Category Archives: Injury To Water Quality



“This is how Farmington / EPA treats Shiprock residents. They brought in 10,000 gallon water tanks and filled it with water and this how it came out. People, we’re mad at the Chapter House today.”

EPA water bottles

Geologist Predicted EPA Would Intentionally Poison Animas River A Week Before Toxic Spill

The Free Thought

By John Vibes on August 12, 2015



Silverton, CO — Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spilled over a million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas river in Colorado. This is, of course, ironic considering the fact that the EPA is the government organization that typically prosecutes people for crimes against the environment. In this case, however, the EPA has declared that they are above the law and free from any type of fines or prosecution.

The waste was spilled from an abandoned mine shaft and has now contaminated large stretches of water and connecting rivers that reach into various bordering states. Over 3 million gallons of wastewater containing a number of toxic chemicals is now destroying untold miles of precious waterways.

To make matters even worse, the EPA actually had a warning about this a week prior to the disaster. A week prior to the spill, retired geologist Dave Taylor wrote a letter to the editor in “The Silverton Standard” pointing out that the EPA was planning a maneuver that could potentially cause toxins from mineshafts to flood into rivers. He also suggested that the EPA was aware of the possible outcomes, and were going forward with the plan anyway to gain funding.

In the letter, Taylor wrote:

“But make no mistake, within seven days, all of the 500gpm flow will return to Cememnt Creek. Contamination may actually increase… The “grand experiment” in my opinion will fail.

And guess what [EPA’s] Mr. Hestmark will say then?

Gee, “Plan A” didn’t work so I guess we will have to build a treat¬ment plant at a cost to taxpayers of $100 million to $500 million (who knows).

Reading between the lines, I believe that has been the EPA’s plan all along.”

The full letter can be read below:




The EPA actually has no concern for the environment, they just happen to use the environment as a cover story to create laws and gain an advantage for the companies that lobbied for exemptions to the agency’s regulations, and to collect money in fines. There are real solutions outside the common government paradigm, and that is mainly the ability for individuals, not governments, to hold polluters personally and financially accountable

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist who takes a special interest in the counter culture and the drug war. In addition to his writing and activist work he organizes a number of large events including the Free Your Mind Conference, which features top caliber speakers and whistle-blowers from all over the world. You can contact him and stay connected to his work at his Facebook page. You can find his 65 chapter Book entitled “Alchemy of the Timeless Renaissance” at


EPA withholds mine spill documents from Congress


By Tori Richards


Aug. 12, 2015: Water flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine chemical accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo. (AP)

A congressional committee blasted the Environmental Protection Agency today for blocking release of documents related to the Gold King mine disaster, which poured deadly chemicals into the largest source of drinking water in the West.

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the EPA failed to meet the House Science Committee’s reasonable deadline in turning over documents pertaining to the Gold King Mine spill,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). “These documents are essential to the Committee’s ongoing investigation and our upcoming hearing on Sept. 9. But more importantly, this information matters to the many Americans directly affected in western states, who are still waiting for answers from the EPA.”

Smith – who frequently spars with the EPA – is chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. EPA director Gina McCarthy has been asked to appear and answer questions about the agency’s role in creating a 3-million-gallon toxic spill into Colorado’s Animas River on Aug. 5. Critics say McCarthy and the EPA have been unresponsive, secretive and unsympathetic toward millions of people who live in three states bordering the river.

For several days, the EPA didn’t notify the states of Utah, New Mexico or the Navajo Nation that the spill was coming their way. McCarthy waited a week before visiting Colorado and even then she refused to tour Silverton, the town nearest the Gold King mine where EPA contractors unleashed the toxic plume into waterways that feed the Colorado River. The agency withheld the name of the contractor working on the project and other details that are generally considered public information. Lastly, the Navajo Nation, which relies on the river for drinking water and farming, received an emergency supply from the EPA in oil-contaminated containers.

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Navajo Crops Drying Out as San Juan River Remains Closed After Toxic Spill

Alysa Landry
Cecelia Wallace, of Mexican Water, Utah, stands in her wilted garden Sunday along the San Juan River on the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Crops Drying Out as San Juan River Remains Closed After Toxic Spill


Cecelia Wallace stood in her garden in the Navajo community of Mexican Water, Utah, surveying her wilting, sun-scorched plants.

