Disaster on the Animas River

The Animas River rises in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado; flowing southward through Silverton and Durango, it merges with the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado, in Farmington, New Mexico.  This past week, the Environmental Protection Agency, attempting to clean up debris at the Gold King Mine, accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic, mustard-colored sludge into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

Laced with heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and copper, the mine debris has now reached Utah (via the San Juan River) and will soon enter Lake Powell; meanwhile, the waters of the Animas have begun to clear though sludge has settled on the river's bottom.  Preliminary studies have shown no negative impact on fish and regional wildlife but the longterm effects of this accidental spill (which continues at a lower rate) are far from certain.

No doubt, toxic sludge has been seeping from Colorado's abandoned gold and silver mines since the 19th Century; similar pollution impacts streams throughout North America and across the globe.  While major spills such as this event and the recent coal ash disaster in West Virginia bring mining pollution to the attention of the general public, the slow, steady release of toxic chemicals from old mines is generally ignored.  Despite the accident at the Gold King Mine, the funding of mine cleanup programs must continue; of course, strict pollution control measures at active mines are the most effective way of preventing future disasters.