When our river turned orange (2022)

Mining

Nine things you need to know about the Animas River mine waste spill.

Jonathan Thompson Aug. 9, 2015

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(Video) Why Did The Animas River Turn Orange?

"The question that is crowding upon Durango thick and fast is one of water. The mill slimes from Silverton are now reaching us."

-- Durango Democrat, 1899

On a scorcher of an August afternoon, a crowd gathered on a bridge over the deep-green waters of the Animas River on the north end of Durango, Colorado. A passerby might have thought they were watching a sporting event, perhaps a kayak race or a flotilla of inebriated, scantily clad inner tubers. Yet the river that afternoon was eerily empty of rowers, paddlers or floaters — unheard of on a day like this — and the mood among the onlookers was sombre. One mingling in the crowd heard certain words repeated: sad, tragic, angry, toxic.

They were here not to cheer anyone on, but to mourn, gathered to watch a catastrophe unfold in slow motion. Soon, the waters below would become milky green, then a Gatorade yellow, before finally settling into a thick and cloudy orangish hue — some compared it to mustard, others Tang. Whatever you called it, it was clearly not right.

The mustard-Tang plume was the result of approximately three million gallons of wastewater and sludge that had poured from the dormant Gold King mine into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas, some 60 miles upstream on the previous morning. The water had backed up in the mine behind a sort of dam formed when the mine portal’s ceiling had collapsed sometime earlier. Workers from the Environmental Protection Agency were hoping to install a pipe to drain the water so that they could eventually plug the mine, keeping the contaminated water inside it and out of the streams. Instead, they ended up accidentally breaching the dam, releasing the water.

While the spill occurred just a few miles above Silverton, the impacts hit Durango the hardest. The Animas River courses through the middle of Durango, provides a portion of its drinking and irrigation water, and over the last few decades has become the recreational and aesthetic, wild, green heart of the city. The spill essentially stopped the heart’s beat. Officials closed the river for public health reasons, shutting down hundreds of recreational boaters and tubers, not to mention the local rafting industry. No one yet knows what will happen to the fish, the birds, the bugs and other wildlife that call the river home.

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“I’m very sorry for what happened,” said David Ostrander, EPA's emergency response director, at a public meeting in Durango held just hours after the plume reached town. “This is a huge tragedy. We typically respond to emergencies, not cause them.”

Really, though, the EPA wasn't the root cause of the emergency. It was, most likely, a disaster waiting to happen and the most visible manifestation of an emergency that's been going on in the Upper Animas River Watershed for decades. Here’s nine items to help you understand the big picture:

• Pollution in the Animas is not new: The Upper Animas River watershed consists of three main streams, the Animas, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek all of which drain the Silverton Caldera, the highly mineralized collapsed core of an ancient volcano, and which run together at Silverton. Miners started going after the minerals in the 1870s, and the river's been the victim of their pollution ever since. Mines simply poured their tailings directly into the creeks and rivers until, in the 1930s, downstream farmers got them to stop; the remnants of those releases can still be found under the river bed in Durango and beyond. Then there's acid mine drainage. The portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides hijack the natural hydrology, pulling water flowing through fractures toward natural springs into the mine tunnels. There, the water reacts with iron disulfide (pyrite) and oxygen to form sulfuric acid. The acidic water dissolves naturally occurring heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum. The resulting contaminated water flows out of the mine adit as if from a spring. By 1991, when the last major mine in the watershed shut down, there were some 400 mines in the watershed, many discharging unmitigated discharges into streams. Not a fish could be found for miles downstream from Silverton, and the impacts to aquatic life were felt in Durango, where, when the mines were still running, sensitive fish were unable to reproduce.

• Superfund has long been on the table, and long been swept off: As mining waned in the late 1980s, federal and state regulatory agencies started looking at how to clean up the mess. Superfund, which comes with a big pile of cash, seemed like the obvious approach. But locals feared that the stigma would destroy tourism along with any possibility of mining’s return. Besides, Superfund can be blunt; the complex Animas situation demanded a more surgical, locally-based approach. So the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and federal and state agencies, was created in 1994 to address the situation. The approach was successful, at first, but then water quality began deteriorating again. The specter of Superfund returned. Many locals, worried about impacts to property values and tourism, have again resisted. Sunnyside Gold Corp. (see below) has offered millions of dollars to further cleanup efforts -- as long as there's no Superfund designation.

