Environment

The day the EPA accidentally turned a river orange

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silverton

Image:Livescience

The Environmental Protection Agency is the arm of the government tasked with, as you would imagine, protecting the environment. Of course, the agency is run by humans, and humans make mistakes, which is why, occasionally, the EPA will do something colossally stupid like accidentally release thousands of pounds of toxic metals into a river and turning it a florescent orange.

In August of last year, the EPA was about to mount a clean up effort of the old Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado. The mine, which had been in operation for almost 100 years, had in the course of its life accumulated a truly staggering amount of toxic heavy metals.

The EPA suggested to local authorities that they should ask the government to have the site declared a Superfund site, which would have entitled them to government assistance in cleaning out the mine. The local authorities, wary of government interference, politely declined. This meant that the EPA would have to find some way to perform basic maintenance of the site, ensuring that the metals contained therein, which decades of rain had turned into a toxic swamp, wouldn’t leak out into the nearby San Juan River.

The San Juan River basin had already been adversely affected by mining in the area for decades, as toxins had seeped through the old mine shafts and into the water table, and the EPA was looking for a way to slow down or possibly reverse the process, as heavy metals seeping into water is generally the kind of thing the EPA exists to prevent.

Eventually, they settled on the idea of a tapping into the lake of iron and aluminum oxides that had formed in the mine so that it could slowly and safely be drained out. Unfortunately for everyone, this tap worked a little too well, especially after a landslide covered other drainage pipes. The EPA came to the site to resume drilling on August 5, neglecting to check the water levels of other nearby mines. Had they done so, they would have realized that pressure through the tap they were digging was far too high, which would have prevented what came next.

At around 10 a.m., the pressure of water through the tap caused it to explode, dumping thousands of gallons of contaminated water into the nearby river. The result was a torrent of oxidized iron that turned the river a bright orange-yellow color, that would persist for months.

The local government declared a state of emergency and immediately asked for Superfund status, which you might remember was the thing the entire ordeal was designed to get around, and residents in the area were advised to test their water before drinking it, as the ground water may now have been toxic.

Unfortunately for the river and everyone who lived near it, the EPA determined that nothing could really be done about the spill. They would simply have to wait for the heavy metals to settle into the river bottom, which means that for decades the possibility of it being stirred up again will remain a concern.

Ultimately the whole event just goes to show how important it is to be vigilant when it comes to managing environmental risks. Even the slightest oversight can be catastrophic. Just ask the people behind the BP oil spill, which was caused by a leaky valve.

Wyatt is a writer and your friend. You can follow him on Twitter @WyattRedd.