The one-acre garden, a green oasis on the southern banks of the San Juan River, has been without water for almost two weeks. Wallace, 60, is one of thousands of Navajo residents downstream from Colorado’s Gold King Mine, which on August 5 began spewing toxic wastewater into the a river that feeds the San Juan, prompting farmers and ranchers to stop pumping water for their animals and crops.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Wallace said. “All I can do is just watch the garden die.”

Wallace, like many farmers and ranchers who rely on the river, got a frantic phone call when news of the spill broke. Hundreds of miles upstream, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) crew had accidentally released three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek. The plume was making its way from there to the Animas River, which joins the San Juan River in Farmington, New Mexico, then continues on a 215-mile journey through the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona before emptying into Lake Powell.

RELATED: Toxic River Spill Flowing Across Navajo Nation Is 3 Million Gallons, Not One: EPA

“When I heard about it, I went to my garden and picked as much as I could,” Wallace said. “Then we just waited.”

Wallace was one of many who learned about the spill, but not its details. She knew the mustard-colored sludge was moving downstream, but she didn’t know when it would arrive or how long it would poison her section of the river.

RELATED: Navajo Nation Braces for a Million Gallons of Mining Wastewater

It turned out Wallace had four days to prepare. The waste traveled through portions of three states and three Indian reservations, prompting local, state and tribal officials to declare emergencies and restrict access to the river. The plume reached Wallace’s land in the southeastern corner of Utah on Sunday, August 9.

Wallace watched as the water turned gradually from brown to pink to a bright red-orange.

“It was thick as gravy, running slow,” she said. “Upriver, we could see the red color still coming.”

Details trickled in slowly. First, the EPA reported that samples taken from the river contained extremely high levels of heavy metals, including lead at 12,000 times higher than normal. In preliminary statements about contamination and cleanup, the EPA estimated it could take decades to rid the river and its sediments of toxins.

An estimated 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers were directly affected by the spill, which is still pouring out of the mine at the rate of 600 gallons per minute, though EPA officials say it is being treated in settling ponds before being released. Two weeks after the initial breach, the EPA reports that the river has returned to its pre-incident condition. The color has faded, and all three states have lifted restrictions on river usage.

But the Navajo Nation has not given the okay to resume using the water. Citing long-term effects of toxins in the riverbed and banks, Navajo President Russell Begaye continues to warn residents to stay clear while the Nation conducts an independent analysis.

Begaye has launched a website called Operation Yellow Water, where he plans to keep residents updated on river conditions, and said he plans to hold the EPA accountable for cleaning up the mess.

“We are asking that people keep using alternate sources of water,” said Mihio Manus, a spokesman for the Nation’s central incident command center. “We are continuing to advise people not to use it to irrigate, to water livestock or to use it for recreation.”

Tanks filled with thousands of gallons of non-potable water are serving ranchers and farmers along the river’s corridor. Trucks hauling bottled drinking water were dispatched to the more remote areas where residents rely on wells.

Tanks full of non-potable water are available in areas across the San Juan River valley for irrigation and livestock. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

Tanks full of non-potable water are available in areas across the San Juan River valley for irrigation and livestock. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

But in places like Mexican Water, the assistance isn’t going far enough, Wallace said. Here, the nearest paved road is five miles away; the nearest grocery store is 35 miles, and to get to the nearest Wal-Mart, Wallace has to cross two state lines. Here, the spill has left residents shaken, spiritually wrecked and facing financial ruin. And they’re still waiting for answers.

“We knew catastrophe was coming our way, but there was no way to control it,” Wallace said. “We know this river. We know the sediment moves slowly and that the worst of the pollution is yet to come.”

Wallace grew up along a secluded bend in the river where the water is the color of chocolate milk and where the muddy banks are pockmarked with tracks from deer, raccoon and the occasional bear. Tucked into the rust-tinted sandstone cliffs on the far side of the river are remnants of cliff dwellings—evidence that earlier inhabitants also used this fertile valley.

As a child, Wallace and her five siblings bathed and swam in the river. They herded sheep to its banks and labored in the nearby fields, which produced enough food to support the family and many others in the community.

