I’m very familiar with the Animas River near Durango, Colorado.
Having hiked and camped along its banks several times, it is – or was – a beautiful stretch of scenery and water.
That is, until millions of gallons of contaminated water from the long-abandoned King Gold Mine erupted by mistake into the tranquil Animas. Now, the EPA, whose heavy equipment caused the hole that allowed the water to spew out, says higher levels of arsenic (tested at 26 times normal), lead (12,000 times normal) and cadmium are now in the river, which turned orange in the immediate aftermath of the spill. The contaminants have already reached New Mexico.
Of course, state environmental officials say the water “doesn’t appear” to pose a health risk. Tell that to downstream residents in Aztec, Spencerville, Flora Vista and Farmington.
Others sound more cautionary warnings, suggesting the heavy metals may have already leeched into the river bed, posing a significant specter of lasting damage for who-knows-how-many years to come. Does this present the looming death of portions of this once clear river? The waters near the spill site are clearing but does that present a false picture of a return to normality?
The King Mine, shut down way back in 1923, is one of thousands of shuttered gold mines through the West that harbor environmental risks from murky waters created as a byproduct of their operations. If terrible water lurks 90 years after the fact, do other such disasters await in other mines?
This is akin to the flow of millions and millions of tons of coal ash from Duke Energy retention ponds that poured into the Dan River in recent years here in North Carolina. The top of the water may look normal, but it’s the unseen and heavy metal-laden sludge below that will be with us for many, many years. Our legislators continue to turn a blind eye to the long term effects of the spill into the Dan.
Whether it’s truly dangerous metals/chemicals or remnants of the very trash I pick up most days, we despoil our waterways and wildlife in unthinkable ways. With thousands of other potential King Mines in the wings, how long will it be before another river turns deadly orange?