Southern Ute tribal officials were warning members on Friday to steer clear of the Animas River after a million gallons of acidic mining waste escaped, tumbled into Cement Creek and from there into the Animas, turning both an acidic, lurid yellow-orange.
The deluge was let loose at about 10:30 a.m. on August 6 at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, according to the Durango Herald. It was triggered by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) team that was working with heavy machinery to assess pollutants.
“The acidic mine water associated with the release contains high levels of sediment and metals,” the tribe said in a statement on August 7. “Tribal staff from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Programs Division are conducting sampling and visual observations today and will be monitoring river conditions over the next several days. The water associated with the release is obvious and highly discolored.”
Tribal members were warned to “avoid contact with or use of the Animas River until the pulse of water released from the Gold King Mine near Silverton passes.”
That might take several days, the tribe’s statement said, noting also that drinking water is not affected because it comes from the Los Pinos River, which is not affected because its water is not part of the Animas River system.
“The Office of the Chairman asks that all Tribal Members avoid contact with the Animas River until further notice,” the tribe said. “All agricultural water users have been notified to shut off water intake. It is recommended that pet owners keep their dogs and livestock out of the Animas River until further testing can be done to determine the content of the wastewater.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admitted in a statement that its cleanup team had accidentally triggered the deluge. At a community meeting on August 7, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials tried to explain how the dam had breached on their watch.
“This is a huge tragedy. It’s hard being on the other side of this. We typically respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them,” said EPA’s regional director of emergency preparedness David Ostrander at a community meeting in Durango, Colorado, according to Newsweek. “But this is just an unanticipated situation that didn’t quite come out as planned.”
Navajo’s Diné CARE was on hand at the meeting, which they recorded.
Sean McGrath, the EPA administrator for the region that includes Colorado, said the team had been surprised to come upon a weaker-than-expected dam holding in the waste, and that there was a lot more of it than they had been aware of.
“In doing our work up there, we hit a spot where water started coming out that we hadn’t expected,” said McGrath, reported Newsweek. “We come to find out there was quite a bit more mine wastewater up there than we had expected, for sure. In fact the dam that had been holding that water back was just soils and loose materials instead of solid rocks. That started to flow out, and [the wastewater] quickly broke through and drained out.”
The neon-bright plume wended its way downstream and was headed toward New Mexico, whose Governor Susana Martinez said she wasn’t informed until 24 hours after the spill, Newsweek said.
Passerby Hayden Ferguson jumped out of his car, quickly deployed a drone, and got this footage of the river from above.