“This was our playground,” Wallace said. “This was where we lived. As a family, we never relied on anyone else. This river was our life support, our income. It sustained us.”

The river is still home for Wallace and four of her siblings, who till the land and grow a variety of produce, including melons, squash, corn and sunflowers—much of which they donate to food banks or deliver to elders.


Cecelia Wallace relies on her one-acre garden on the banks of the San Juan River for fresh produce, including sunflower seeds. (Photo: Alysa Landry)
Cecelia Wallace relies on her one-acre garden on the banks of the San Juan River for fresh produce, including sunflower seeds. (Photo: Alysa Landry)

Wallace’s brother, Gerald Maryboy, keeps a herd of 100 cattle on a neighboring plot. When he learned about the Gold King Mine spill, he chased his herd up the hill and began round-the-clock policing to keep them away from the river.

Maryboy, 57, also turned off his irrigation pump and abandoned his fields of alfalfa. The family’s garden, once a lush green strip along the river, now is brown and wilted. Just weeks ahead of harvest, squash and melons lie rotting in the bone-dry soil.

“We were told that everything within 500 feet of the river was contaminated,” Maryboy said. “You might look at this and say it’s just plants, that they can be replaced. But we treat our plants like living beings. This hurts.”

At the beginning of the third week since the spill, Wallace and her family are bracing for more emotional and spiritual fallout. No EPA crews have visited Mexican Water, Wallace said, and she doesn’t know when, or if, the river will be safe to use.

“Years back, when we were kids, the adults used to bless the river with corn pollen and put the four sacred stones into the water,” she said. “Water is life, so they blessed the water. The earth is sacred. The seeds, the growing things, all of them are sacred. Now what will we do?”

Colorado Mine Spill Aftermath: How to Clean a River

by Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor   |   August 12, 2015 10:29am ET
Photo of Cement Creek in Silverton, Colorado, after the Gold King Mine contaminated it with toxic water.

A plume of orange-yellow water gushed into Cement Creek and the Animas River after EPA workers accidentally breached a debris wall holding back the acid mine drainage at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5, 2015. This photograph was taken Aug. 9 at Cement Creek in Silverton.
Credit: EPA

On Aug. 5, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers inadvertently breached a wall of loose debris that was holding back a pool of mustard-hued wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.

With a sudden gush, some 3 million gallons (about 11 million liters) of acidic, heavy-metal-laden water flooded into Cement Creek, a tributary of the nearby Animas River. From there, the plume headed downstreaminto the San Juan River (a major tributary of the Colorado River), headed for New Mexico and, eventually, Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.

On the way, the plume traveled through Durango and Navajo Nation land in New Mexico, forcing warnings against touching the water,drinking it or using it for irrigation. The EPA is now scrambling to clean up the mess. [See Images of the Gold King Mine Spill]

But how do you clean up a river? The answer, according to the agency and an outside expert, is twofold: treatment and dilution.

Yellow waters

The approximate site of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine breach near Silverton, Colorado.
The approximate site of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine breach near Silverton, Colorado.
Credit: screenshot, by Stephanie Pappas for Live Science

The Gold King Mine is one of an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines dotting the state of Colorado. Prospectors and mining companiesdug gold-bearing ore and other precious metals out of the ground in the state for decades, but they had little responsibility for cleaning up after the mines closed. It wasn’t until the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed in 1977 that mining operators had to create a plan for cleaning up defunct mines.

That act established funding for states to clean up long-abandoned mines, like the Gold King (which closed in the 1920s). But funds, drawn from taxes on coal-mining companies, are limited. The Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety gets about $2 million a year, and that amount has allowed the closing of 6,127 abandoned mine shafts in the state since 1980. But that state agency has almost no money for environmental remediation beyond simply closing entrances and preventing mine collapse. There have been previous efforts to turn the area around the Gold King Mine into a Superfund site, which would fast-track funds for the containment of any toxic waste. But local opposition sunk those plans. [8 of the World’s Most Endangered Places]

Meanwhile, abandoned mines leak out toxic wastewater all over the state. The EPA was working at the Gold King Mine as part of an effort to slow acidic mine water that was leaking into Cement Creek from the Red and Bonita Mine farther down the mountain. The plan was to build a cement bulkhead to plug the leak, with pipes that would allow the slow release and treatment of water. Instead, the crew’s machinery breached a debris wall that was holding back the nasty brew lurking in the Gold King Mine.

