Mining Wastewater Plume Spreads to New Mexico Waters

On Aug. 5, an EPA team working at a Colorado gold mine accidentally released 3 million gallons of wastewater into the nearby river. Now, that water is headed toward New Mexico.
Mining Wastewater Plume Spreads to New Mexico Waters
On August 5, while investigating the Gold King Mine in Colorado, an EPA cleanup team triggered a large release of mine wastewater into Cement Creek. (Photo: Jonathan Thompson, High Country News)

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A plume of contaminated mining wastewater has reached northern New Mexico waters, causing utilities in Aztec and Farmington to shut down river water intakes. The plume originated in Colorado when a team with the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of orange-hued waste at the Gold King Mine into Cement Creek, which flows into Animas River.

The waste, which contained dissolved metals, turned the water mustard. Photos of the disaster, including one of three kayakers in a yellow river, quickly made rounds on social media.

According to a report in The Guardian, federal and Colorado health officials have warned water users downstream from the spill to turn off intakes. The City of Durango, Colorado, stopped pulling raw water from the Animas River and switched entirely to the Florida River.

“Safety is the foremost concern for our residents,” said a press release from the city. “By closing off these systems, we prevent contaminating the equipment which provides our residents with clean drinking water.”

Residents in Durango were asked to conserve water because the Florida River water is not enough to meet summer daily demands. According to a City of Durango Facebook post, that request quickly resulted in a 1 million-gallon usage reduction.

On Sunday, Aug. 9, the City of Durango and La Plata County proclaimed a state of local emergency.

“This action has been taken due to the serious nature of the incident and to convey the grave concerns that local elected officials have to ensure that all appropriate levels of state and federal resources are brought to bear to assist our community,” read a press release from the City of Durango.

The EPA is working closely with first responders and local and state officials to monitor water conditions. A claims process has been established to assist those affected by the disaster, and the EPA is providing testing for domestic well water.

Aug. 11 correction: The amount of released wastewater was updated from 1 million gallons to 3 million gallons to reflect new estimates from the USGS.


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