A huge mess. A tragedy. Unbelievable. These words have been used to describe the terrible situation along the Animas River in southwest Colorado, and now in Utah and New Mexico.
The US Environmental Protection Agency—while attempting to protect the water quality of the Animas River—inadvertently caused the release of more than 3 million gallons of water that had been trapped in an abandoned mine. The water was laced with heavy metals (naturally occurring in the rocks of the Mountain West) and escaped when workers breached materials that they did not realize were holding back the contaminated waters.
The Animas River immediately turned orange as the contaminated water devastated the beloved river of the region. Time will tell how long the heavy metals—iron, arsenic, and lead—will remain bound in the sediments of the river. Clean water will flush pollutants downstream, and eventually, much of the pollution will be trapped behind dams along the Colorado River and settle in the lake bottom sediments—and out of the water. Cleaner river water will continue to flow down the Colorado and, ultimately, to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
What are the lasting consequences of such an event? Short term, water sampling will be conducted to protect the drinking-water supplies of communities along the river. Aquatic wildlife will be tested for quite some time to assess the safety of eating fish from the contaminated river reaches. Long term, we will need to deal with the hundreds of abandoned mines in southwest Colorado—and thousands more in the West—that hold vast quantities of water polluted by heavy metals. The cost of cleanup will be astronomical, and that explains why progress is slow. The terrible results of the EPA’s attempts to clean up just one mine show the implications of unanticipated situations.
The images of orange-colored water flowing through beautiful stretches of our state will be hard to forget, but they will serve as a reminder of the challenges faced in addressing the environmental legacy of our mining past.
Tom Cech is director of the One World One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Formerly, he was the executive director of the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District in Greeley for more than twenty years, and he has also taught water resources courses at the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University. He is the author, with P. Andrew Jones, of Colorado Water Law for Non-Lawyers.