The mine water is toxic because it contains dissolved pyrite, or iron sulfide, better known as fool’s gold. The combination of iron sulfide, water and oxygen results in the formation of sulfuric acid.

“All you need is air and water” to create acid mine drainage, said Ron Cohen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has been involved in mine remediation internationally.

This acidic water then leaches heavy metals — such as zinc, lead and cadmium — from the ground. Arsenic levels also spiked after the mine blowout to more than 25 times the state limit for water safety. The mustard-yellow color of the water is caused by oxidized iron, Cohen said — similar to the rust on an old nail.

“The old-timers used to call it ‘yellow boy,'” he said.

Cleaning up the spill

The EPA’s emergency cleanup is a quick version of typical mine treatment. According to news releases, the agency has excavated four holding ponds below the mine breach. Crews are treating the water in these ponds with caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and lime (calcium oxide), which are very basic in pH. The goal is to reduce the acidity of the water.

“When the water is rather basic in nature, considerably above pH 7 [neutral], most of your metals will come out of the] solution,” Cohen told Live Science.

This process is often visible, Cohen said. Seemingly clear water will turn cloudy as the dissolved metals settle out.

The sludge left behind can be stripped of water and disposed of, Cohen said. Once they’re not in their dissolved form, the metals are far less toxic to the environment.

On Aug. 10, the EPA reported that the water released from its treatment ponds was cleaner and less acidic than the water in Cement Creek had been even before the spill. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.

Time and dilution

The EPA and other agencies are monitoring wildlife and testingwater quality downstream from the mine, all the way into New Mexico. The good news, Cohen said, is that dilution and time will likely go a long way toward mitigating the long-term consequences of the spill.

Three million gallons of water (which spilled out of the mine) equals approximately 400,000 cubic feet. That’s no small amount, but about 8 million cubic feet of water flows through Cement Creek each day, Cohen said. As the contaminated water flows into larger and larger bodies of water, it will become increasingly diluted. Lake Powell currently holds about 560 billion cubic feet of water.

However, that dilution doesn’t negate the ongoing challenges caused by Colorado’s abandoned mines, which tend to wreak environmental havoc on their own. Many leak constantly at low levels, or release toxic waste during the spring melt each year. Others occasionally put out large pulses of contamination. In 2009, thousands of gallons of bright-orange mine waste poured into Clear Creek, west of Denver. Similar spills have happened at the California Gulch Superfund site near Leadville, Colorado, and at the Summitville Mine near Del Norte, Colorado. [10 of the Most Polluted Places on Earth]

“We’ve had many of these spills without the EPA’s help,” Cohen said. Many of the mines closed nearly a century ago, leaving no one to hold responsible for the mess.

“There is a real limitation due to resources — both human resources and money resources — to be able to go after these sites aggressively,” Cohen said.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us@livescienceFacebook Google+. Original article on Live Science. 

Southern Ute Tribe Declares Disaster Over Mining Spill in Animas River

Courtesy La Plata Office of Emergency Management
The Animas River as it appeared on August 6, 2015, a day after a contractor working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally let loose three million gallons of toxic sludge. The river flows through the Southern Ute Tribe reservation.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the first to watch a 100-mile-long plume of toxic mining sludge flow through their reservation in the Animas River, has declared a state of local disaster.

“The cost and magnitude of responding to and recovery from the impact of the water contamination from the Gold King Mine Animas River Spill, caused by the EPA on August 5, 2015 is far in excess of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s available resources,” the tribe said in its declaration.

The spill, unleashed accidentally on August 5 by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency workers trying to remediate contamination at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, sent three million gallons of wastewater into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River and from there to the San Juan River, then to the Colorado River in Utah. Before making its way to the Navajo Nation, the plume containing heavy metals including arsenic and lead wound through the 1,059-square-mile Southern Ute reservation in Colorado.

