Perspective on a Contaminated Waterway – now what? #AnimasRiver

The recent spill of 3 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas and San Juan Rivers has been shocking – but it is a symptom of a larger problem, not a fresh new issue.

Happier days on the San Juan River. Alicyn Gitlin photo.

The San Juan River in Utah.  Change mining regulations and protect future mines from contaminating our waterways:

Tens of thousands of abandoned mines await cleanup in the upper Colorado River and Animas headwaters, and hundreds of abandoned uranium mines are scattered across the Navajo Nation, surrounding the San Juan, Little Colorado, and Colorado Rivers.  The outdated Mining Act of 1872 does little to hold the companies accountable that created the waste and manage the mine holdings.

Meanwhile, fish in the San Juan and Animas Rivers have been in trouble for decades. It is important that people educate themselves before choosing to eat fish out of the San Juan – and highly problematic that some of our least privileged citizens are the most likely to subsistence fish from the San Juan, and to irrigate with its polluted waters.

There are several areas of the San Juan and Animas Rivers that are contaminated with uranium mining and milling waste. Fish in the San Juan have had extremely high levels of lesions infected with bacteria and parasites that are most likely caused by contaminants such as PAH’s that derive from oil and gas drilling. There is a large amount of agricultural runoff, and also a suite of contaminants that derive from coal power plant smoke stacks. There are extremely high levels of mercury in fish throughout the watershed, and the Animas has long contained a dead zone and contamination from uranium and gold mining. In the past 10 years, fish have been rapidly dying in the Animas headwaters because of the contaminants trickling out of this mine complex -hence the push to create a Superfund site (successfully fought by the town of Silverton) and the attempt by EPA to contain the mine leakage. The rivers have needed to be cleaned up for decades, and the recent spill is just one more awakening call – but not the sole source of the problem.

Here are some studies of contaminants in fish in the San Juan:

And this from an article published in the Washington Post:

“According to the Herald, three of the four fish species in the Upper Animas water basin (which includes Cement Creek and drains into the Animas River) disappeared between 2005 and 2010. Five years after that, the river was completely devoid of fish.
Insects and bird species have also fared poorly. And tests of the water flowing into Bakers Bridge, about three dozen miles south of Silverton, found that it carried concentrations of zinc toxic to animals. U.S. Geological Survey Scientists told the paper that the area was the largest untreated drainage site in the state.”

Fish taken out of the Colorado River/Lake Powell have similar contaminants. Please realize that there is no requirement to notify the public about any of this. Mercury is the only contaminant that you (the public) must be notified about. Hopefully this spill triggers a big change, because it’s been too easy to brush this under the rug before now.

What can you do?  We are all anxiously watching this pollution move downstream, and we all feel mostly helpless.  There is not a lot that any of us can do right now.  But we can try to ensure that the future doesn’t repeat the past by changing the mining regulations.  Sign our petition to hold mining companies accountable for their messes.  Support the creation of Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument, which would prevent the development of new uranium mines on the plateaus surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.  Grand Canyon already has four waterways that are unsuitable for drinking and bathing because of contamination from abandoned uranium mines.

Thank you for caring.

More links:

EPA response information and water sampling data from upstream of Durango.

A map of oil and gas wells surrounding the San Juan River in part of New Mexico.  Remember, this only displays a small stretch of the San Juan. From these wells, we might expect contamination to seep slowly, rather than a big dramatic spill.

A link to an interview that features an informed discussion and a good description of what is being found in the polluted mess actively moving downstream.

A High Country News article that discusses the history of contamination in and around the Animas.

An Daily Kos article that discusses the history of abandoned mines and why this area wasn’t declared a Superfund site.

Timely study results from USGS about agricultural and atmospheric contamination affecting Grand Canyon’s fish.

A petition to change the mining regulations to prevent this type of problem in the future.

A petition to create a Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument, which would prevent the development of new uranium mines on the plateaus surrounding Grand Canyon National Park.

On behalf of Sierra Club, Robert Tohe, Sierra Club Organizing Representative in New Mexico, released the following statement:

“Our thoughts are with the families in Colorado and New Mexico who now have to worry about whether their drinking water is clean or their jobs are threatened because of this needless disaster. The Animas River was sadly already contaminated due to the legacy of toxic mining practices. The company that owns this mine has apparently allowed dangerous conditions to fester for years, and the mishandling of clean-up efforts by the EPA have only made a bad situation much worse. As we continue to learn what exactly happened, it’s time that the mine owners be held accountable for creating this toxic mess and we urge the EPA to act quickly to take all the steps necessary to ensure a tragedy like this does not happen again.”


About Protect Grand Canyon

Sierra Club's Restore and Protect the Greater Grand Canyon Ecoregion Campaign. Looking out for the 11,400 species that live in & love Grand Canyon!

Posted on August 12, 2015, in Animas River, Grand Canyon Watershed, San Juan River, Uranium Mining, Water and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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