When 3 million gallons of wastewater, filled with heavy metals, leaked into a Colorado river last week, officials knew they`d have quite the challenge cleaning up the disaster.
The polluted water first leaked into Cement Creek, then down into the Animas and San Juan rivers. Officials worried that the spill would have a damaging effect on the ecosystem, and feared the dangerous metals could settle at the bottom of the river, where it could be a hazard for years.
According to Live Science, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to treat the affected water, but also to dilute the wastewater so the effects of the pollution are reduced. Beneath the mine breach, the EPA is treating several holding ponds with sodium hydroxide to reduce the acidity of the water, the report said.
As for the wastewater that`s already in the rivers, officials say dilution is key. Ron Cohen, civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, told Live Science that the leak pushed about 400,000 cubic feet of polluted water into the creek. Some 8 million cubic feet of water flows through Cement Creek each day, he said, and the wastewater will continue to become more diluted as it joins larger bodies of water downstream.
On Wednesday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper drank the Animas River water to prove a point: he wanted to show the rest of the world that the Animas River, polluted by a leak with 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater a week ago, is back to pre-contamination condition, the Durango Herald reported.
“Am I willing to go out there and demonstrate that we’re back to normal? Certainly. I’m happy to do that. I’m dead serious,” he told the Durango Herald.
Before he took the drink, the governor dropped an iodine tablet into the bottle, killing any contaminants in the sample. Hickenlooper and his health department director also said residents should not follow his lead and drink from the river because the water wasn`t safe for consumption, even before the toxic release.
But he wanted to prove a point, as he told the Durango Herald, "If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help."
Further downstream, the spill has likely reached Utah`s Lake Powell, the Associated Press said. However, the presence of heavy metals in its waters has not been confirmed, the report added. Early tests indicate waters from Utah`s portion of the San Juan river is safe to drink.
Environmental experts still don`t have a full grasp on the impacts that will occur in the future. According to NBC News, officials are still studying the local wildlife to see if there have been any negative effects, but to their knowledge, there hasn`t been a mass die-off as a result of the toxic spill.
Earlier Tuesday, Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, broke her silence on the spill that contaminated the Animas River in Colorado, ABC News reported. Calling the spill a “tragic and unfortunate accident,” McCarthy took full responsibility and told reporters she is “deeply sorry” and the incident "pains me to no end."
She also responded to criticism that the EPA has moved too slowly in the wake of the spill. She told reporters the agency is moving as quickly as it can, but that time is needed to properly review and analyze the data.
Agency offices nationwide have been ordered to stop field investigation work for mine cleanups while they reassess the work to ensure there`s no potential for spills similar to the one in Colorado.
Local officials in towns downstream from the spill say they want answers about how much of a lasting impact the environmental disaster will have on their drinking water.
The EPA has seen a “downward trajectory” of the contamination levels, ABC News says, and it has put together a unified command center in Durango, and a post in Washington, D.C., to unify state and federal workers responding to the spill.
In an ironic twist, a mining safety team working for the EPA that was trying to access, treat and pump out the wastewater for an ongoing cleanup project triggered the release using heavy equipment, the Durango Herald reports. The newspaper also said that contaminants are still leaking from the abandoned Gold King Mine.
The wastewater, which spilled into Cement Creek before flowing into the Animas River, contains high concentrations of metals like manganese, aluminum, cadmium, zinc and copper.
The Associated Press reported that Colorado and New Mexico have declared stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers to be disaster areas.
Residing in parts of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, the Navajo Nation declared an emergency and stopped diverting San Juan River water, the report also said. Tribe officials said in a special meeting Monday that the federal government should be held accountable for the disaster.
"This is a huge issue," Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, told the AP. "This river, the San Juan, is our lifeline, not only in a spiritual sense but also it`s an economic base that sustains the people that live along the river. When EPA is saying to me it`s going to take decades to clean this up, that is how long uncertainty will exist as we drink the water, as we farm the land, as we put our livestock out there near the river. That is just, to me, a disaster of a huge proportion."