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• The problem is massive and complex, but not hopeless: In 1991, the last big mine in the region, the Sunnyside, shut down. Its owner, Sunnyside Gold Corp., planned to plug the American Tunnel, thus stanching the flow of acid mine drainage (which it ran through a water treatment plant), and then walk away. The state wouldn’t allow it: While a plug, or bulkhead, would be a short-term fix, in the long-term the water, and its contaminants, might back up in the mine and find another way to the surface. So Sunnyside agreed not only to bulkhead its mine, but also to clean up abandoned mines nearby -- a sort of pollution offset project -- while continuing to run the waters of upper Cement Creek through a water treatment facility. That, combined with the ARSG's extensive efforts, worked: By the early 2000s, zinc, cadmium and lead levels in Mineral Creek had dropped by 50 to 75 percent, and water quality in the Upper Animas had improved significantly (Cement Creek had never supported fish, and never will). Fish appeared just below Silverton, where they hadn't been seen in probably a century. It was success, without Superfund.

• Then it got even more complex: Sunnyside cut a deal with the state and Gold King mining, a small operation owned by a Silvertonian. Sunnyside would leave, and turn over its water treatment operations to Gold King, along with enough cash to keep it running for a while. Gold King hoped to eventually resume mining the Gold King (not far from the American Tunnel). For decades, the Gold King, like the nearby Red and Bonita mine, had not discharged any water. But not long after Sunnyside sealed its bulkheads, water started pouring out of all of them. "It was not a coincidence," says Peter Butler, ARSG co-coordinator. The backed up water had found natural fractures to follow into the other mines. Together, the Gold King and Red and Bonita would become some of the biggest polluters in the basin. Initially, their waters were run through the treatment plant that Sunnyside had left behind. But before long, Gold King ran into technical, financial and legal troubles and the treatment plant stopped operating. Water quality for miles downstream once again deteriorated. The fish that had returned to the Animas below Silverton were wiped out. Part of the renewed impetus for a Superfund designation was to bring in funds to resume water treatment as well as figure out ways to clean up the basin’s remaining major polluting mines.

• In the meantime, a piecemeal approach continues: The ARSG, along with federal and state agencies, continue to do what they can to clean up mines. In some cases, this means plugging them, which is what the EPA is working on at the Red and Bonita, and planned to do at the Gold King, when the dam broke. Other methods include diverting water before it gets into the mine in the first place, and removing waste piles at the entrances to mines so that acidic discharge from the mine can’t leech minerals out of the rock. Until the Gold King is plugged, it will continue to discharge acid mine drainage, just as it had before the spill.

• This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened, nor is it the worst: In June of 1975, a huge tailings pile on the banks of the Animas River northeast of Silverton was breached, dumping tens of thousands of gallons of water, along with 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings into the Animas. For 100 miles downstream, the river "looked like aluminum paint," according to a Durango Herald reporter at the time; fish placed in a cage in the water in Durango all died within 24 hours. It was just one of many breaches of various magnitude. Just a decade before, the same tailings pile was found to be spilling cyanide-laced water into the river. In 1978, after the American Tunnel was bored Sunnyside Mine workings got too close to the floor of Lake Emma, the lake burst through, sending an estimated 500 million gallons of water tearing through the mines, sweeping up huge machinery, tailings and sludge, and blasting it out the American Tunnel and sending it downstream. No one was working in the mine at the time, which is either miraculous, or suspicious, depending on who you ask.

• Short-term impacts aren’t as bad as the water looks: Sampling done by the EPA upstream from Durango show that the plume's peak put the Animas River's water's acidity on par with black coffee, and contained elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper. But by the time it reached town, the acidity had been diluted significantly, and levels of those metals were far lower, but still "scary," according to EPA officials. Still, the plume moved through quickly, lessening harm. A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.

