Jerry McBride / Durango Herald / AP

EPA: Colorado wastewater spill three times as large as first reported

Three million gallons of toxic stew continue to move through Colorado waters, threatening neighboring states

The toxic stew of mine waste that spilled into Colorado waters and turned a river orange last week is three times as large as officials originally estimated.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Sunday said it used better metrics to determine that agency regulators had mistakenly released 3 million gallons of wastewater laced with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, into Cement Creek in San Juan County, where it made its way into the Animas River and then Colorado River.

Initial estimates put the spill at 1 million gallons of wastewater.

The toxic water moved so quickly downstream that it could not be contained, EPA officials said. However, the spill did not cause any “significant health effects” to animals, said EPA toxicologist Deborah McKean.

The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife conducted a test of the water’s danger shortly after the spill on Wednesday by submerging 108 fish overnight in the Animas River. Of those fish, the department said, only one died, according to The Durango Herald.

But last week’s spill was neither the first nor the worst to contaminate Colorado waters. In 1975, 100 miles of the Animas River "looked like aluminum paint," according to The High Country News, quoting The Durango Herald at the time.

Until the late 1970s, there were no regulations on mining in most of the region, meaning anyone could dig a hole anywhere and search for gold, silver, copper or zinc. Abandoned mines filled with groundwater and snowmelt, which became tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins and then trickled into the region's waterways.

Experts estimate there are 55,000 such abandoned mines from Colorado to Idaho to California, and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.

Last week the EPA was trying to stanch leakage from a gold mine — not worked since 1923 — but accidentally breached an underground reservoir of toxic water.

The orange-tinged slurry, which cascaded into Cement Creek and then into the Animas River, is now headed into New Mexico and Utah, but EPA officials say there has been no immediate evidence of harm to human or aquatic life.

While the short-term damage to wildlife appears minimal, the long-term consequences of the latest accident remain murky, with the full impact not likely to be known for weeks or months, the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife said, according to The Durango Herald.

What impact the sludge will have on the riverbed, for instance, remains a key unknown. Tests in Colorado are still being done, especially on the effect on insects that live along the waterway.

"It’s not something we can figure out instantly,” department spokesman Joe Lewandowski said Friday, The Durango Herald reported. 

Although the effects of the spill remain uncertain, the president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, vowed Sunday that the EPA is “not going to get away with this,” local news station KOB reported.

The Navajo Nation sits on the borders between New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and the Colorado River makes up part of the territory's northwestern border.

The Navajo Nation will recover “every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources,” Begaye said.

“I have instructed Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take immediate action against the EPA to the fullest extent of the law to protect Navajo families and resources,” he told his constituents at a community meeting.

Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez told Al Jazeera that farmers along the San Juan River, a tributary of the Animas, have stopped irrigating their farms and could lose their crops in two weeks if they're not assured the water is safe.

"We are looking at holding people accounable here," Nez said. "And if the EPA is at fault here, then they're the ones who are going to be looked at by the Navajo Nation as the cause of this environmental catastrophe."

Nez added that the Navajo consider the San Juan River sacred and "how do you measure that in terms of dollars?" 

Al Jazeera and wire services. Wilson Dizard contributed reporting

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