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Everything You Need to Know About the Animas River Spill

Growing concern for drinking water safety occurred in Colorado last week when the Animas River began to turn a bright shade of orange.  Residents of the area were shocked to find their once blue waters in this state.  This unnatural phenomena is the result of a massive spill of wastewater caused by the Environmental Protection Agency last week during a cleanup accident. This incident resulted in 3 million gallons of wastewater dumped into a natural river.  As part of National Water Quality Month, here’s the rundown on the effects of this devastating event.

kayaking during the animas river spill

Last week, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine near Durango, using heavy equipment.  Instead of entering the mine and pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused the contaminated water to flow into the nearby Animas River – turning the river an unnatural shade of vibrant orange.  The mustard-hued water sent toxic metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other contaminants into the 126-mile-long river.  Although the river has recovered most of its prior appearance as water flowed away from the spill site, diluting the concentration of pollutants, this accident could have lasting effects on the surrounding area and environment.

animas river spill chartThe spill on Wednesday caused the level of metal concentrations to spike to unnaturally high levels, but according to the EPA, the levels “began to return to pre-event conditions” by Thursday.  The results of the EPA’s test samples of the river water show there remain very high levels of metals however.  Arsenic was shown to be at 26 times higher than the EPA acceptable level, and that’s just one of the many contaminants.  One toxicologist noted about lead contamination:

“Oh my God! Look at the lead!” said Joseph Landolph, a toxicologist at the University of Southern California, pointing to a lead level in the Animas River nearly 12,000 times higher than the acceptable level set by the EPA.

These metals don’t just disappear.  Even if levels go down over time in the water, metals will likely remain in the river sediment and can be kicked back up into the water at any time.  This isn’t going to be a quick fix.

“Over the next few days, the waters in the river are going to clear up,” said Jeff Witte, New Mexico’s agriculture secretary. “That’s doesn’t mean they’re safe folks.”Mark Hayes of the EPA reminded residents not to use the water until they get an all clear. When that will be, officials don’t know.

The level of uncertainty surrounding the incident, along with the disturbing images of an orange plume flowing downriver, has left many concerned and frustrated.   The situation has diminished significantly according to recent tests of the river, but many issues remain that concern residents of the area. Local drinking water is safe, but the intake valves from the river have been shut off.  The state Parks and Wildlife Department reports no dead fish have been spotted along the water, and Larry Wolk, one of Colorado’s top health officials, told CNN Tuesday that early tests show that the water near Durango, the Colorado city where the spill originated, “doesn’t appear” to pose a health risk, but didn’t specify to whom—humans, wildlife, local ecosystems, or all three.

sampling water from animas river spill

This incident has raised a number of problems for residents of the area.  As of Friday, people were warned away from the water for an indefinite period of time.  Local farmers have been asked not to use the water.  Durango was using a backup water supply and asking its residents to conserve water usage.  The water will also move through Native American reservation land, possibly impacting drinking and agricultural waters as it joins the San Juan River. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs did not immediately return a call for comment about possible impacts. The EPA was unable to answer whether drinking water supplies in the Navajo Nation Reservation would be impacted by the spill.

“This is an all too familiar story on the lax oversight responsibility of the US government,” said Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation in a statement. “It is unfortunate that we have to once again tell our people to stay away from the river due to the release of dangerous chemicals into our water.” Begaye also called on the EPA to immediately release details of the water’s contaminants.

When accidents like these occur, it’s important that we use it as an opportunity to evaluate what’s important. Water is one of the world’s most precious resources.  When clean water becomes contaminated, the effects of it are lasting and drastic.  It is important to recognize that pollution and contamination of these natural resources should be held under a high degree of scrutiny. If more people become aware of issues regarding the health of our natural resources, we could see a dramatic revitalization of natural water sources, wildlife would be able to thrive, and we could prevent incidents like this from occurring again.

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