The Animas River is a 125-mile river in the western United States that feeds the Colorado River. On August 5, 2015, a crew from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was pumping out water from the abandoned Gold King Mine in Southern Colorado when heavy equipment used by the workers caused a leak.
According to an EPA press release, “The intent of the investigation was to assess the on-going water releases from the mine and to treat mine water and to assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. The plan was to excavate the loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry back to the timbering. During the excavation, the loose material gave way, opening the adit (mine tunnel) and spilling the water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.”[i]
The collapse released more than 3 million gallons of metal-filled wastewater into the Animas River changing the spring mountain water into 60 miles of polluted mustard-colored stream of waste. The impact of the spill, considered a major mining-related environmental disasters that hasn't happened in decades, is yet to be determined. Businesses along the river however, have shut down and residents are wondering how much the contamination could affect their health, wildlife, farming and other activities.
According to first water samples shortly after the spill, lead levels were 12,000 times higher than normal and mercury levels were 10 times higher than EPA acceptable levels. Arsenic was 800 times higher and beryllium and cadmium were 33 times higher. The waste also contained “extremely high levels” of zinc, iron and copper.
The river supplies water to five water systems and serves as a main source of water for irrigating crops in three states, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Once the metal flow entered the Animas, it was carried into the San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah. The biggest city impacted by the spill is Farmington, New Mexico with a population of 45,000. The city indicated that it has 90 days of reserves before it will have to draw water from the river.
As the EPA and other agencies work to address the spill, environmentalists are pointing to what could be a bigger problem, the other estimated 500,000 abandoned mines that could cause similar problems or may be leaking acid waste into other waterways. Governing how corporations mine for public minerals is a law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. The law does not outline any environmental provisions, or require companies to cleanup after the mining is done or be responsible for any legacy of pollution.
Mercury analyzers are an important element used to test water sources for mercury levels. For more information on these analyzers and how they can help with your mercury analysis needs, please contact us.
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