On August 5, over 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River in southwest Colorado. But it wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, time these harmful materials have leaked into the river.
The toxic sludge came from the Gold King Mine, but there are 230 other mines currently leaking heavy metals the state’s river system — materials that threaten drinking water, as well as animal and plant life.
Heavy metals, including copper, iron, cadmium and manganese, come from mining gold deep in the Colorado mountains. When miners have depleted all of the gold, they abandon it. Over time, the materials that are left over from the mining process build up in the acidic groundwater also left in the mines, supplemented by years of rain and snowmelt water that gets in as well, flowing from there into nearby creeks and later major rivers.
The Gold King Mine spill leaked copper, lead, cadmium, iron, and other metals, and the 230 mines are leaking their own mixtures of the metallic sludge into rivers all over Colorado. The Denver Post estimates the mines leak thousands of gallons per minute — quickly adding up to more than the Gold King Mine spill that occurred while the EPA worked on the mine.
However, the Denver Post reports that state officials aren’t keeping track of how much these mines are leaking, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency set out to get a better idea of what’s getting into the rivers. During the investigation, which involved the use of heavy machinery, EPA workers accidentally ripped a hole in the mine, giving the dirty mine water a more direct route to the Animas River.
Metals in low enough doses don’t have much of an effect on the ecosystem of river, Colorado State University geoscience professor Ellen Wohl told Business Insider. But the higher the concentration of metals, the more likely the plants, fish and microbes in the environment won’t be able to thrive, let alone survive.
Colorado is having a tough time figuring out how to keep track of and fix all the mines that are leaking around the state.
“You’re going to have some people say: ‘Hey, the EPA, look at how incompetent they are.’ But others will see this is part of a longer-term problem,” Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas stakeholders group, told the Denver Post. “Mistakes happened. We need to have this agency come in and provide more resources. There’s just a shortage of state resources.”
Without the manpower to keep these spills from happening, toxic sludge will continue to pump into rivers, killing fish and making water undrinkable, for years to come.
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