The Slatest

EPA Punctures Dam During Cleanup at Century-Old Mine, Sends Toxic Waste Into Rivers

The Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that its cleanup operation at a Colorado mine has led to the release of around three million gallons of toxic waste into the San Juan and Animas Rivers, the Washington Post reports. The agency accidentally punctured a dam holding back water filled with arsenic and heavy metals left behind by the Gold King Mine, which has been closed since 1923.

Authorities in New Mexico, downstream from the spill, complained that the EPA failed to alert them in a timely manner about the release of the toxic plume, which began last Wednesday and has turned miles of the Animas River a mustard color. Local authorities are reportedly still waiting for details from the federal agency about the contents of the waste and the Navajo Nation, worried about the loss of irrigation for members’ crops from polluted waters, is weighing a lawsuit against the EPA. From USA Today:

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said the state’s first notification of the spill came from Southern Ute Tribe officials. “It’s completely irresponsible for the EPA not to have informed New Mexico immediately,” she said after flying over the affected rivers.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the EPA did not notify his department of the spill until almost 24 hours after they’d caused it. He said the agency’s initial response to the disaster was “cavalier and irresponsible.”

EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath said the agency was “busting our tails” to provide a thorough lab analysis of the contaminants, which include lead and arsenic.

Reuters reports that the EPA has tripled its initial estimate of how much waste was released from the damaged dam before crews were able to divert the spill, which was still leaking  at a rate of 500 gallons per minute on Sunday, into two newly-constructed ponds. After some of the contaminants have settled to the bottom of the ponds, the less-harmful waste will eventually released into waterways.

KUSA, an NBC affiliate in Denver, noted that there are an estimated 55,000 abandoned mines across the western U.S., with Colorado University professor Mark Williams warning that “almost every abandoned mine has the potential” to release long-dormant waste. Officials in the affected states continue working to combat the five-day-old spill, which could have a long-term impact on the region:

Mike King with the [Colorado] Department of Natural Resources said Gov. John Hickenlooper verbally declared the waste spill a state disaster, and that he would make $500,000 available for resources.

There’s no estimation for when the river may reopen. There’s a concern that toxic sediment could sink into the bottom of the riverbed—something that could potentially be brought back up when a storm comes months or even years down the line.

Tainted water from the spill has reached Farmington, New Mexico, where a town hall meeting Saturday saw an EPA official heckled over the agency’s response, with state environment secretary Flynn promising attendees that “we will not allow the EPA to leave until they have compensated us.”