Images of a mustard-orange river in Colorado shocked the nation last week after the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of waste water and sludge from the inactive Gold King Mine into a tributary of the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado, on August 5.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the EPA says the source of the spill has not been contained and that the front of the toxic plume is making its way through Utah — diluting rapidly as it mixes with new water and as some of the heavier sediment settles — and heading toward Lake Powell.
The general consensus among those monitoring the situation is that though there’s no way to predict whether the spill eventually will have dire consequences for the greater Colorado River basin ecosystem (which includes the Grand Canyon), the effects have been minimal so far.
“Preliminary data collected within 24 hours of the spill showed that contaminant levels were 50 percent lower after moving about 10 miles downstream of the release site,” according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, and the state agency says the spill has not "affected Arizona’s surface, ground, or drinking water.”
The department, however, does not rule out the possibility that the spill could threaten the drinking-water supply down the line and says it will continue to test and monitor the situation.
Yet while many are concerned with the direct effects of this spill, environmentalists like Roger Clark, program director of the Grand Canyon Trust, say it’s really important “for people to realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg.” This was not an isolated event, he adds: “The Gold King Mine is one of literally hundreds of mines that periodically release waste into the Colorado River.”
By no means, Clark says, is he downplaying last week’s spill – and he predicts the effects of it will be felt for years, if not decades, particularly as the heavy metals within the sludge bio-accumulate in the food chain.
“But we also need to pay attention to the backlog of hazardous waste from mines that is just waiting to contaminate the Colorado River,” he says.
Last week’s spill, he says, “just adds insult to injury because the system is already threatened, and this only adds to that contamination.” These mines, he adds, “are ticking time bombs as long as the toxins continue to be held in water behind dams that are subject to floods and breaching."
Ironically, the EPA was attempting to prevent a major spill at Gold King when a collapsed portion of the mine, acting as a dam against the waste water, breached. The waste water had backed up inside the mine, threatening to overflow and pour into the river, and the EPA planned to drain it with a pipe and then seal the mine to keep the waste contained more permanently.
But then catastrophe stuck.
Many blame the federal agency for the mess. As was reported in the Navajo Times, Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye said publicly he plans to sue the EPA and Gold King Mine owners for “millions, billions of dollars.”
“The EPA is not the root cause of the problem,” says Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director of the Grand Canyon Trust. “The EPA was cleaning up remnant acid mine drainage” from what she calls “an inadequately reclaimed and irresponsibly managed mine.”
“The way the EPA handled [the situation] was not great, but there is a long history of irresponsible industry operations in the headwaters, [and] to not recognize that is shortsighted and puts unfair blame on the EPA.”
Officials from the EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
Jennifer Thurston, director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, a nonprofit Colorado mining watchdog, agrees with Tapp that the EPA is not entirely at fault for this spill because “this is a problem that, sadly, was almost inevitable [because the agency] hasn’t had the resources to deal with inactive mines, and there was a lot of potential for damage.”
It is the “scale and magnitude” of last week’s spill that make it particularly noteworthy, she says. But “in terms of how widespread this issue is in the Animas River basin, there are over 400 mines, many of which are at risk.”
She says voluntary cleanup of past spills and leaks by local stakeholders haven’t worked, and she notes that in the last few years, the water quality of the Animas River has declined. (Whether to designate the area a superfund site, which would bring an influx of federal dollars, has been a contentious issue in the region because locals are worried about how the stigma could affect tourism, plus skeptical of what Thurston calls “involvement from any heavy-handed federal agency.”)
If there is one silver lining, some environmentalists say, it's that the spill brings the issue of how mining affects our water sources and ecosystem into the public discussion.
“When I see a disaster like this happening on the Animas River,” Tapp says, “it’s abundantly clear that when we don’t pay attention, we’re left with huge economic impacts to our region and permanently impaired natural resources.”
In the last few days, local and federal officials downstream from the spill have issued advisories that people stay away from certain areas on the San Juan River and drink bottled water, which Tapp thinks could hurt local tourism.
Even though the plume hasn’t reached the area, authorities are “taking precautions” and “telling people not to recreate on the arm of the San Juan River where the plume will mix with Lake Powell,” says spokeswoman Cynthia Sequanna of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Center, which oversees the area where the San Juan River flows into the lake. She confirms that the sludge hasn’t reached the lake yet, but she says, “It is on its way. How much, how soon is yet to be determined.”
(New Times reached out to officials from Grand Canyon National Park for comment on how the spill could affect tourism and the area’s ecosystem downstream from Lake Powell but did not get a response by press time.)
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If there ever was a time “to really . . . think about what we want for our future, it’s now,” Tapp says. “We need to compare the benefits that tourism and life on the Colorado Plateau have with industries [that harm the ecosystem] and often aren’t even paying royalties.”
The Grand Canyon Trust particularly is focused on preventing more uranium mining in the Grand Canyon watershed, and as New Times has written in the past, is fighting the battle in federal court.
“Too often, mining companies have been able to avoid the proper means to prevent pollution of ground water. We’ve had several wake-up calls, and we’ll have more,” Clark says. Last week’s spill “is not the first, and it won't be the last . . . This shit sticks around a long time."