EPA takes heat for toxic wastewater spill that turns Colorado river orange

EPA takes heat for toxic wastewater spill that turns Colorado river orange

People kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., on Aug. 6, 2015, in water colored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment Wednesday to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated 1 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via Associated Press)

DENVER — The Environmental Protection Agency is coming under fire in Colorado after accidentally dumping one million gallons of acidic waste into the Las Animas River, turning it bright orange and threatening the community’s water supply.

“The irony of this million-gallon toxic spill is rich,” said Moffat County Commissioner John Kinkaid. “EPA just created its own Love Canal.”

He said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy “owes the people of Colorado a personal apology for the damage that her agency has just inflicted on the state.”

“Catastrophe on the Animas,” said the Durango Herald in a Thursday headline.

Agency personnel working on a reclamation project at the Gold King Mine, an inactive operation that dates back 100 years, mistakenly released the wastewater Wednesday into Cement Creek, which then moved into the Las Animas River through the town of Durango and toward New Mexico.

In a statement, the EPA said its team was investigating contamination at the mine “unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water into the upper portions of cement creek.”

The agency said the contaminated water was held “behind unconsolidated debris near an abandoned mine portal” and that workers at the site were unharmed.

“The acidic mine water associated with the release contains high levels of sediment and metals,” said the Colorado Parks and Wildlife in a statement on Colorado Public Radio. “EPA teams are conducting sampling and visual observations today and will be monitoring river conditions over the next several days. The water associated with the release is obvious and highly discolored.”

A public meeting held Friday in Durango with the EPA Region 8 director, along with state and local officials, drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said the Gold King Mine’s heyday was from 1890 to 1920 and that there was no active mining operation at the site.

“Obviously the agency has some explaining to do,” said Mr. Sanderson. “I think the most important thing is for the agencies that are involved to remedy the situation as quickly as possible. This is not an active mine under the control of any of the major players in Colorado.”

“The site was apparently under the agency’s control,” he said.

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith closed the river Thursday to kayakers, rafters and others using flotation devices along the popular recreational waterway near Durango “in the interest of public health.”

“This Order shall remain in effect until it is determined that the river is safe,” Sheriff Smith said in a statement. “EPA test results of the Animas River are expected within 24-48 hours, and the Order will be reevaluated at that time.”

Republican state Sen. Chris Holbert commented in an online post: “Government: the most expensive and least effective way to solve a problem. Looking at you, EPA.”

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