orange river
August 10, 2015

Oops: EPA accidentally turns Colorado river toxic orange

The bright orange-color of the water currently found in Colorado’s Animas River was accidentally caused by the same officials whose goal it is to keep this kind of pollution from happening in the first place, and things may be worse than originally thought.

As reported by CNN and Wired, the orange color is due to acidic wastewater filled with heavy metals pouring out of the abandoned Gold King Mine. While using heavy equipment in an attempt to enter the mine and investigate a persistent slow trickle of wastewater, EPA officials wound up turning a minor problem into a major one.

Their activities caused the mine’s plug to blow, causing the contaminated water (which up until that point had been treated in a holding area outside the mine) to flow into the Animas River, and turning it orange due to the iron, zinc, and copper content of the untreated H2O.

“It’s hard being on the other side of this,” regional EPA director of emergency preparedness Dave Ostrander told reporters during a public meeting on Friday afternoon, according to Wired. “We typically respond to emergencies; we don’t cause them.” Since then, however, published reports have indicated that the pollution may be more severe than previously believed.

Contamination three times worse than previously thought

On Sunday, EPA officials announced that an estimated three million gallons of contaminated water had leaked from the mine into the river; three times the amount previously believed, USA Today reported. Furthermore, they noted that the mine is still discharging 500 gallons per minute but noted that the water is being treated a two nearby ponds.

Preliminary testing data released by the agency over the weekend indicated that arsenic levels in the Durango region of the Animas River peaked at 300 times the normal level, while lead content topped out at 3,500 times the normal level. High concentrations of both metals are a considerable health risk, but the levels have decreased significantly since reaching their peak.

The Animas River meets the San Juan River in New Mexico, and while touring the damage over the weekend, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez told CNN affiliate KRQE, “The magnitude of it, you can't even describe it... your mind sees something it's not ready or adjusted to see.”

According to Reuters, an “unspecified number” people living downstream and who draw their drinking water from the river have reported discoloration, but the EPA said that there has been “no immediate evidence of harm to human health, livestock, or wildlife.” Nonetheless, residents were being told to temporarily avoid drinking or bathing in well water, and government workers said that they were working to provide families and businesses with usable water.

(Image: The beautiful Animas river before contamination. Credit: Thinkstock)