The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently made an effort to rectify a situation in Colorado, but actually made it a whole lot worse. In an attempt to clean up the Gold King Mine, which had apparently been slowly leaking contaminated water into the Animas River, they knocked out a plug holding it back, turning the whole river a mustard yellow. The EPA originally claimed that they had released 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of toxic water, though this has since been revised to 3 million (11.4 million liters).
The contaminated water is thought to be full of heavy metals, including iron, zinc, copper, lead, arsenic and mercury. It’s expected to flow through Colorado into New Mexico and Utah, and eventually reach Lake Powell, one of the largest reservoirs in the U.S. The EPA has claimed that currently it poses no threat to wildlife, though they’ve also recommended against swimming in it or drinking from it.
The entrance to King Gold Mine, showing the toxic orange water. Credit: EPA/Wikimedia
The mine in question has been shut since the 1920s, but exists in a region of Colorado littered with thousands of old mines. As a result, the surrounding rivers have long been known to be toxic and undrinkable as rainwater passes through the mines, collecting heavy metals and leaking them into the streams. The fish in the upper reaches of Animas have disappeared, and the insects and bird communities aren’t faring much better either. But this breach was on another scale.
The governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, has declared a state of emergency, which will allow him to spend up to half a million dollars of disaster relief money on the incident to try and clear it up, though many think it is too late for that. Towns and cities downstream have already been warned to shut off their water intake in order to protect the drinking water, but this does nothing for those who have their own wells in the region.
The criticism has been laid heavy on the EPA. Normally on the other side of these environmental disasters, they’ve been attacked not just for the spill in the first place, but also for their response. It’s claimed that the EPA didn’t warn locals of the spill for up to 24 hours after it occurred. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has already announced that he intends to take legal action against the EPA to recover clean-up costs. And this doesn’t even touch on the loss of income to businesses during the busy summer months when the rivers would normally be full of people enjoying the river.