This time of year kayaks and inner tubes crowd the crystal-clear waters of the Animas River, which flows through the western Colorado city of Durango. Last night, the river was quickly abandoned as one million gallons of wastewater seeping from a local mine slowly trickled downstream, eventually coloring the entire river an eerie electric orange.
The wastewater was accidentally spilled by the Environmental Protection Agency as they attempted cleanup work on Gold King Mine, upstream from Durango. The long-abandoned mine had a collapsed entrance which had been known to release contaminated water into a nearby creek, so a crew of workers was installing a pipe to divert the flow. As they dug a hole they realized the wastewater level in the mine was higher than they thought. A wall of yellow-orange sludge—1,200 gallons per minute—began flowing downstream.
As a ribbon of orange made its way into town yesterday afternoon, the river was closed to recreational use and the city of Durango stopped its intake of water for public consumption. The city’s drinking water quality is not at risk, however, since the river is only a secondary source.
The orange color was caused not only by the highly acidic water but also the presence of heavy metals like iron, aluminum, cadmium, zinc, and copper, an EPA worker told the Durango Herald. The dramatic shade made for some stunning and scary images of a river turned toxic.
Testing will begin today to see how fish and other wildlife has been affected, with a mobile lab arriving on-site to determine the chemical makeup of the spill to decide how to treat it. But really the only fix is time: Officials said that the purification of the river will happen naturally as some of the larger solids settle and fresh water flows from upstream.
Check out the before and after shots of the river to see just how much work there is to do.