Tests Show Animas River Water Quality Recovering After Mine Spill

Photo: EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy In New Mexico
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in New Mexico on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.

The Environmental Protection Agency says water quality in the Animas River near Durango is back to where it was before 3 million gallons of wastewater spilled from an abandoned mine. State officials have given the city a green light to use river water again for drinking water, once it’s been treated. But some residents remain skeptical.

Previous reporting:

What the EPA Administrator is saying as she visits the area:

The big message is that water quality is returning to pre spill levels in the Durango area. We’re expecting more information from the EPA soon on water quality in lower segments of the Animas, and the San Juan, into which it drains.

Also, there’s still no information on the orange sediment that the toxic plume laced with heavy metals has left in the riverbed and on the banks. This is something to watch because we know that test results taken from the Animas right after the spill contained lead levels more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.

That sediment can get stirred up during spring runoff and other events. The EPA doesn’t have details yet on how this factors into the picture or what it will do about it. Meanwhile, La Plata County crews have begun to flush mining sediment from irrigation ditches in the area.

What’s been the reaction from town leaders in Durango?

In a word: caution. The city got the green light from the state to start treating Animas River water on Wednesday, but officials there are not moving forward on that just yet. They say they're proceeding “carefully” to make sure the water is absolutely safe.

What's interesting is that even though the EPA is doing a lot of water tests, so are state officials and individuals, too. We spoke with Tom Bridge, the owner of Durango Nursery, who says he used to draw drinking water from Animas River. Now he gets three truckloads of water delivered daily to his business. We asked him, what would it take for him to start watering plants again with Animas River water.

"I'd have to have independent water tests and have it run by CSU labs to have them tell me it’s OK," Bridge said. "Trust but verify."

The president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, said the nation is also doing its own testing. So you have verification of EPA test results happening at a lot of different levels.

How local businesses doing after the spill, with the river closed for a week:

Some farmers are without water for crops. The EPA is making water available for ranchers and other uses -- like Tom Bridge’s nursery. But the big thing is that boating and recreational access has been shut down entirely, and Roger Zalnetitus, the executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, says the EPA has initiated a process to reimburse for losses.

Still, it's easy to imagine the challenge for Durango rafting companies once the river does re-open. Even if the EPA deems it safe for use, is there a lag with tourists booking trips?

"That’s going to be really incumbent upon us as a community to have an effective campaign to explain to people this is the river that you’ve always loved, come back and enjoy it," Zalnetitus said.

What’s happening with the investigation into this incident and what happened:

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said there will be a full internal and external investigation. A congressional committee has asked the U.S. Inspector General’s Office to look into what happened. That office will evaluate whether the inquiry is needed. And if so, it will focus on neglect and criminal activity by EPA staff and contractors.

The larger issue here is that there are thousands of abandoned mines in western and southwestern Colorado. Some have toxic wastewater and need to be addressed.