Sadly, Colorado’s river of gold doesn’t possess any of the majesty this article’s title might suggest. Instead, it refers to a grave environmental hazard plaguing the southwestern states of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico that officials are scrambling to fix. Due to an error on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Animas River, which flows through these states and is a tributary of the Colorado River, has transformed to a yellow toxic sludge that may lead to environmental hazards for years to come. The EPA has taken full responsibility.
Last week, the EPA was called to attend to a (comparatively minor) toxic waste leak in Colorado’s Gold King Mine. EPA workers accidentally breached a wall housing gallons of acidic water behind it. According to reports, EPA workers were unaware of the massive amounts of water behind the wall, and as a result hadn’t taken the necessary precautions, e.g. containment ponds. The river was subsequently filled with 3 million gallons of toxic sludge.
All three southwestern states, in conjunction with the Navajo nation of New Mexico, are considering filing suits against the federal government, as individual entities as well as a collective. The above parties may also choose to pursue legal action against their respective state governments as well as the EPA. However, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes says the suits may have to wait until the severity of the damage has been determined. He concedes that such an assessment could take years. Amid rising health and environmental concerns, all three states have declared states of emergency. In certain locales, the spill has placed water systems that are used for livestock, irrigation and residential use in peril.
EPA officials are working to determine the amount of contaminants currently in the river. Recent estimates revealed that the river now contains mercury at 10 times the EPA’s acceptable levels; beryllium and cadmium were 33 times the EPA’s acceptable levels; arsenic was measured at 800 times the acceptable levels; and lead was measured at a staggering 11,000 times the EPA’s acceptable levels. The amount of toxic materials will continue to grow as the river is currently being polluted at a rate of about 500-700 gallons per minute.
Unfortunately, it's no quick fix. The yellow plume will dilute itself among the water but that doesn’t denote a problem solved. As the water flows, the contaminants will settle along the riverbed. However, if ever the contaminants are stirred—which they inevitably will be—they will continue to poison the waters.
In the 1980s, a similar incident occurred at the Summitville Mine in Rio Grande County, Colorado. It cost 155 million dollars to fix the mess and the river is still being cleaned to this day.
A variety of health issues can arise as a result of exposure to these metals, such as cancer, kidney problems and developmental issues in young children. To make matters worse, it can take years—maybe even decades—for these health problems to present themselves.
“EPA’s core mission is to ensure a clean environment and to protect public health, so it pains me to no end to see this is happening” said EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.