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• Long-term impacts are still unknown: As the plume moved downstream, sediment settled onto the river bottom and its rocks, which could affect aquatic bugs. And it’s likely to get kicked up during high water flows. If thick enough, the sediment could even affect the river’s appearance, providing a Tang-colored reminder of this disaster for months to come. Also, water in some domestic wells near the river reportedly had a yellow tint in the days after the spill moved through, but it's not yet known what other contaminants may have gotten into the water. Irrigators had to shut down their ditches in hot weather, which could damage crops, and the ag economy, just as the river closure is costing rafting companies thousands of dollars each day. The plume moved through critical habitat for razorback suckers and pike minnows further downstream; they may prove more sensitive than the trout. But then, the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico had their own water quality issues before the spill: alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria.

• The EPA messed up, but they’re not the root cause: It’s true that EPA officials took a “cavalier attitude” (EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath’s word) in the first hours after the spill, downplaying the impacts and failing to notify those downstream. And they admit that before tinkering with the mine, they should have taken better steps to mitigate a possible disaster, such as drilling into the mine from the top to assess the situation without the danger of busting the dam. Had they not messed with it at all, though, the gathering water and sludge might have busted through the de facto dam sometime anyway. Clearly, the water quality issue goes far deeper than this one unfortunate event.

If initial public reaction is any indication, the disaster has woken Durangoans up not only to how important the river is, but also to what’s been going on upstream. And they’re likely to exert whatever pressure they can on their neighbors up in Silverton to accept, even embrace, Superfund and a comprehensive cleanup effort. They speak from experience: Durango was the site of a massive federal cleanup of a uranium tailings pile in the early 1990s, and tourism and property values did just fine. Moab, Utah, another tourism mecca, is currently in the middle of a similar cleanup. The hordes of visitors mostly seem oblivious to it. Such is not the case, however, with our Tang-hued river.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor ofHigh Country News.Follow @jonnypeace

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  • Mining
  • Pollution
  • Water
  • Colorado

FAQs

Why does river water go orange? ›

Usually it's because of iron and manganese deposits. These are naturally-occurring minerals which settle in the water mains over time.

Why is the river bright orange? ›

The fuzzy, bright orange substance seen in the picture to the left is often a type of bacteria. This bacteria takes iron dissolved in groundwater and oxidizes it (a chemical reaction similar to forming rust), drawing energy from the process of turning it into fuzzy orange gunk.

Why did the Animas River turn orange? ›

— -- The Animas River in Colorado has turned orange as a toxic spill continues to flow downstream and through to other states. A team of workers with the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of waste water from the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado, on Aug.

Why is the Animas River orange 2021? ›

The contaminated runoff turned the normally green waters of the Animas River a bright orange-brown and brought national attention to southwest Colorado and the hazardous legacy of mining in the San Juan Mountains.

What does orange water mean? ›

If you notice a stream of red, brown or orange water coming from any of your water faucets, this usually indicates the presence of iron or manganese, meaning your old cast iron pipes are rusted.

How do you fix orange water? ›

Chemical Treatment for Iron Bacteria – Chemical treatment is regarded as the best treatment to eliminate iron bacteria giving orange color to well water. The three common substances used for this purpose are disinfectants, surfactants, and acids. A common disinfectant is household laundry bleach containing chlorine.

Is the Orange River polluted? ›

The Orange River is the country's longest river and a lifeline for farmers, mining companies and communities. It is in a horrific state due to pollution and filth, said Capetonian adventurer Ray Chaplin after navigating the length of the river.

Why did the river turn red? ›

The colour change has been attributed to contamination by a mysterious pollutant. Iskitimka River is located in the south of the country. Its change in colour has stunned locals in the industrial city of Kemerovo, who have noticed ducks refusing to enter the water.

Why is the Yellow River so dirty? ›

Every year the Yellow River absorbs 1 million tons of untreated waste from the city of Xian alone. A report issued in November 2008, declared that two thirds of the Yellow River is heavily polluted by industrial waste and is unsafe to use.

Does the Orange River dry up? ›

The western part of the basin is generally dry, flat, and unamenable to cultivation without irrigation. The river itself is of vital economic importance to the region through which it flows.

