The Navajo Nation and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper declared a state of emergency on Monday, August 10, after EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) officially confirmed that 11 356 235 liters (3 million gallons) of toxic mining sludge from a mine in southwest Colorado leaked into the Animas River. The contaminated wastewater flowed down the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah, responsible for supplying the southwest with drinking water.
The yellow plume of water contaminated with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic has stretched across 161 km (100 miles) since the spill happened on August 5, and is actually three times bigger than the original amount of 3 785 411 liters (1 million gallons) estimated by EPA. The EPA supervised crew officials are being blamed for causing the spill of contaminated water, in an attempt to clean up the mine area.
Video credit: RT America
In addition to arsenic and lead, officials reported the spill contains cadmium, aluminum, copper, and calcium.
The wastewater has reached Aztec, Farmington and Kirtland municipalities of New Mexico during the weekend of August 8 and August 9.
Consequently, drinking water systems of the Navajo Nation across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah have cut off the water intake systems from the river, and drinking water has been hauled to some communities. Farms along the rivers Animas and San Juan in northwestern New Mexico have now remained without water to irrigate their crops.
So far, the EPA hasn't determined if there are any health risks to human or aquatic life, from the ongoing pollution.
However, the threat from the water pollution isn't immediate, as the accumulated consequences usually have a long-term impact, as it takes years, or, in some cases, even decades to develop health problems related to heavy metal water contamination. "This is a major, major problem," said Jonathan Freedman, a toxicologist at the University of Louisville.
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Russell Begaye, Navajo President has said that his people are frustrated with EPA policy and he announced to take legal action on the matter, as the Navajo people concluded the contamination will have long-lasting and still unknown influence on the water systems and wells across the affected areas.
However, so far, drinking water contamination has not been detected, as the water utilities have shut down their intakes before the spill reached the regions in question. The gates to the water resource have also been urgently closed by the farmers to protect their crops.
A disaster emergency in Colorado has been declared in order to "ensure public safety and minimize environmental impacts." The emergency order will allow the state to move $500,000 from the state emergency fund towards response efforts.
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“By declaring a disaster emergency, we are able to better support impacted businesses and communities with state resources. We will work closely with the EPA to continue to measure water quality as it returns to normal, but also to work together to assess other mines throughout the state to make sure this doesn’t happen again," the Governor Hickenlooper stated.
EPA toxicologist Deborah McKean stated the analyzed water samples collected near the spill site showed heightened levels of arsenic and other metals. However, so far it seems the reported levels are diluting, as the plume of contaminated water flows further downstream.
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EPA officials are checking water samples in the households adjacent to the river Animas, as some local residents reported discolored drinking water. The contaminated rivers will now require continuous monitoring, as future storms will probably upturn the toxic bottom sediment.
The yellow toxic plume of contaminated water crossed the border of New Mexico, as of August 10, and has reached Farmington, Aztec and Kritland regions in New Mexico. The Animas River joins the river San Juan, which flows into Utah and then joins the Colorado River at Lake Powell. The experts forecast the contaminated plume might reach Lake Powell by August 12.
Featured image: Aerial view of wastewater contaminated Animas River. Credit: RT America.