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Animas River Spill from Gold King Mine; Some Questions Answered

Animas River Spill from Gold King Mine; Some Questions Answered
August 11
15:52 2015

What Happened?

On Wednesday August 5th an EPA team was working on treating contaminated waste water within the Gold King Mine, a mine that had not been in use since 1923. The crew from the EPA was hoping to install a drainage pipe but did not realize how much water was stored in the dam. Once heavy machinery started drilling into the earthen dam, the soil gave way and sent a deluge of water contaminated with toxins and heavy metals into Cement Creek. Cement Creek feeds into the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River, which flows into Lake Powell. The initial report from the EPA said one million gallons of contaminated water spilled out of the dam, however, the EPA has raised their estimate saying that three million gallons of waste water was released into Cement Creek. The torrent of toxic waste turned a 100 mile stretch of the Animas River bright orange.  The City of Durango shut off its drinking water intake valve from the Animas, and officials closed the river to the public.  La Plata County and Durango have both declared a state of emergency.

Why Was the Water Toxic?

Mining has been a blessing and a curse for the West. Many communities were formed and thrived economically due to the success of the mining of minerals throughout a lot of the West’s mountains. However, regulations were not exactly strict in the 1800’s and miners essentially ran roughshod, digging for gold, silver, and other valuable minerals. When you dig into a mountain you are bound to hit water at some point and when the mine is abandoned that ground water begins to flow freely through the mine. That water hits the mineral pyrite, or iron sulfide (fool’s gold). Upon flowing over the pyrite it reacts with the mineral and the air to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. The acid mix continues through the mine, dissolving other heavy metals such as copper and lead along the way. As a result the water turns into a toxic stew riddled with undesirable materials.

Has the Leak Been Plugged?

No. Water is still flowing out of the mine at a reported rate of 500 gallons per minute.  The water currently flowing from the mine is being collected and treated in sediment ponds before getting released into Cement Creek.

How Far Down River Has the Plume Traveled?

The plume of pollution was last reported in Shiprock, New Mexico. It is no longer possible to monitor the plume visually as the volume of water in the San Juan River has diluted the plume so that the distinctive mustard-orange color is no longer visible.

How Will the Plume be Monitored?

The EPA has set up 8 monitoring site along the rivers that were polluted to continue to gather data and monitor the progress of the pollution as it travels downstream. The EPA has teamed with the Navajo Nation for a joint incident command in Farmington, New Mexico and the main incident command post for the EPA has been established in Durango, Colorado. The closest monitoring station to Page is at the intersection of Highways 261 and 163 near Mexican Hat, UT.

What About Lake Powell?

At this time it is unknown when the pollution will enter Lake Powell, some reports have said Wednesday night while others have stated that the plume will enter the San Juan River delta sometime this weekend.  It is believed that once the polluted water of the river hits the slack water of the lake that it will cause a sediment dump into the San Juan delta. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area issued a statement saying that most river sediment will settle out of the water when the current slows at Lake Powell and most sediment is expected to drop out in the 40 mile sections of the San Juan River that is  a part of Lake Powell.

Is Page’s Drinking Water Safe?

Yes. Contamination has yet to reach Lake Powell and the San Juan River portion of the lake is far enough away from the Glen Canyon Dam, where Page and surrounding communities pull their drinking water from, that the safety of the drinking water is not believed to be in danger.

(Here is PUE’s Bryan Hill discussion with Lake Powell Communications about Page’s drinking water:

As a precaution, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued this press release in response to the incident:

Any potential release that could threaten Arizona’s water supplies is cause for concern. At present, available information suggests that the Gold King Mine spill has not affected Arizona’s surface, ground or drinking water. EPA 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 – Lake Powell is located another 250 miles further downstream. ADEQ is taking the following steps to address potential future impacts, should they occur, to Arizona waters:

We are sending a team of water quality monitoring professionals to conduct baseline sampling upstream and downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell. We will collect additional samples, as appropriate.

We are closely examining facts and actions being undertaken by involved local and state agencies (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concerning this release. We are participating on daily calls to coordinate and stay informed with these agencies.

Based on our continuing monitoring and analysis of the situation, we will be in a position to further advise Arizonans and water systems. We will continue to keep the public informed as we gather additional information.

Can I Swim/Boat/Fish etc. in/on Lake Powell?

The National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is encouraging visitors to avoid drinking, swimming or recreating on the San Juan River within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and on the San Juan River arm of Lake Powell until further notice. Outside of the San Juan Arm of the lake, the rest of Lake Powell remains open for recreation.

What Will the Long Term Effects Be?

The EPA is unsure what the lasting effects of the Gold King Mine will be. As more information is collected through the monitoring sites and the data is analyzed, the EPA will have a better idea of the effects of this incident. The EPA has stated that they are in “wait and see” mode until the more data is available.

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