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In the U.S., waste treatments remove about 95% of pollutants from the wastewater before the treated water is disinfected and discharged into local waterways. When most people think of water contamination, they picture leaking septic tanks and burst sewage lines. While it is true that such events do occur and pose risks to human health (especially if you aren't getting your septic tank and sewage lines inspected at least once a year), they are irrelevant to the situation currently taking over the Animas River in Colorado.
Animas River is a tributary of the San Juan River, which is part of the Colorado River System that stretches almost 1,450 miles through the southwest. It is also bright orange; in 2015, a team of workers with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally and ironically released 3 million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado into the nearby tributary.
Considering the fact that Colorado is a popular tourist destination due to its pristine nature, the sight of a toxic orange river was a threat in multiple ways. In the years since the disastrous mistake, the EPA has been taking samples and monitoring just how severe the contamination actually is. The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was set up around Silverton in 2016 to perform a Human Health Risk Assessment, or HHRA. (Superfund is a U.S. federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. Sites managed under this program are referred to as "Superfund" sites). As of June 2019, the EPA determined that there didn't seem to be much risk to human health.
The EPA didn't find any risks to people who might be working in the area, such as road crews or ATV guides, although they did detect lead and arsenic in several sites along the Animas. People don't need to worry about these heavy metals leeching into their water supply or making it into their homes via their water pipes, but the areas have been noted as potential recreational campsites; future plans have been set to treat these areas in particular.
"Overall, there's a lot of good news in here," said Christina Progess, Superfund remedial project manager. "It doesn't impact the local tourism industry, and folks working out in the district aren't at risk from a human health standpoint. But (the study) also helps us highlight there are some areas that people come in contact with it."
Although Superfund funding generally goes to areas of contamination that pose the most significant amount of risk to human health, Progess isn't worried about future support. Thanks to the study, they now know precisely where to focus their attention: at four dispersed camping sites north of Silverton along Country Road 2, which follows the Animas River, and at three mine sites that are used as recreational staging areas up Mineral Creek.
"Bonita Peak has always been and continues to be one of the administration's top priority Superfund sites in the nation," she said. "I don't anticipate (funding) being a concern."