RELATED:Video: Toxic Mining Wastewater Spill Turns Animas River Lurid Orange in Colorado

The EPA has been sampling the water up and down the spill route, but test results were still pending as of Wednesday August 12. Southern Ute tribal officials are also monitoring the situation, the tribe said in a statement, coordinating responses with other jurisdictions as well. Drinking-water testing is available to tribal members who live in the Animas watershed, the statement said.

“The environmental and economic consequences of this disaster will not be known for some time, but the Tribe is doing everything in its power to respond to this terrible situation and safeguard the health of our tribal members, the aquatic life, and other affected natural resources,” said Tribal Chairman Clement J. Frost in the statement.

Classifying it as a local disaster activates the response and recovery aspects and enables aid to be released. The worst of the plume of toxic sludge has already passed, but the lasting effects on water quality and wildlife is not yet known. Tribal officials said the river will be closed until at least Friday August 14.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Durango, Colorado and said the spill had passed and the water had returned to the condition they were in before it happened, theDenver Postreported on August 12. But she did not specify when it might be safe, or advisable, to reopen the river.


Summary of EPA Surface Water Sampling of Gold King Mine



Page 2 EPA report Page 3 EPA report Page 4 EPA Report Page 5 EPA report Page 6 EPA report

Mine leak water has likely reached Lake Powell

User this image AP articleWater flows through a series of retention ponds built to contain and filter out heavy metals and chemicals from the Gold King mine wastewater accident, in the spillway about 1/4 mile downstream from the mine, outside Silverton, Colo., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The EPA has taken full responsibility for the mine waste spoiling rivers downstream from Silverton, but people who live near the idled and leaking Gold King mine say local authorities and mining companies spent decades spurning federal cleanup help. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
August 13, 2015 9:00 am  •  THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Utah officials say that contaminated water from a mine spill has likely reached Lake Powell, but the plume is no longer visible and authorities haven’t confirmed the presence of heavy metals in the waters of the reservoir.

Utah Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Spangler says that water-speed calculations and hydrology research show the plume having reached the reservoir 300 miles from the site of the spill in Colorado.

The plume lost its bright yellow color before entering Utah early this week, and state officials say their tests taken Monday suggest the water from the Utah portion of the San Juan River is safe to drink.

The Colorado River that supplies water to the Southwest flows from Lake Powell.

Truckloads of drinking water are headed to the Navajo Nation where a mine spill upstream of the San Juan River has residents worried about contamination.

St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance is donating 200,000 bottles of water to Navajo communities. The shipment is expected to arrive Friday.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates says the donations will help alleviate stress in finding potable water for residents.

The organization, Partnership With Native Americans, is planning to deliver 20 pallets of water to Monument Valley, Mexican Hat and Halchita in the Utah portion of the reservation on Monday.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has stopped pumping groundwater for the water system serving Mexican Hat. Crews are hauling water from 30 miles away to top off water tanks so customers aren’t cut off.

The president of the Navajo Nation is advising tribal members not to submit claims for federal reimbursement for the Colorado mine spill.

President Russell Begaye says doing so means Navajos waive any future claim for injuries. Tribal ranchers have had to move their livestock away from the polluted San Juan River, and farmers worry their crops will suffer. Begaye says Navajo elders also might not know what they’re signing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken responsibility for its crew accidentally unleashing 3 million gallons of wastewater last week that flowed downstream to New Mexico and Utah. The agency says the form must be submitted within two years of the discovery of the claim.

Begaye says the EPA has distributed claim forms at public hearings across the Navajo Reservation and urged tribal members to sign them.

Colorado authorities are warning that cleaning out irrigation ditches along the Animas River is temporarily discoloring the water again a week after federal and contract workers accidentally released a plume of mustard-yellow muck.

The ditches are being flushed of sediment left behind by the 3 million gallon spill that contained heavy metals.

Colorado and local authorities said in a statement Thursday that farmers and ranchers shouldn’t give the water to livestock until the sediment in the irrigation ditches is flushed out.

That work started Wednesday evening just after the state allowed Durango to take Animas River water back into its water treatment plant. However, the city isn’t yet tapping the river, which supplements its water supply.

Durango’s utilities engineer, Matt Holden, says the city is “proceeding carefully to ensure the absolute safety of our drinking water.”

