Gold King Mine
On August 6th 2015, the Animas River closed due to the EPA triggering the release of acid mine water into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River in Silverton, CO. Many images were taken of a river that should have been clear that time of year and was instead running a mustard yellow color. The river was closed as the plume made its way downstream slowly making its way to the confluence of the San Juan and then finally Lake Powell. Most likely, Lake Powell will act like a pea trap and most of those heavy metals will settle to the bottom.
This was a very emotional and sad week for all of the communities up and down the river. It affected our economy and our way of life. Farmers had to close their head gates and not allow any of the contaminated to enter their irrigation ditches. Fishermen were not only unable to fish, but were scared that most of the fish would not survive the yellow waters. The river was closed to entry and recreation including rafting, kayaking, and tubing.
The Animas River is strong and tough. Within days of the initial plume passing, the river was significantly clearer. As the water receeded, it left a bath tub ring of sediment on the rocks. More evidence of sediment settled in some of the eddies. About eight days later, the river was reopened after the water had been tested to show it was within safe levels for human contact. Luckily the fish dodged a short-term bullet and survived the initial impact of the metal-heavy waters. Long-term effects on the fish will be closely monitored and studied by the Department of Wildlife.
Since then, we have had a couple of small run off events that have raised the river just a little bit. One was a rain event, the other from snow melt when temperatures warmed up towards the end of February. Each time the river would rise, its color would turn a slight hint of mustard yellow, but not nearly as drastic as the initial plume. As the water begins to significantly rise in early May, we should see any remaining sediment quickly wash away.
After the accident, the EPA went to work setting up a water treatment plant above Silverton. This plant will treat all discharge from the Gold King Mine. The EPA will continue to closely monitor the water quality of the Animas. The Animas River took a huge hit from this accident, but hopefully a positive to come out of this situation will be the cleaning up of more of these old mines and closer monitoring of the future water quality.
After much deliberation, the Gold King Mine and other mines in the Silverton caldera mining network have been designated an EPA Superfund site. With money coming in to help clean up these mines, we hope the future of the Animas will be an even cleaner one than it was before the accident.
What does all of this mean for rafting on the Animas this summer? Lots of Rafting! Currently the water quality looks good. Let’s get out there on the water and enjoy the beauty of the Animas River. Let’s work to take care of the river and inform future generations of the need to clean up old mines and prevent this from happening on other rivers and to other communities.