Toxic sludge turns river in Colorado orange

DURANGO, Colo. -- You can forgive folks in southern Colorado who might have a jaundiced view of government projects after what happened this week.

Crews working for the Environmental Protection Agency were trying to clean up an old mine. But they accidentally sent a million gallons of toxic sludge into the Animas River.

The images from the ground and from the sky of an orange river have Durango residents like Joe Genualdi worried.

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A view of the contaminated Animas River near Durango, Colorado.
Hayden Ferguson

"It's already hard enough to catch fish in the Animas, and this stuff, it's definitely not good for them," Genualdi said. "It's going to kill a lot of fish off."

The EPA takes full responsibility for the contamination, admitting it underestimated the magnitude of the problem.

Testing Friday afternoon confirmed that heavy metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic are now flowing through the river, and sediment is settling at the bottom.

Professor Asish Basu specializes in geochemistry at the University of Texas in Arlington. He says the impact of this kind of spill goes way beyond just the look of the river.

"All these metals, in excessive amounts, are dangerous to human life," Basu said.

The Animas River runs 126 miles and is one of the sources of drinking water for towns surrounding it.

Basu says there are several ways to try and fix the problem, but the easiest might be letting the fast-flowing river run its course.

"Dilution is the solution in a case like this," Basu said.

Since the leak has not yet been plugged, the EPA is building retention ponds around the mine, trying to capture additional wastewater.