EPA Admits It Triggered Million-Gallon Mine Waste Release Into Animas River

The orange-colored discharge started flowing from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into Cement Creek and then the Animas River on Wednesday and prompted heath officials Thursday to warn agricultural and recreational water users to avoid the river. 

EPA confirmed Friday the discharge from the mine contained heavy metals and metalloids including lead and arsenic, along with cadmium, aluminum, copper and calcium, but the agency didn't immediately discuss amounts or health risks.

From Durango, the Animas flows south to New Mexico, through Aztec and then joins the San Juan River at Farmington. The San Juan eventually drains into the Colorado River at Lake Powell, Arizona.

Officials in New Mexico are angry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not informing them soon enough about the pollution floating downstream.

New Mexico's environment secretary, Ryan Flynn, said Friday that the EPA downplayed the danger the contamination posed to wildlife, saying that potential harm can't be known until the contents of the wastewater and their concentrations are known.

The San Juan Health Department says the acidic mine water associated with the release contains high levels of sediment and metals. ​Durango has shut down water intakes until the contaminated water has passed, but the city says tap water is safe to drink.

On Friday aternoon, EPA released more details about how it says the pollution was released:

On August 5, 2015, EPA was conducting an investigation of the Gold King Mine.  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.

La Plata County Emergency Management says the plume reached the outskirts of Durango at about 7:30 p.m. County Sheriff Sean Smith says that the river has been closed to tubers, rafters and kayakers in the county and won't reopen until the river is deemed safe.

The Durango Herald reports that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has placed four cages of fish along the river to see how the pollution affects them.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to arsenic as a heavy metal. Arsenic is a metalloid. The error has been corrected.