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EPA admits mine spill larger than first thought; still unsure of health impact

Mark Duggan

The Environmental Protection Agency told a packed room in Durango Sunday night that the initial surge of contaminated wastewater from a Wednesday mine spill dumped high levels of metals into the Animas River.

But they're still not sure which metals, and what the long-term impact of the spill may be.

According to the EPA, initial testing of the upper Animas after the spill showed considerably higher-than-normal amounts of arsenic, zinc and manganese and some other metals in the water. The levels dropped quickly by the next day, however.

The agency is conducting more tests and will have the results this week. Those findings will detail all of the metals present in the water, and will give both federal and local officials more information on the river's specific toxicity.

Early tests on the river's aquatic life show the effect of the spill to be negligible. Parks and Wildlife officials report only one fish out of 108 has died so far in a test cage placed in the river. And the Mountain Studies Institute said bugs exposed to the river bottom for 60 hours were still alive.

But EPA regional chief Shaun McGrath admitted the river will require close monitoring for some time, as some of the metals have settled on the bottom and could easily be stirred up by future storms and runoff.

That news has lots of area residents troubled. According to the Durango Herald, a large group of people fired questions at EPA officials at last night's meeting, demanding to know the agency's long-term plan for dealing with the contamination, and its economic fallout. City, county and state officials all declared a state of emergency Sunday over the spill.


EPA officials also upgraded the amount of spilled wastewater Sunday to three million gallons from the original estimate of one million.

Wastewater and sludge from the long-inactive Gold King Mine near Silverton began spilling into Cement Creek last Wednesday, after EPA crews working nearby accidentally breached an earthen dam. Cement Creek feeds the Animas.

A long plume of bright-orange water, heavy in toxic metals, began moving downstream, making its way through Durango Thursday night before reaching the San Juan River near Farmington Friday.

The leading edge of the wastewater is now in southern Utah, on the Navajo Nation, and is expected to reach Lake Powell by mid-week and, after that, the Grand Canyon.

Stay tuned to KSUT for major updates. And follow KSUT on Twitter for the latest information.