FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) — A mine waste spill inadvertently caused by environmental cleanup work spewed about a million gallons of orange-colored discharge into a tributary of the Animas River on Wednesday.
New Mexico towns such as Farmington and Aztec are taking precautionary measures to protect their water supplies as the contamination makes its way downstream.
The Bureau of Reclamation said they will begin at 7:00 a.m. releasing water from the Navajo Dam to dilute the water and sediment that will be entering the San Juan River from the Animas River.
Although the area has not been shut down, officials discourage people from getting in the water until the slug of sediment and discoloration passes the Farmington area.
According to a spokesman for Governor Martinez, Chris Sanchez, the spill occurred Wednesday morning, but the state of New Mexico was not notified until the following day. The news was provided by an official from the Southern Ute Tribe, not by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sanchez says the governor has ordered her agencies to work with local and federal officials.
“Governor Martinez hopes the EPA will be more cooperative and forthcoming moving forward as we work to address this situation and that the EPA will demand the same of itself as it would of a private business responsible for such a spill,” said Sanchez.
EPA teams will sample downstream locations to confirm the contamination does not pose a threat to water users and aquatic life. A safety team is investigating where the incident occurred as well.
The city of Durango has stopped pumping water out of the Animas River as a precautionary measure to ensure the reservoir remains clean.
KRQE News 13 spoke with Durango residents who were some of the first to notice the waste contaminated waters.
“We just saw this big, brown kind of water coming down which is really unusual for this year, usually it’s pretty low, pretty clear,” said Joe Genualdi.
“It’s definitely not how the river’s supposed to look,” said one Durango resident.
In Durango, residents say they’re worried about what this water will do to the ecosystem and the people.
“Well I couldn’t believe how fast it came down or that it even made it this far,” said another Durango resident.
“It’s already hard enough to catch fish in the Animas, and this stuff, it’s definitely not good for them, it’s going to kill a lot of those fish off,” said Joe Genualdi.
The river in La Plata County is closed for recreational use until tests can verify the river’s safety.
The leak began when a plug blew at the Gold King Mine near Silverton. It had been shut down for about a decade.
The mine spill flooded several parts of San Juan County.
The spill happened when EPA officials were doing remediation work on the mine.
“The mine pool released when they were starting to do some work up there. That was not anticipated,” said Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholder Group, a volunteer coalition.
There are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed because of longstanding problems with water quality, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment said.
Residents near the Animas River were advised to avoid the river until the plume of orange water passed. Residents were also advised to keep dogs and livestock out of the river until further notice.
The EPA claims the river should begin to run clean in the next couple days, but not everyone is so sure.
“What are they going to do? I mean, they can’t suck it all out, it’s already in,” said a Durango resident.
Drinking water is not affected, officials say.
No injuries were reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.