DURANGO, Colo. — Anger about a spill of toxic water from a mine that turned this community’s river into a yellow-orange ribbon is rising after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the spill was three times larger than previously stated.
The EPA said it is still unsure whether the polluted water poses a health threat to humans or animals.
The agency, typically charged with responding to toxic disasters, has claimed responsibility for the spill, which unleashed a chemical brew that caused levels of arsenic, lead, and other metals to spike in the Animas River, a tributary that plays a vital role in the culture and economy in this patch of southwestern Colorado.
Agency officials said Sunday that the spill is larger than originally estimated: more than 3 million gallons rather than 1 million. The wastewater, from the abandoned Gold King Mine, began spilling Wednesday when an EPA-supervised cleanup crew accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine.
Governor John Hickenlooper issued a disaster declaration Monday that will release $500,000 to assist businesses and towns affected by the spill. It also helps pay for water quality sampling by the state, assessing effects on fish and wildlife, and possible cleanup. Hickenlooper directed state agencies to seek federal funds or low-interest loans to help entities affected by the spill.
La Plata County and the City of Durango also have declared states of emergency, and the county estimates that 1,000 residential water wells could be contaminated.
The river is closed indefinitely, and the La Plata sheriff has recast his campaign signs into posters warning river visitors to stay out of the water.
The yellow plume has traveled down to New Mexico, where Governor Susana Martinez also declared an emergency to make funds available to address the problem. Farms along the Animas and San Juan river valleys in New Mexico have no water to irrigate their crops after the spill.
Residents packed a school auditorium Sunday night in Durango for a meeting with the agency’s regional director, Shaun McGrath. During a public comment session that lasted more than two hours, residents flouted a sign on the wall that instructed the auditorium’s typical patrons — middle schoolers — to refrain from calling out, jumping up, or insulting others during assemblies.
Shouts rang out. A few people cried. One resident questioned whether the agency had refashioned itself into the “Environmental Pollution Agency.” Others demanded to know what would happen to wildlife, livestock, water wells, sediment, and river-based jobs.
“When — when can we be open again?” said David Moler, 35, the owner of a river-rafting company who had approached a microphone. “All I hear is a handful of ‘gonna-dos,’ ” he added. “What should I tell my employees?”
McGrath and his colleagues urged patience and assured residents that they would provide information about health risks once they had it. The agency, he said, is awaiting test results to determine whether the water poses a risk.
“We’re going to continue to work until this is cleaned up,” McGrath said, “and hold ourselves to the same standards that we would anyone that would have created this situation.”
On Wednesday, a team from the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating the former Gold King Mine, about 50 miles north of here. Officials said it was last active in the 1920s, but it had been leaking toxic water at a rate of 50 to 250 gallons a minute for years. It is owned by a group called the San Juan Corp.
A call to the company’s lawyer was not returned.
The agency had planned to find the source of the leak in the hope of one day stanching it. Instead, as workers used machinery to hack at loose material, a surprise deluge of orange water ripped through, spilling into Cement Creek and flowing into the Animas. The burst did not injure workers.
The next day, as the neon water slid into Durango, masses of community members watched from the riverbanks. Some called it a painful procession: The Animas River is considered the cultural soul of this region, a sort of moving Main Street that hosts multiple floating parades a year and is typically bustling with rafters and kayakers.
Children study the river. Sweethearts marry on its banks. Its former name, given by Spaniards, is Río de las Ánimas, coincidentally, “River of Souls.”
State Senator Ellen Roberts, a Republican who lives near the river, cried softly as she considered the pollution, adding that she had dropped her father’s ashes in its depths.
“It is not just a scenic destination,” Roberts said. “It is where people literally raise their children. It is where the farmers and ranchers feed their livestock, which in turn feeds the people. We’re isolated from Denver through the mountains. And we are pretty resourceful people. But if you take away our water supply, we’re left with virtually no way to move forward.”
There are about 200 abandoned mines in the Animas watershed, the last of which closed in the early 1990s. Colorado has about 23,000 abandoned mines; the United States has an estimated 500,000.