EPA issues early low risk prediction from Animas River spill

Colorado health and Environmental Protection Agency officials are predicting low health risk levels despite the 3 million gallons of pollution that spilled into the Animas River from a mine clean up accident in Durango, Colorado. CNN reports that Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Larry Wolk said Tuesday the river is returning to normal. He states the contamination levels of heavy metals in the Animas are back to normal levels. The EPA also issued a statement essentially corroborating Colorado’s announcement.

However, it is looking like short term pollution levels should be low but in the long run not so much. What should be of note, is that CNN also quotes leading toxicologists who state that there could be health effects for many years to come from heavy metals such as lead and mercury that spilled into the water. Exposure to high levels of these metals, they say, can cause an array of health problems from cancer to kidney disease to developmental problems in children.

People who live in the areas that draw from the Animas river are rightly concerned and even angry. Fortunately, state officials in Farmington, New Mexico have assured residents that their water is safe and there are wells that can provide residents with water for up to 90 days. Residents who use wells in the floodplain of the Animas and San Juan rivers are not so lucky since they rely on the bodies of water for their drinking, cooking and bathing.

While the head metal concentrations are much lower and even a representative from Arizona Department of Environmental Quality says the pollutants will be so diluted by the time it reaches Lake Powell any toxicity will be nullified. I was concerned about the cadmium content but the mustard color in the Animas River was due to iron and that is not especially toxic. Besides, the Animas River has had multiple mine spills occur in it so the river itself was not clean when this incident occurred.

However, aside from immediately notifying local authorities of spills of this magnitude or more, what EPA should at least take away from this is that rather than clean up the mines that increases the potential of toxic waste to end up in bodies of water near them would be to leave the mines alone and let the pollutants drain out over years. It makes for much less hassle. Meantime, my concern is that Colorado health and EPA officials may have made this prediction too soon. It will be important to see if any long term consequences resulting from this spill since the after effects of the hazardous waste can remain for years.