Major Wastewater Spill Result of EPA Cleanup Effort

On Aug. 5, an EPA team working at a Colorado gold mine accidentally released millions of gallons of wastewater into the nearby river. Now, that water is headed toward New Mexico.
Major Wastewater Spill Result of EPA Cleanup Effort
On August 5, while investigating the Gold King Mine in Colorado, an EPA cleanup team triggered a large release of mine wastewater into Cement Creek. (Photo: Jonathan Thompson, High Country News)

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While investigating the Gold King Mine in Colorado on Aug. 5, the EPA and State Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety triggered a large release of mine wastewater into Cement Creek, which flows into Animas River. 

A plume of contaminated wastewater has reached northern New Mexico waters, causing utilities in Aztec and Farmington to shut down river water intakes. Officials have said up to 3 million gallons of orange-hued waste was released, up from their previous estimate of 1 million gallons.

“We typically respond to emergencies – we don’t cause them – but this is just something that happens when we are dealing with mines sometimes,” said David Ostrander, EPA spokesperson. 

The waste, which contained dissolved metals, turned the water mustard. Photos of the disaster, including one of three kayakers in a yellow river, quickly made rounds on social media.

According to a report in The Guardian, federal and Colorado health officials have warned water users downstream from the spill to turn off intakes. The City of Durango, Colorado, stopped pulling raw water from the Animas River and switched entirely to the Florida River.

“Safety is the foremost concern for our residents,” said a press release from the city. “By closing off these systems, we prevent contaminating the equipment which provides our residents with clean drinking water.”

Residents in Durango were asked to conserve water because the Florida River water is not enough to meet summer daily demands. According to a City of Durango Facebook post, that request quickly resulted in a 1 million-gallon usage reduction.

On Sunday, Aug. 9, the City of Durango and La Plata County proclaimed a state of local emergency.

“This action has been taken due to the serious nature of the incident and to convey the grave concerns that local elected officials have to ensure that all appropriate levels of state and federal resources are brought to bear to assist our community,” read a press release from the City of Durango.

The EPA is working closely with first responders and local and state officials to monitor water conditions. A claims process has been established to assist those affected by the disaster, and the EPA is providing testing for domestic well water.

Partnering with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), the EPA is set to test private domestic water supply wells in the Animas River Valley for mine wastewater metals. Water-sample testing of wells along the Animas River flood plain is priority and will be held Aug. 10-15. Owners of wells outside the flood plain area will have their drinking water tested Aug. 24-25.

The following field tests will be performed:

  • Iron, nitrate and fluoride using a HACH colorimeter
  • pH using colormetric and electrometric instruments
  • Specific conductance and temperature using YSI or other meters.


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