EPA Causes Massive Spill of Mining Waste Water in Colorado, Turns Animas River Bright Orange

People kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colorado, August 6, in water colored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated one million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald/Press Association/AP

Updated | The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was trying to protect the environment when it caused a major spill instead.

The EPA says it was using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine on Wednesday morning when it accidentally released an estimated 1 million gallons of mining waste into a creek. The waste spewed from the creek into the Animas River north of Silverton, Colorado, turning the water an opaque orange color reminiscent of boxed mac and cheese.

"This is a huge tragedy. It's hard being on the other side of this. We typically respond to emergencies, we don't cause them," David Ostrander, EPA's director of emergency preparedness for the region, said at a community meeting held in Durango, Colorado on Friday afternoon. "But this is just an unanticipated situation that didn't quite come out as planned."

In response to an audience member, he added, "We're asking ourselves the same question: What exactly happened."

The wastewater released contains heavy metals including lead, arsenic, cadmium, and aluminum, Ostrander said. The EPA is preparing a plan to sample private water wells along the Animas River valley to test for contamination, including mercury contamination, he said.

But the EPA has not released information about what concentration of metals are present in the water, or how much a threat to human and ecosystem health the wastewater might pose. EPA officials did confirm that the sheriff's office of La Plata County, Colorado, was correct in closing the river to the public, however. "What we received back from the first five samples show that the elevated levels of dissolved metals confirm that the sheriff here took the right measure in putting out the advisory and asking that people not have contact with the river," Sean McGrath, the EPA administrator for the region that includes Colorado, said at the meeting Friday. "I can assure you we are moving the lab analysis as quickly as I can. The sheriff's actions were absolutely appropriate."

On Wednesday morning, an EPA crew was working on a Superfund-related project to stop historic leakage of wastewater from the mine when they "hit a spot" that destabilized a retaining dam and caused the release.

"We were up in this area doing what's called site investigation. This is work that we do in Superfund to understand the extent of the contamination...to understand how to work to stop that flow," McGrath said. "In doing our work up there, we hit a spot where water started coming out that we hadn't expected. We come to find out there was quite a bit more mine waste water up there than we had expected, for sure. In fact the dam that had been holding that water back was just soils and loose materials instead of solid rocks. That started to flow out, and [the wastewater] quickly broke through and drained out."

By Friday morning, the plume of orange had made its way downstream and was eight miles from the northern border of New Mexico, the EPA said in an emailed statement. The Animas River flows for 126 miles and is a tributary of the larger San Juan River, part of the Colorado River system. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez says she wasn't notified of the spill for a full day after the event.

"The governor is disturbed by the lack of information provided by the EPA to our environmental agencies in New Mexico and strongly believes that people in our communities downstream deserve to have all the information about this situation," Chris Sanchez, the governor's spokesman, said in an emailed statement Thursday. "For example, we were not notified about this release until 9:30 a.m. this morning even though the release is reported to have occurred at approximately 10:40 a.m. yesterday. And the first notification received by the State of New Mexico came from an official with the Southern Ute Tribe, not EPA."

"Governor Martinez hopes the EPA will be more cooperative and forthcoming moving forward as we work to address this situation and that the EPA will demand the same of itself as it would of a private business responsible for such a spill."

This post has been updated with information from a Friday afternoon EPA conference call.