The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says significant progress is being made as water quality appears to be improving in a major Southwest river system that was contaminated by millions of gallons of toxic mine sludge.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Thursday that the latest testing results show improvements and that the Animas River in southwest Colorado is “restoring itself.”

She spoke during a visit to Farmington, New Mexico, where she announced that the EPA has released $500,000 to help supply clean water for crop irrigation and livestock in northwestern New Mexico.

McCarthy acknowledged the concerns of state, local and tribal officials about the heavy metals now trapped in the river bed and along the banks. She said the EPA will deal with the sediment problem over the long term but offered no specifics.

EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on Aug. 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. The toxic plume affected communities in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.


Sampling results from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show high levels of toxic heavy metals in river water following last week’s spill at a Colorado mine.

The federal agency released its testing data early Thursday following increasing public pressure.

The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.

The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.

EPA and contract workers accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater on Aug. 5 as they inspected the idled Gold King Mine.

New Mexico’s environment secretary is criticizing Colorado’s governor for drinking water from the river contaminated by a mine spill.

Gov. John Hickenlooper put an iodine tablet in a bottle of Animas River water to kill bacteria before taking a gulp Tuesday. He was trying to prove the river was back to normal after 3 million gallons of mine waste containing heavy metals was unleashed last week.

The Farmington Daily Times ( ) reports that Secretary Ryan Flynn told residents there Wednesday night that the move was irresponsible and sent a bad message. He said Hickenlooper may as well have lit 15 cigarettes at once.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, got attention in 2013 after saying he drank a form of fracking fluid to prove it was safe.

Colorado is allowing treatment plants to use river water again, but the Animas remains closed to boating.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

When our river turned orange

Nine things you need to know about the Animas River mine waste spill.

Jonathan Thompson Aug. 9, 2015Web Exclusive

“The question that is crowding upon Durango thick and fast is one of water. The mill slimes from Silverton are now reaching us.”

— Durango Democrat, 1899

On a scorcher of an August afternoon, a crowd gathered on a bridge over the deep-green waters of the Animas River on the north end of Durango, Colorado. A passerby might have thought they were watching a sporting event, perhaps a kayak race or a flotilla of inebriated, scantily clad inner tubers. Yet the river that afternoon was eerily empty of rowers, paddlers or floaters — unheard of on a day like this — and the mood among the onlookers was sombre. One mingling in the crowd heard certain words repeated: sad, tragic, angry, toxic.

They were here not to cheer anyone on, but to mourn, gathered to watch a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Soon, the waters below would become milky green, then a Gatorade yellow, before finally settling into a thick and cloudy orangish hue — some compared it to mustard, others Tang. Whatever you called it, it was clearly not right.


The river turned a mustardy-Tang color as the wastewater moved through. This was taken about 24 hours after the spill.
Jonathan Thompson
The mustard-Tang plume was the result of approximately three million gallons of waste water and sludge that had poured from the dormant Gold King mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas, some 60 miles upstream on the previous morning. The water had backed up in the mine, behind a sort of dam, formed when the mine’s portal ceiling had collapsed sometime earlier. Workers fromt he Environmental protection Agency were hoping to install a pipe to drain the water so that they could eventually plug the mine, keeping the contaminated water inside it and out of the streams. Instead, they ended up accidentally breaching the dam, releasing the water.

While the spill occurred just a few miles above Silverton, the impacts hit Durango the hardest. The Animas River courses through the middle of Durango, provides a portion of its drinking and irrigation water, and over the last few decades has become the recreational and aesthetic, wild, green heart of the city. The spill essentially stopped the heart’s beat. Officials closed the river for public health reasons, shutting down hundreds of recreational boaters and tubers, not to mention the local rafting industry. No one yet knows what will happen to the fish, the birds, the bugs and other wildlife that call the river home.

The Animas River was closed for public safety as the wastewater plume moved through town.
Jonathan Thompson

“I’m very sorry for what happened,” said David Ostrander, EPA’s emergency response director, at a public meeting in Durango held just hours after the plume reached town. “This is a huge tragedy. We typically respond to emergencies, not cause them.”

