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Wastewater from Colorado Mine Heads Toward Utah

US Environmental Protection Agency
On August 5, 2015, an EPA team working to investigate and address contamination at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colorado, unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water into the upper portions of Cement Creek.

About three* million gallons of wastewater laden with heavy metals is making its way towards the San Juan River in southeast Utah. The wastewater was accidentally released by the US Environmental Protection Agency from an abandoned Colorado mine. Utah officials don’t know exactly when it will arrive or what damage it may cause, but they’re warning people to take precautions.

The spill in the Animas River in Colorado will flow into the San Juan River in New Mexico, through Utah and into Lake Powell. Walt Baker, Director of Utah Division of Water Quality, says the highly acidic, bright yellow plume likely contains zinc, cadmium, lead, and sulfates, but it’s hard to say yet what kind of an impact there may be in Utah.

“This is a significant source of pollution, but in the context of the amount of water that’s in the San Juan River, it is not all that significant,” Baker says. “In other words, there will be significant dilution as a result of its mixing with the San Juan.”

The Bureau of Reclamation is also conducting releases from the Navajo dam in New Mexico. That will aid in the dilution process before the plume reaches Utah. “Over time, the acute issues will dissipate, and we’ll have to see if there are long term issues that have resulted that need to be addressed,” Baker says.

District engineers will be conducting water quality tests on the San Juan River. Hydrologists from the Bureau of Reclamation say the plume is moving slower than the river itself. They estimate it could reach Utah on Sunday or Monday, though weather or dilution of the plume could change that estimate. The Bureau of Land Management in Utah is advising people against boating and recreating on the San Juan River for now.

*When this story aired, the EPA was reporting that one million gallons of wastewater had been released, but later announced that it was three million gallons.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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