Several years ago, my family and I had visited Durango, Colo., just as the seasons changed from winter into the first glimpses of spring.
We played along the banks of the Animas River, our legs dangling from the swings as the river bubbled near us, crystal clear with snow lightly covering the ground around it.
This week, however, it was heartbreaking to see the photos of the Animas, filled with wastewater laden with heavy metals from an abandoned mine.
The Environmental Protection Agency has taken responsibility for breaching a debris dam near the mine, which in turn released the contaminated water into the Animas.
There are concerns all through the area — is the drinking water safe? What about water for livestock or crops?
EPA testing found that the Aug. 5 spill released very high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals. The testing later found that levels quickly returned to pre-spill levels, after the plume passed through the area, according to the AP. As the plume travels, it is diluting — but the impact of those heavy metals in the waterways is still unknown.
And sadly, the damage won’t stop in Colorado.
The flows from the Animas spread into New Mexico, then Utah before eventually reaching Lake Powell, bringing it right into Arizona. So far, Yuma officials are monitoring the situation, but the “what ifs” are scary.
The AP reports that the plume’s heavy metals will settle into riverbeds along that journey. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has promised a plan to address that contamination, but what that is, exactly, remains to be seen.
The situation is a troubling, worrisome one.
Our western states are filled with old, abandoned mines, many of which are in need of cleanup to contain and remove toxic contaminants that have been left behind.
In fact, the Associated Press notes there are about 500,000 such mines nationwide, and only a fraction have had cleanups. This mine in question has been inactive since 1923 — and decades later, is causing a host of concerns.
It serves as a reminder that at any moment, we are one step away from seriously damaging or polluting the Colorado, a waterway on which this community is reliant.
We need to find solutions to these mines, in an effort to prevent further disasters and keep our precious waterways protected.