Really, though, the EPA wasn’t the root cause of the emergency. It was, most likely, a disaster waiting to happen and the most visible manifestation of an emergency that’s been going on in the Upper Animas River Watershed for decades. Here’s nine items to help you understand the big picture:

• Pollution in the Animas is not new: The Upper Animas River watershed consists of three main streams, the Animas, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek all of which drain the Silverton Caldera, the highly mineralized collapsed core of an ancient volcano, and which run together at Silverton. Miners started going after the minerals in the 1870s, and the river’s been the victim of their pollution ever since. Mines simply poured their tailings directly into the creeks and rivers until, in the 1930s, downstream farmers got them to stop; the remnants of those releases can still be found under the river bed in Durango and beyond. Then there’s acid mine drainage. The portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides hijack the natural hydrology, pulling water flowing through fractures toward natural springs into the mine tunnels. There, the water reacts with iron disulfide (pyrite) and oxygen to form sulfuric acid. The acidic water dissolves naturally occurring heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum. The resulting contaminated water flows out of the mine adit as if from a spring. By 1991, when the last major mine in the watershed shut down, there were some 400 mines in the watershed, many discharging unmitigated discharges into streams. Not a fish could be found for miles downstream from Silverton, and the impacts to aquatic life were felt in Durango, where, when the mines were still running, sensitive fish were unable to reproduce.

• Superfund has long been on the table, and long been swept off: As mining waned in the late 1980s, federal and state regulatory agencies started looking at how to clean up the mess. Superfund, which comes with a big pile of cash, seemed like the obvious approach. But locals feared that the stigma would destroy tourism along with any possibility of mining’s return. Besides, Superfund can be blunt; the complex Animas situation demanded a more surgical, locally-based approach. So the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and federal and state agencies, was created in 1994 to address the situation. The approach was successful, at first, but then water quality began deteriorating again. The specter of Superfund returned. Many locals, worried about impacts to property values and tourism, have again resisted. Sunnyside Gold Corp. (see below) has offered millions of dollars to further cleanup efforts — as long as there’s no Superfund designation.

The Gold King Mine (bottom of picture) and Cement Creek. Cement Creek has probably never supported fish, and even before the spill had a pH level of about 3.5, on par with Coca-Cola.

• The problem is massive and complex, but not hopeless: In 1991, the last big mine in the region, the Sunnyside, shut down. Its owner, Sunnyside Gold Corp., planned to plug the American Tunnel, thus stanching the flow of acid mine drainage (which it ran through a water treatment plant), and then walk away. The state wouldn’t allow it: While a plug, or bulkhead, would be a short-term fix, in the long-term the water, and its contaminants, might back up in the mine and find another way to the surface. So Sunnyside agreed not only to bulkhead its mine, but also to clean up abandoned mines nearby — a sort of pollution offset project — while continuing to run the waters of upper Cement Creek through a water treatment facility. That, combined with the ARSG’s extensive efforts, worked: By the early 2000s, zinc, cadmium and lead levels in Mineral Creek had dropped by 50 to 75 percent, and water quality in the Upper Animas had improved significantly (Cement Creek had never supported fish, and never will). Fish appeared just below Silverton, where they hadn’t been seen in probably a century. It was success, without Superfund.

• Then it got even more complex: Sunnyside cut a deal with the state and Gold King mining, a small operation owned by a Silvertonian. Sunnyside would leave, and turn over its water treatment operations to Gold King, along with enough cash to keep it running for a while. Gold King hoped to eventually resume mining the Gold King (not far from the American Tunnel). For decades, the Gold King, like the nearby Red and Bonita mine, had not discharged any water. But not long after Sunnyside sealed its bulkheads, water started pouring out of all of them. “It was not a coincidence,” says Peter Butler, ARSG co-coordinator. The backed up water had found natural fractures to follow into the other mines. Together, the Gold King and Red and Bonita would become some of the biggest polluters in the basin. Initially, their waters were run through the treatment plant that Sunnyside had left behind. But before long, Gold King ran into technical, financial and legal troubles and the treatment plant stopped operating. Water quality for miles downstream once again deteriorated. The fish that had returned to the Animas below Silverton were wiped out. Part of the renewed impetus for a Superfund designation was to bring in funds to resume water treatment as well as figure out ways to clean up the basin’s remaining major polluting mines.

