River’s Bright-Orange Makeover Signals Disaster for Residents and Wildlife

The accidental spill was caused by an unlikely source.
The Animas River. (Photo: Brent Lewis/Getty Images)
Aug 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Ordinarily, the Animas River is packed with kayaks, inner tubes, and fishermen. This weekend, however, there were few visitors.

That’s because earlier this week, more than a million gallons of contaminated water from an old gold mine poured into the Animas River in Durango, Colorado. Potentially dangerous levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and aluminum have made the water dangerous for consumption, water sports, and wildlife. Old sediment has turned it into a murky mustard-colored mess.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were attempting to install a drain pipe to remove potentially harmful acidic water at the Gold King mines when they triggered a massive overflow. The once slow-moving problem turned into a rapidly moving environmental disaster. “It’s hard being on the other side of this,” said Dave Ostrander, the EPA’s director of emergency preparedness. “We typically respond to emergencies. We don’t cause them.”

Nearby residents were told to stay out of the river and conserve drinking water while federal officials continue to test it. The mine water has traveled more than 60 miles, according to The Denver Post. The Animas River also flows into the San Juan River, which in turn flows into the Colorado River, from which 40 million people living in the West receive their drinking water.

The EPA is working to curb the damage by creating a retention pond near the mine to divert and treat the water, and additional water will be released from the Navajo Dam to help dilute the water in the San Juan River. But some of the damage can’t be undone. EPA officials expect the spill will have long-term effects as the heavy metals settle to the bottom, only to be stirred up in months to come from runoff and rain.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the entirety of the mines had been emptied.