Environmental interests appear unimpressed by declarations from state and federal officials that the Animas River has returned to “pre-event” water-quality conditions.
Environmental activists, sportsmen and conservationists have now turned their attention to what remains at the bottom of the river, and the long-term lingering impacts on wildlife and the overall ecosystem.
Preliminary sediment tests released by federal, state and local officials Friday indicated that contamination levels are “below what would be a concern for human health.” La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith felt confident enough with the quality of the river that he ordered the full reopening of the Animas midday Friday.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been monitoring 108 fish it placed in the river for observation. Only one of those fish died, leaving officials to believe that the death had nothing to do with the incident.
Mountain Studies Institute, which has an office in Durango, has been monitoring impacts to other wildlife, including insects. The research group said this week that flies – such as the Salmon Fly – were active on the river, which is a good sign for long-term health, as the flies are easily impacted by pollution.
Wildlife officials aren’t too concerned about larger wildlife, including deer, because the plume moved so quickly that animals probably didn’t drink much of the contamination and would have had the instinct to choose from any of the many other water sources in the area.
But environmentalists remains concerned, pointing to thousands of leaking abandoned mines all across Colorado that could quickly evolve from a trickle to a burst. State officials said Thursday there are an estimated 1,645 stream miles of impacted water, likely as a result of past mining activities, though natural geology plays a factor also.
“What you’ve got is a long-term problem here,” said Bill Dvorak, a public lands organizer with the National Wildlife Federation. “We’ve got thousands of these mines throughout Colorado, and they’re all leaking, and they’re all impacting water quality.”
The Animas River turned a mustard-yellow color after an error by an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew Aug. 5 sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater into the river. Even though the disaster was caused by the EPA-contracted team, it is widely accepted that the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton was problematic to begin with.
Efforts to assign Superfund status to the mine met resistance over the years, and so large federal funds were never made available to properly clean the leftover sludge.
Dvorak lived through a similar event on the Arkansas River about three decades ago, when sludge turned the river orange and killed fish. He said designating Superfund status for the area turned out to be a blessing, pointing to many miles of pristine water that now serves eager anglers after the initial contamination.
“Politically, right now, you’ve created a firestorm ...” Dvorak said of the Animas spill and pushing for Superfund listings. “What can trigger these things is political pressure, national news. The EPA is on the hot seat about it, and they had an accident. But think about all the damn accidents the oil and gas industry has had.”
For his part, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has not said whether the incident should result in a Superfund listing. But the governor has suggested updates to mining laws that date back to 1872, as well as reforms that allow for Good Samaritan legislation, which would empower nonprofits to work on reclamation without facing liability burdens.
Randy Scholfield, spokesman for Trout Unlimited, said he is not yet convinced by the water-quality results released by officials this week.
“We do think there should be a strong note of caution here,” Scholfield said. “There could very well be long-term impacts to the river, especially from the layer of sediment that’s been deposited on the bottom.
“It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts might be, but it’s certainly cause for concern,” he said.
But Peter Butler, who has long followed Animas River issues as the co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, placed a lot of stock in the water-quality tests released by officials.
“From the draft I’ve seen so far, we probably are back to pre-event conditions,” Butler said. “It needs to have monitoring. But whether or not we’ll have a lot of major problems in the future, I kind of doubt it; there might be some minor ones ... It’s going to spur on a lot more interest and hopefully some resources.”