction of two containment ponds to treat the yellow sludge at its source.

But that news is too little, too late for people impacted across several states, as well as wildlife exposed to the contaminated river of gold.