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Environmental Factor, October 2015

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SRP researchers quickly inform communities near Colorado mine spill

By Sara Mishamandani

Raina Maier

Maier leads the UA SRP center, which addresses the health effects of contaminants in the U.S. Southwest, with a focus on mine waste. Researchers at the center study the movement into the environment of mine waste metals, potential health effects, and ways to reduce exposure to mine waste at Arizona’s Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site. (Photo courtesy of Raina Maier)

Karletta Chief

Chief is a member of the UA SRP Community Engagement Core, which provides science-based information to underrepresented populations, supporting their responses to the health and environmental challenges related to mining. (Photo courtesy of Karletta Chief)

Following the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill of about three million gallons of mineral-polluted water into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado, researchers from the University of Arizona (UA) Superfund Research Program (SRP) moved quickly to inform affected communities about potential health and environmental risks.

A statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that an agency cleanup team accidentally caused the spill while excavating above the old entrance to the Gold King Mine, an abandoned mine in southwestern Colorado that had been leaking pollution. In an Arizona Public Media story (see video below), UA SRP Center Director Raina Maier, Ph.D., and researcher Karletta Chief, Ph.D., explained how the spill occurred and the risks it posed.

Maier said it was “a fairly major spill that’s caused a large amount of metals in a highly acidic waste stream to move into the environment.” She explained that metals don’t degrade into less toxic compounds, like oil can after a spill, and that these metals have been settling into river sediment for years as a result of mine waste throughout the region.

Understanding the risks to Navajo communities

Chief, who works with the UA Cooperative Extension program, is responding to concerns about the spill from Navajo communities downstream, with a focus on human exposure and risk perception.

“The water is very sacred to the Navajo people — not only to sustain their livelihoods, but also culturally and spiritually,” said Chief. The UA program links Arizonans to issues within the Navajo Nation and other tribal groups.

Concern as the river ran orange

“The Animas River and many other rivers near mines in the region have been heavily polluted and unable to sustain aquatic life since the early 1900s, and EPA is working to fix this problem,” said Christopher Weis, Ph.D., NIEHS senior advisor. “The main difference between this spill and the daily problems with pollution from waste near abandoned mines is that the water turned orange with the relatively short-lived metal release caused by the accident.”

UA SRP researchers put together a brief, Understanding the Gold King Mine Spill, to explain the extent of the accident, the effects of the spill, and what is being done to control it. The brief explains that the orange color of the water coming out of the mine resulted from the presence of highly acidic iron. When it mixes with water, it becomes less acidic and turns yellow. The water has since returned to its normal appearance.

“The mining devastation in this part of the United States is incredible, and it is important to maintain the focus on cleaning it up, even if the water is no longer orange,” said Weis. “This spill has raised awareness about mine waste issues, and we need to continue to work to understand the risks and clean up these problems.”

(Sara Mishamandani is a research and communication specialist for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

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