Why are there no crocodiles in the Orange River? ›

The Orange River has no large animals. It lies outside the range of the Nile crocodile, and although hippopotami were once abundant, they were hunted to extermination in the 19th century. The Orange River has a relative paucity of species diversity.

Can you swim in the Animas River? ›

The Animas River Trail | The Lazy River

But wait patiently until late July and early August and Nature's Lazy River will open to the public for all swimming activities. Grab a life jacket, your favorite inflatable swan or double-tube and hike the Animas River Trail from town.

What causes rivers to change color? ›

They change all the time because of fluctuations in flow, concentrations of sediments, and the amount of dissolved organic matter or algae in the water. For example, yellow-tinted rivers are typically sediment-laden but low in algae. Blue water, which is usually easier to see through, has little algae and sediment.

Why does the colour of river water change? ›

colour of the water in the river changes near towns and villages. It happened because of pollution created by the people throwing waste in the river.

How does the Orange River flow? ›

The Orange River flows from east to west across South Africa. It flows through the Eastern Cape, Free State, and Northern Cape provinces. The river flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape. The Vaal and Caledon rivers are two main tributaries of the Orange River.

Is orange in water good? ›

What are the Health Benefits of Fruit-infused Water? Oranges are full of vitamin C, which can serve to boost the immune system. Ginger provides anti-inflammatory effects which aid in joint pain, and it's also known for helping with digestion and nausea.

Is orange water Safe? ›

Orange water is safe to drink and use for all purposes.

According to the EPA's Health Advisory Level, Orange water continues to be acceptable for all uses. The US Environmental Protection Agency does not currently have federal MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for PFAS compounds.

Why is my water coming out yellow orange? ›

When cast iron and lead pipes corrode over time, rust and other pipe materials flake off into the water. Iron and manganese produce an orange-to-brown color, while lead may make the water darker and include tiny particles.

Is rust in water harmful? ›

Rusty tap water can appear in a yellow, orange, red or even a brown colour, depending on the levels of rust present. In truth, the presence of rust in water is not a health concern.

What happens if you drink orange water? ›

The orange flavored water allows you to naturally consume more vitamins and nutrients. Provides a citrus taste to plain boring water. It increases your vitamin intake. Helps to maintain a healthy immune system.

Why is my water rusty color? ›

Rust-colored hot water can be caused by bacteria growth, pipe corrosion, tank water heater corrosion, or mineral deposits in the water supply. If the cause is due to aging plumbing, replacing those pipes or appliances could fix the issue. Let's explore a few reasons why you might see yucky, rusty water.

Why is it called river Orange? ›

The colonial name of “The Orange” was given to the river in 1779 by a Dutch VOC official, Robert Jacob Gordon, who named it after the Dutch Royal House of Orange in honour of William V. The source of the river is at 3000 m above sea level in Lesotho in the beautiful Maluti / Drakensberg Mountains.

What lives in the Orange River? ›

Species. Among the many bird species seen at the mouth of the Orange River are flamingos, spoonbills, little bitterns, white-backed night herons, maccoa ducks, and Cape shovellers. There are many raptors in the coastal plains, including the Lanner and Peregrine Falcons, Black-breasted Snake Eagles, and Rock Kestrels.

Are there diamonds in the Orange River? ›

The Orange River marks the boundary between South Africa to the south and Namibia to the north. This is an area of active mining for diamonds, which were washed downstream from the famous Kimberley Diamond Area, millions of years ago when the river was much larger.

Which river turned red in the Bible? ›

The Alexander River runs the width of Israel, from the hills of the Nablus on the West Bank to the sea. The river is loved for its wildlife and beauty but in recent weeks, it has been polluted with blood-filled water. For weeks now, several Israeli media have been publishing photos of the red, blood-filled water.

Where in the Bible does water turn to blood? ›

Revelation 16 1

The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died. The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood.

Why did the sea turn red in the Bible? ›

Water Turns BLOOD Red Near Dead Sea During Jewish Holiest Season

Can you drink Yellow River water? ›

The Yellow River Conservancy Committee said that 33.8 percent of the river's water sampled registered worse than level 5, meaning it is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, industrial use and even agriculture, according to criteria used by the UN Environmental Program.

