Animas River contamination could lead to water restrictions

Animas River contamination could lead to water restrictions. 9NEWS at 9 p.m. 08/06/15

SILVERTON (AP) - The La Plata County Sheriff's office closed the Animas River to all watercraft Thursday afternoon after it was contaminated with about a million gallons of mine waste that turned it orange.

The river is closed to watercraft including canoes, kayaks, tubes, rafts and other flotation devices from the Northern San Juan County line to the southern County line at the Colorado/New Mexico State line until further notice. All such watercraft must be removed from the Animas River within those locations. 

The order will remain in effect until it is determined that the river is safe. EPA test results of the Animas River are expected within 24-48 hours, and the order will be re-evaluated at that time.  

 An Environmental Protection Agency and State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety team are working to investigate the contamination at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water.

The EPA says about one million gallons of mine waste, containing high levels of sediment and metals, spewed into Cement Creek, which runs into the Animas.

Several workers on-site at the time were unharmed.

Radio Durango reports that the city has shut down water intakes until the contaminated water has passed.

San Juan Corp., who owns the Gold King Mine, issued the following statement about the situation late Thursday afternoon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, operating under an access agreement obtained from the owner of the Gold King Mine, had begun an investigation regarding the source of contaminated water at the Gold King Mine last year.  Upon suspending work last year, the USEPA backfilled the portal to the mine.  On August 5th, 2015, while the USEPA was removing the backfill from the portal to the Gold King Mine to continue its investigation this year, the plug blew out releasing contaminated water behind the backfill into the Animas River. 

The mine spill flooded several San Juan county roads Wednesday. No other injuries have been reported.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment says that there are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed because of longstanding water quality impairment. 

However, there are two types of trout in the Animas -- brown and rainbow. The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife is putting some trout in cages in the river to monitor how the fish respond to the water.

"The metals will cause a spike in the PH balance of the water, making the water likely more acidic -- it's quite likely fish will be killed," said Colorado Parks and Wildlife official Joe Lewandowski.

While drinking water is not affected by the contaminants, the drinking water supply could be impacted if water cannot be pulled from the Animas.

"There's only so much the city can pull from the Florida and it's not enough to meet the daily demands of the residents," said Amy Maestas, editor of The Durango Herald. "It's still wait-and-see. People are concerned that this may lead to mandatory restrictions. It's the height of summer and it's when we use the most water."

A call center has been set up for the public at 970-385-8700.  As additional information is received, it will be posted to the La Plata County website at http://www.co.laplata.co.us/emergency, San Juan Basin Health Department's Website at www.sjbhd.org, La Plata County Government Facebook and San Juan Basin Health Department Facebook.

(© 2015 KUSA with the Associated Press)


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