The Animas and San Juan: A Giant River of Problems

Since the turn of the century, Colorado mining has left thousands of gallons of toxic, waste-filled sludge to rot and destroy the environment. Many mines in Colorado were abandoned due to improper permitting and usage. These shafts are leaking and negatively impacting the environment. Leaking sludge contains damaging, heavy metals that are slowly polluting river systems, contaminating soil, and scarring the world in which we live. The Environmental Protection Agency set out to clean all water that remains underground as part of previous, unregulated, toxic mining operations. Because of the need for restoration over the state, the Environmental Protection Agency has propelled efforts to clean these sites.

One such important site was the Gold King Mine site near Silverton, Colorado. The EPA started this project on August 5th of 2015. The goal was to treat contaminated water that was already leaking into the Animas and San Juan rivers. According to Gina McCarthy, the EPA administrator, more than 330 million gallons had already flowed from the mine into the Animas River since 2009. On the same day of the project beginning, federal EPA contractors were excavating the Gold King Mine. An opening to the mine collapsed and released an additional 300 million gallons of contaminated water into the river system within a couple hours. This water contained dangerous elements such as high levels of iron and lead, aluminum, zinc, cadmium, manganese, arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. Immediately following this accident, the EPA warned the towns and cities about the contamination and closed the use of the Animas and San Juan rivers. Since the EPA was responsible for taking care of damages in the first place, it is holding itself accountable for this incident. Because of the many problems caused by the accident, the EPA must respond quickly to prevent further permanent damage to the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Once the contamination hit, it immediately caused many adverse effects upon the citizens and tourists around the rivers. The people who live near the rivers year-round were urged to cease drinking any public water or any form of water coming from the Animas and San Juan. News exploded all over Colorado, especially in the areas actually affected by the accident. Bottled water was recommended in place of river water as to avoid any contamination from the dangerous elements in the water. In addition to the everyday residents, tourists were greatly affected. Towns, especially Silverton, are economically dependent upon the tourism trade. Silverton Town Council member David Zanon stated that he did not want Silverton to even be associated with the accident because it would hurt tourism. Because this incident closed the river, kayaking and general river recreation halted. The mining spill caused an ugly, mustard-yellow color to shade the rivers. Many people were greatly disappointed in the rivers’ color and the inability to use it for enjoyment and utility.

Most prominently, the spill greatly upset the farmers using the Animas for irrigation. The river was closed to avoid contamination of crops and animals, so the farmers possessed no other means to water other than the river. This caused great distress for the farmers and grazers because they required thousands of gallons of water to be shipped by truck, which the farmers could not afford. Though the government did end up paying half a million dollars for shipping water, it still remained insufficient because damage was caused to crops and animals were still not hydrated properly. The immediate effects of the spill caused great problems, but with the treatment and time, the conditions of the situation improved.

Since the mine spill, the EPA had implemented a temporary solution. Crews have created a series of settling ponds along the rivers. These allow the water to slow down in rate, drop hazardous materials, and then return to the river. Crews also treat the water for its acidity while in the ponds. Linings in these ponds allow the metals to fall and the lining to be cleaned periodically. Overall river toxicity is decreased while flowing through settling ponds, and therefore less damage occurs. This tactic does help repair the environment in the damage being done by the spill, but does not completely solve the problem. The immediate problem is being solved more by time and nature rather than the EPA. Metals, because they are naturally denser than the water, settle into the soil below the rivers. Tests confirm that the water in many areas is already in pre-accident condition which has allowed river bans to be lifted and regular use to resume. Regular life for most has resumed, but more problems in need of attention lie past the news reels.

Two major problems are still present: further mine spillage and polluted soil. The water is declared clean enough for daily use once again. However, the river soil is still contaminated and the mine is still constantly shedding water into the river at about 600 gallons per minute. The EPA is considering the creation of a water treatment plant for this problem. Plugging the remaining amount of water flow could cause an explosion of fluid and generate even more problems in other areas. The best solution is to implement a treatment plant from the Gold King Mine to indefinitely clean the water flow. News stations and the EPA do not want to admit that metals spilled from the mine into the river have permanently damaged the riverbed and will most likely never be cleaned. Because the water is usable, the riverbed will remain damaged because it is not causing immediate problems. But the fact that the rivers are still usable does not sanction further damage to the soil. Further spillage causes more toxic metals to flow in the river as well as heighten acidity. Research from 2009 to 2014 indicates that this acidity has been killing fish populations for years. A water treatment plant effectively stops the problem and prevents further permanent damage to the river and danger of toxic utility water.   Future generations will appreciate the cleansing of the river toxins because it means a healthier environment in which to live. Solving the problems now allows for less damage over time and allows a healthier future for the Animas and San Juan.

The EPA’s response to implement a temporary, immediate solution and long-term effective solution, will allow a healthier future to the Animas and San Juan rivers. The major problem has been solved and regular life has been returned to normal. However, the EPA will have to spend more money and procure more efforts, but they will all result in a better environment and a better Earth in which to live. The mining practice must change to increase responsibility for a safe and unproblematic environment. Mining practices provide enormous goods to society, but those goods must be met with all required responsibility.


Andrew KotwicaAndrew Kotwica is currently a college student working to earn his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After taking on the skill from his father, he spends a lot of time in his garage designing and creating fine pieces of furniture. Andrew has an interest in things mechanical and technological, but he also enjoys singing, acting, and film study.

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