Why is the Yellow River so yellow? ›

It is called the Yellow River because its waters carry silt, which give the river its yellow-brown color, and when the river overflows, it leaves a yellow residue behind. While the river helps create fertile land that is suited for farming, during certain times of the year the Huang He frequently overflows.

Can you drink the Yellow River? ›

Most of the Yellow River, the second-longest in China and the cradle of early Chinese civilisation, is so polluted it is not safe for drinking or swimming, Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.

What is the source of river orange? ›

Orange River

Why does the colour of river water change? ›

colour of the water in the river changes near towns and villages. It happened because of pollution created by the people throwing waste in the river.

What causes rivers to change color? ›

They change all the time because of fluctuations in flow, concentrations of sediments, and the amount of dissolved organic matter or algae in the water. For example, yellow-tinted rivers are typically sediment-laden but low in algae. Blue water, which is usually easier to see through, has little algae and sediment.

What causes rust colored water? ›

Rust-colored hot water can be caused by bacteria growth, pipe corrosion, tank water heater corrosion, or mineral deposits in the water supply. If the cause is due to aging plumbing, replacing those pipes or appliances could fix the issue. Let's explore a few reasons why you might see yucky, rusty water.

Why is the Orange River so important? ›

Historically, the river played an important role in the South African diamond rush, with the first diamonds in the country being discovered in alluvial deposits on the Orange. Today, several commercial diamond mines operate along the final stretch of the Orange River and around its mouth.

Is the Orange River polluted? ›

The Orange River is the country's longest river and a lifeline for farmers, mining companies and communities. It is in a horrific state due to pollution and filth, said Capetonian adventurer Ray Chaplin after navigating the length of the river.

What lives in the Orange River? ›

Species. Among the many bird species seen at the mouth of the Orange River are flamingos, spoonbills, little bitterns, white-backed night herons, maccoa ducks, and Cape shovellers. There are many raptors in the coastal plains, including the Lanner and Peregrine Falcons, Black-breasted Snake Eagles, and Rock Kestrels.

Why does a river turn yellow? ›

As a general rule, river water turns green as more algae blooms, or when the water carries less sediments. Rivers tend to turn yellow when they carry more sediment. "Sediment and algae are both important, but too much or too little of either can be disruptive," Gardner said.

Why the river is yellow? ›

It is called the Yellow River because its waters carry silt, which give the river its yellow-brown color, and when the river overflows, it leaves a yellow residue behind. While the river helps create fertile land that is suited for farming, during certain times of the year the Huang He frequently overflows.

Where does the colour of river changed? ›

(d) The colour of the water in the river changes when it enters the city, town or village. This happens because the industrial waste, garbage and sewage are thrown into it which make it highly polluted.

Are brown rivers dirty? ›

Cloud and the Twin Cities and eventually flows south into the Gulf of Mexico, it often appears brown or yellowish and is sometimes referred to as the Muddy Mississippi. It may be hard to believe but the color is not due to pollution but because of the sediment.

How does color affect water? ›

Suspended and dissolved particles in water influence color. Suspended material in water bodies may be a result of natural causes and/or human activity. Transparent water with a low accumulation of dissolved materials appears blue and indicates low productivity.

Why did the Yellow River turn red? ›

The Yangtze River turned red in 2012. That turned out to be caused by illegal dumping.

Is rust harmful in water? ›

In truth, the presence of rust in water is not a health concern. However, it can create an unwelcome disturbance to your daily routine, as well as cause problems with washing machines and dishwashers, leaving stains.

Is rust water Toxic? ›

So, the rusted iron debris in water may not be harmful. Typically, the EPA considers small amounts of water in rust to be more of an aesthetic issue than a health and safety issue. Rusted water may smell and taste very unpleasant at levels above 0.3 mg/L.

Is rusty water unsafe? ›

Health Risks Of Discolored Water

But on its own, rusty water is not harmful bacteria or lead, which are unhealthy. Rust can be a metallic taste in water and generally caused by dissolved metals, such as iron, copper, or sometimes manganese.

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