Bright Orange Mine Waste Spills Into Animas River Near Durango

Aug 6, 2015

A huge spill of hazardous mine waste has contaminated the Animas River, which runs through Durango.

The Environmental Protection Agency says the spill was triggered by EPA employees at the Gold King Mine above Silverton while they  were investigating contamination at the mine. They estimate a million gallons of waste spilled from the mine.

Jonathan Thompson, a senior editor with environmental magazine High Country News who lives in Durango, heard of the spill via Twitter, and immediately rushed down to the river to see the pollution. At the time, it was about 6 miles above Durango. Normally, the river is a deep green color, said Thompson.

“And right now where that has hit, it is bright orange. It’s like orange crush, but a really thick orange crush,” he said.

Thompson also compared the river to carrot juice, because of its thick consistency. The mine waste is full of heavy metals and sediment. Because of the hazards, the EPA has recommended people avoid contact with the river.

The spill is large, but it is not unprecedented. The San Juan Mountains above Durango were home to many mines, with tailings pond full of heavy metal-laden water. In the 1970s, said Thompson, the city experienced similar spills, where tailings ponds were bleached “and they dumped a lot of things into the river.”

A catalog of mine waste spills worldwide lists an historic spill in Silverton, Colorado, of 127 million tons of material that polluted nearly 100 miles of the Animas River.

Then, as now, the town closed its water intakes and farmers and others who depend on the river had to wait until the pollution passed by.

Many of the mines above Durango leak small amounts of toxic water nearly constantly. As a result of the pollution, creeks in the Silverton area are often nearly devoid of aquatic life. But by the time the Animas River, which is fed by these tributaries, reaches Durango, the volume of water has diluted the pollution. The stretch of river just below Durango is a gold medal trout fishery.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has said it is monitoring the river for impacts to fish.

Read More: Why Was The Environmental Protection Agency Messing With A Mine Above Silverton?