Toxic spill turns Colorado’s Animas River orange

A toxic waste spill triggered early Wednesday morning sent one million gallons of contaminated water from a nearby mine flooding into Colorado’s Animas River, turning the normally crystal-clear water bright orange and forcing officials to evacuate the river. The news drew national interest as reporters took to social media to share the shocking sight of the orange river:

The Animas River serves as a secondary water source and as a place for aquatic recreation like kayaking and fishing for the city of Durango, Colorado. Officials have not only told locals to stay away from and out of the river, but to also restrict water usage for the next few days until it is able to be filtered back to healthy levels.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that it accidentally triggered the spill while using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the abandoned Gold King Mine some 55 miles north of Durango. The mine, which was used over a century ago in gold mining, had been dormant for years.

EPA officials were working on building a pipe to divert the occasional seepage of polluted water from a collapsed entrance to the mine into a nearby creek. While working to remove the backfill debris covering the collapsed entrance, the EPA accidentally blew out the plug holding back the contaminated waste, and sent a toxic orange sludge-like mixture of heavy metals flooding downstream at a rate of 1,200 gallons a minute.

“Upon suspending work last year, the EPA backfilled the portal to the mine,” Nancy Argo, a Durango based attorney, told The Denver Post. “On (Wednesday), while the EPA was removing the backfill from the portal to the Gold King Mine to continue its investigation this year, the plug blew out, releasing contaminated water behind the backfill.”

“There were several workers at the site at the time of the breach. All were unharmed,” the San Juan Basin Health Department said in a news release (Durango resides in San Juan County, Colorado). “The EPA recommends that recreational users of the Animas River avoid contact with or use of the river until the pulse of mine water passes.”

Due to the hazardous materials used in mining in the 1800’s, officials are also concerned as to what effect pollutants found in the wastewater (iron, copper, zinc, etc.) may have on the health of locals.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely and working with the EPA to get testing results to make sure we minimize any health impacts,” Flannery O’Neil, spokeswoman for the San Juan basin health department told The Denver Post.

In the meantime, all recreational activities on the river have been suspended, and nearby agricultural producers drawing have been told to suspend drawing from the river.

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