As its name in Spanish suggests, Las Animas River pollution has damaged the ‘spirit and soul’ of La Plata County in southwestern Colorado. Six months after the Environmental Protection Agency caused a three-million gallon spill of contaminated waters, residents and businesses reliant on the river are just now realizing the full extent of the damage.
According to a February Associated Press article, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that one of its crews cleaning up the Gold King Mine near Silverton unplugged dammed waste water sending more than 880,000 pounds of cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc down the tributary. Much of the metal settled into the riverbed but some contaminants may have reached New Mexico and Utah.
From its Southwest Office in downtown Denver, the nonprofit American Rivers, “…protects wild rivers, restores damaged rivers and conserves clean water for people and nature. Since 1973, American Rivers has protected and restored more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts…” Associate Director of Communications Sinjin Eberle warns that the damage done to Las Animas is not an isolated incident and claims that without immediate attention, other spills could be expected in Colorado and beyond due to a legacy of mining detritus. In an article on their website, Eberle writes, “…unfortunately, this accident has been waiting to happen for decades, as this particular mine was closed in 1923, left abandoned by the mining operators for the public to clean up generations later. This is exactly what the EPA was beginning to do when the release was triggered. Much blame has been laid at the feet of the EPA, and they have expressed their apologies and commitment to address the immediate mess as urgently as possible. But it is really the toxic legacy of abandoned mines, and just within the area surrounding Silverton in San Juan County, there are over 1,100 of these sitting idle, that is the real story.”
Directly on point, American Rivers forewarned the devastating contamination, naming the Colorado River one of the country’s most endangered in 2015 due to threats of mining contamination.* The Las Animas River is part of the Colorado River system.
Calling for a cleanup of mines to protect Colorado’s rivers, Eberle asks poignant and as yet unaddressed questions, “How much longer will these abandoned mines continue to leach their poisonous legacy into our streams? How much longer will they impact fisheries, agriculture, and the communities that depend on these rivers for their core viability?”
In an exclusive interview with La Voz Colorado, Matt Rice, Director of the Colorado River Basin Program for American Rivers, noted that the Gold King Mine brought needed attention to an issue requiring immediate attention. “In some regard it was a good thing that it turned a toxic color, a bright orange. There are tens of thousands of abandoned hard rock mines in Colorado. When claims didn’t pay out or meet expectations, miners left mines without mitigation or liability. This spill represents only one of thousands of cases of human error, releasing millions of gallons of polluted water downstream.”
Downstream communities are still assessing the damage. The State of New Mexico is considering a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the State of Colorado, while the Ute Mountain and Navajo Nation are contemplating measures to be made whole.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is seeking Superfund designation to bring in national funding to restore the river. Hickenlooper’s request gives weight to the conclusion reached by Silverton and San Juan County workgroups concluding that the stigma of Superfund designation hurting tourism would be far outweighed by the influx of federal government cash to clean the river and restore toxicity levels to pre-spill rates. Rice backs this move, “In the Upper Eagle River there was a similar spill of zinc pollution which ran through the Eagle Vail Valley. Once Superfund designation was reached, it drastically improved the river and long-term tourism was not impacted.”
Meanwhile, legislators from Colorado and surrounding states are pushing legislation at the federal level to address the thousands of still unregulated and potentially toxic mines in the western United States.