• In the meantime, a piecemeal approach continues: The ARSG, along with federal and state agencies, continue to do what they can to clean up mines. In some cases, this means plugging them, which is what the EPA is working on at the Red and Bonita, and planned to do at the Gold King, when the dam broke. Other methods include diverting water before it gets into the mine in the first place, and removing waste piles at the entrances to mines so that acidic discharge from the mine can’t leech minerals out of the rock. Until the Gold King is plugged, it will continue to discharge acid mine drainage, just as it had before the spill.

• This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened, nor is it the worst: In June of 1975, a huge tailings pile on the banks of the Animas River northeast of Silverton was breached, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water, along with 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings into the Animas. For 100 miles downstream, the river “looked like aluminum paint,” according to a Durango Herald reporter at the time; fish placed in a cage in the water in Durango all died within 24 hours. It was just one of many breaches of various magnitude. Just a decade before, the same tailings pile was found to be spilling cyanide-laced water into the river. In 1978, after the American Tunnel was bored Sunnyside Mine workings got too close to the floor of Lake Emma, the lake burst through, sending an estimated 500 million gallons of water tearing through the mines, sweeping up huge machinery, tailings and sludge, and blasting it out the American Tunnel and sending it downstream. No one was working in the mine at the time, which is either miraculous, or suspicious, depending on who you ask.

A 1975 tailings pile breach just above Silverton sullied the Animas River for 100 miles downstream, turning the water the color of ‘aluminum paint’ and killing fish.

• Short-term impacts aren’t as bad as the water looks: Sampling done by the EPA upstream from Durango show that the plume’s peak put the Animas River’s water’s acidity on par with black coffee, and contained elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper. But by the time it reached town, the acidity had been diluted significantly, and levels of those metals were far lower, but still “scary,” according to EPA officials. Still, the plume moved through quickly, lessening harm. A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.

Samples taken by the EPA as the plume moved through show that it has high levels of heavy metals. Click for larger image.

• Long-term impacts are still unknown:As the plume moved downstream, sediment settled onto the river bottom and its rocks, which could affect aquatic bugs. And it’s likely to get kicked up during high water flows. If thick enough, the sediment could even affect the river’s appearance, providing a Tang-colored reminder of this disaster for months to come. Also, water in some domestic wells near the river reportedly had a yellow tint in the days after the spill moved through, but it’s not yet known what other contaminants may have gotten into the water. Irrigators had to shut down their ditches in hot weather, which could damage crops, and the ag economy, just as the river closure is costing rafting companies thousands of dollars each day. The plume moved through critical habitat for razorback suckers and pike minnows further downstream; they may prove more sensitive than the trout. But then, the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico had their own water quality issues before the spill: alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria.

• The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause: It’s true that EPA officials took a “cavalier attitude” (EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath’s word) in the first hours after the spill, downplaying the impacts and failing to notify those downstream. And they admit that before tinkering with the mine, they should have taken better steps to mitigate a possible disaster, such as drilling into the mine from the top to assess the situation without the danger of busting the dam. Had they not messed with it at all, though, the gathering water and sludge might have busted through the de facto dam sometime anyway. Clearly, the water quality issue goes far deeper than this one unfortunate event.


The contaminated Animas River as it runs through Durango. Note the contrast between the river and a fish hatchery pond next to it.
Jonathan Thompson

If initial public reaction is any indication, the disaster has woken Durangoans up not only to how important the river is, but also to what’s been going on upstream. And they’re likely to exert whatever pressure they can on their neighbors up in Silverton to accept, even embrace, Superfund and a comprehensive cleanup effort. They speak from experience: Durango was the site of a massive federal cleanup of a uranium tailings pile in the early 1990s, and tourism and property values did just fine. Moab, Utah, another tourism mecca, is currently in the middle of a similar cleanup. The hordes of visitors mostly seem oblivious to it. Such is not the case, however, with our Tang-hued river.


Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News. Follow @jonnypeace

EPA officials answering questions from the community on the Gold King mine spill

EPA officials answering questions from the community on the Gold King mine spill