Residents demand health answers as mine spill fouls rivers

Kim Cofman and her daughters Acacia, 12, left, and Cayenne, 14, try to stir up sludge from the Gold King Mine that covers the bottom the Animas River on Saturday. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP)

Kim Cofman and her daughters Acacia, 12, left, and Cayenne, 14, try to stir up sludge from the Gold King Mine that covers the bottom the Animas River on Saturday. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Farmers, towns and tribes slammed water-intake gates shut as a sludge-laden plume from a Colorado mine spill rolled down principal rivers in the desert Southwest on Monday, prompting local officials and families to demand answers about possible long-term threats from heavy metals borne along by the spill.

Colorado and New Mexico declared stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers to be disaster areas as the orange-colored waste stream estimated to be 100 miles long churned downstream toward Lake Powell in Utah after the spill Wednesday at the abandoned Gold King mine.

The Navajo Nation, which covers parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, also declared an emergency as it shut down water intake systems and stopped diverting water from the San Juan River.

The 3 million gallons of mine waste included high concentrations of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. Workers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accidentally unleashed the spill as federal and contract workers inspected the abandoned mine site near Silverton, Colorado.

The EPA has said the contaminants were rolling too fast to be an immediate health threat. Experts and federal environmental officials say they expect the massive river system to dilute the heavy metals before they pose a longer-term threat.

Dissolved iron in the waste turned the long plume an alarming orange yellow — a look familiar to old-time miners who call it “yellow boy” — so “the water appears worse aesthetically than it actually is, in terms of health,” said Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

EPA officials said stretches of the rivers would be closed for drinking water, recreation and other uses at least through Aug. 17.

Tests show some of the metals have settled to the bottom and would dissolve only if conditions became acidic, which isn’t likely, Cohen said.

The best course for the EPA would be to leave the metals where they settle, he said, noting that next spring’s mountain snowmelt would help dilute the contaminants further and flush them downstream.

No die-off of wildlife along the river has yet been detected. Federal officials say all but one of a test batch of fingerling trout deliberately exposed to the water survived over the weekend. In addition, the Colorado-based Mountain Studies Institute environmental group saw no immediate unusual effects in flies exposed to the water, program director Aaron Kimple said.

As a precaution, state and federal officials along the river system have ordered public water systems to turn off intake valves as the plume passes. Boaters and fishing groups have been told to avoid affected stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers, which are crowded with rafters and anglers in a normal summer.

Congress members, state officials and residents contend the EPA is not providing quick answers about long-term impacts from the spill.

“There are more people who want to know, ‘OK, what’s going to happen now? Are you going to fix this?'” said Michele Truby-Tillen, a spokeswoman for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management in New Mexico. ‘”How are we going to protect our families? How long am I not going to be able to shower at my house?'”

In Cedar Hill, New Mexico, a family farm that serves as many as 3,000 customers in the Four Corners region, has been forced to stop irrigating dozens of acres of crops.

D’rese Sutherland of Sutherland Farmers said she received advanced warning from farmer friends in Colorado about the approaching plume.

“By the weekend, without any rain, we’ll be in trouble,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do but wait and see what happens.”

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, expressing concern over the failure of the agency to notify New Mexico sooner about the problem.

They also asked that the federal agency develop a plan for dealing with the lack of water for communities in San Juan County and the Navajo Nation.

The EPA released a statement saying it was sharing information as quickly as possible with the public as its experts evaluate any effects of the spill.

Recreational businesses along the rivers said they were losing thousands of dollars.

“We had lots of trips booked. Right now we’re just canceling by the day,” said Drew Beezley, co-owner of 4 Corners Whitewater in Durango, Colorado.

He said his company has had to cancel 20 rafting trips so far, and his dozen employees are out of work until the river is deemed safe to enter again.

“We don’t really know what the future holds yet,” said Beezley, who estimates that he’s lost about $10,000 worth of business since the spill last week. “We don’t know if the rest of this season is just scrapped.”Animas RiverArizonaColoradoDisaster areasGold King mineHeavy metalsLake PowellMine spillMine wasteNavajo NationNew MexicoSan Juan RiverSilvertonU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyUSUtah

Just Posted

San Francisco supervisors are considering plans to replace trash cans — a “Renaissance” garbage can is pictured on Market Street — with pricey, unnecessary upgrades. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
San Francisco must end ridiculous and expensive quest for ‘pretty’ trash cans

SF’s unique and pricey garbage bins a dream of disgraced former Public Works director

Pachama, a Bay Area startup, is using technology to study forests and harness the carbon-consuming power of trees. (Courtesy Agustina Perretta/Pachama)
Golden Gate Park visitors may take a survey about options regarding private car access on John F. Kennedy Drive, which has been the subject of controversy during the pandemic.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Your chance to weigh in: Should JFK remain closed to cars?

Host of mobility improvements for Golden Gate Park proposed

Dreamforce returned to San Francisco in person this week – but with a tiny sliver of past attendance. (Courtesy Salesforce)
Dreamforce returns with hundreds on hand, down from 170,000 in the past

High hopes for a larger Salesforce conference shriveled during the summer

The Hotel Whitcomb on Market Street was one of many hotels that took in homeless people as part of The City’s shelter-in-place hotel program during the pandemic.<ins> (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>
Closing hotels could disconnect hundreds from critical health care services

‘That baseline of humanity and dignity goes a long way’

Most Read