Animas River Mining Spill

Luke Runyon / KUNC

In early August three years ago, Barb Horn stood along the banks of the Animas River in the city of Durango, Colorado. Word had spread of a mine waste spill upstream near Silverton. She waited, alongside hundreds of others, for the waste to appear. But the plume took longer than expected and eventually arrived at night.

The next morning, she saw the change.

“It was absolutely surreal,” Horn says. “And I think that's why it went viral. It’s like somebody photoshopped the river orange.”

One year ago — on Aug. 5, 2015 — an EPA crew at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of orange water filled with mercury and arsenic.

The toxic spill flowed into the Animas River, eventually running into New Mexico's San Juan River and into Lake Powell. So far, disaster response and water quality monitoring have cost the EPA about $29 million — and the problem isn't over yet.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Gov. John Hickenlooper has formally requested that a set of abandoned mines above Silverton be listed as a Superfund site. The request comes nearly seven months after an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup crew triggered a massive spill of polluted water from the Gold King Mine, turning the Animas River orange.

A Superfund listing may seem like a solution to the area's long-standing problem of mine pollution, but getting a site on the National Priorities List, EPA's official compendium of Superfund sites, is just the first step in a lengthy process.

Colorado Channel 165

Text of Gov. John Hickenlooper's 2016 State of the State address, as prepared and delivered, Jan. 14, 2016.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Carol and John Wagner’s ranch is surrounded by green pastures, with spectacular views of the northern San Juan mountains. The Wagners moved here from Pennsylvania in 1986, to raise cattle. When they first arrived, Carol said they wondered what was wrong with the creek that meandered through their property.

“Nothing could live in it,” she recalled. Grass didn’t grow along its banks, and there were no fish or bugs.

That creek, called Kerber Creek, is just a small piece of the legacy left by hard rock mining across the West. When Tang-colored water spilled from a mine into the Animas River, it caught the nation’s attention. Yet unknown to most, there are people who work day in and day out cleaning up the many hundreds of abandoned mine sites across Colorado. This sort of mine cleanup work is a never-ending process, fraught with logistical challenges, financing problems, even the looming threat of lawsuits.

Freshwaters Illustrated and USGS

The Colorado River rushes through the Grand Canyon in a powerful pulse. Trips down the remote river are legendary for knock-down rapids and gorgeous grottos. Being far from civilization, though, apparently doesn’t offer much help when it comes to keeping out pollution.

A study released in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found high levels of two serious contaminants in the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The Environmental Protection Agency was investigating an old mine near Silverton, Colo., earlier this month, when it accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic waste water into the Animas River.

Initially the agency downplayed the incident and provided little information. So Navajo President Russell Begaye traveled to the source of the toxic spill and posted a video of it on Facebook.

In the video, he stands in front of the still-leaking mine.

EPA

Say the names of these Colorado towns out loud: Silverton. Leadville. Silver Plume. Rico. Bonanza. Ironton. The last two are ghost towns, but the names of each allude to a history that - most of the time - is nearly invisible to most of the state's residents.

That mineral-rich past burst into the public consciousness after Environmental Protection Agency workers mistakenly triggered a release of contaminated water from the Gold King mine just above Silverton. The rust-colored water, laden with iron and several heavy metals, including very high concentrations of arsenic and lead, oozed its way down the Animas River, through the town of Durango and into New Mexico and beyond.

In the spill's wake, many questions have been raised. One is, just how big is the scale of mining wastewater problems in Colorado? Another is, what is being done to clean them up?

In Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, towns that are downstream from the old gold mine where contaminated wastewater spewed into a river have shut off their water supplies' connections to the spill. Two rivers will remain closed until at least Monday, officials say.

Jonathan Thompson / used w/ permission

The Environmental Protection Agency has said it caused a large release of hazardous water from a mine above the town of Silverton, in Southwest Colorado. Which begs the question: What was the EPA doing with heavy equipment at a mine in the San Juan Mountains?

To understand that, you have to understand the history of mining in Colorado and the West.

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