Colorado - Animas River, Mine Wastewater Spill

State: Colorado
Region: La Plata and San Juan Counties

A reported 3 million gallons of acidic wastewater from the Gold King Mine was released into the Animas River on August 5th, 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency was working with heavy equipment to find a leak at the mine, which has been releasing toxic water into the river for years. Workers instead accidentally caused the wastewater to spill into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas. Samples show levels of cadmium, copper, zinc, and manganese. Pollutants will settle out over time, and will get kicked up again as water levels fluctuate, and potentially cause future problems.

Durango, Silverton, San Juan and La Plata Counties in Colorado, the states of New Mexico and Utah declared the situation a local disaster and  state of emergency, which will allow access to more resources to respond to the spill going forward. Citizens successfully urged the federal government to list parts of the Silverton mining area as a Superfund sites which puts the area on the National Priorities List for cleanup, giving the commlunities a wider berth to address the problem.

Beyond the initial cleanup of the spill, there is a lot more work to do. Continued monitoring and analysis of the river and the wildlife that uses the river will be required to understand the long-term impacts. The watershed is littered with abandoned mines that still need reclamation, and it will take sustained community engagement, watershed advocacy and co-ordination with elected officials to clean up old mines to protect the region from any more disasters.

In early December, 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not act on a proposal requiring hardrock mining facilities to prove they can pay for cleanup under Superfund. The Obama-era proposal, developed with input from industry, environmental groups and state government, would have required companies to calculate the cost of remediation and then guarantee they could cover it through bonds, insurance or credit. The National Mining Association welcomed the decision, which it said relieved companies from unnecessary financial and regulatory burdens.