7 Things We Know About The Toxic Spill In Colorado

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

By now, you've probably come across images of mucky river water flowing through Colorado, coloring lush green landscape with pops of brownish-orange. It's a strange sight, but what actually caused it? And how is the region responding to the spill?

Here's what we know so far:

1. EPA mine workers set off the spill last week.

The spill occurred last Wednesday, when an Environmental Protection Agency team treating contaminated mine water accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas River. The EPA is the government agency taxed with protecting human health and the environment, so being on the other side of the contamination blame game is new for them.

2. Sludge now covers more than 100 miles of water in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Despite initial reports that 1 million gallons of the mustard-tinted sludge had escaped, the U.S. Geological Survey just found there to be closer to 3 million gallons of contamination. Debris from the spill now stretches to neighboring New Mexico and Utah — more than 100 miles from where it originated.

3. The spill could have unforeseen effects on human health in the area.

The mine sludge's striking color isn't the only cause for concern. The river now contains high levels of chemicals like lead, iron, zinc copper and cadmium. One mercury sample was nearly 10 times higher than the acceptable standard, while a test of arsenic levels revealed them to be more than 800 times higher, CNN reports. High doses of these chemicals pose a threat to human health and the EPA has advised local homeowners to have their water tested before drinking or bathing.

4. The recreation industry that depends on the river is also in danger.

A ban on fishing and boating in the area has caused Colorado's economy to take a hit. "We've been hearing from rafting companies and other businesses that rely on the river that if they can't get clients out on the river in the next couple of days, they may have to shut down their doors," environmental lobbyist Kim Stevens told CNN.

5. New Mexico and Colorado just declared a state of emergency.

Governors of Colorado and New Mexico declared a state of emergency on Monday, freeing up hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funds to be put toward response efforts.

6. Yesterday, the EPA made its first public statement on the spill.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy gave a statement on the spill yesterday, admitting "I don’t have a complete understanding of anything that went on in there." She then ensured that the EPA had a team working around the clock to find answers.

7. The agency is receiving harsh criticism, and will likely have to pay for its mistakes.

Many believe that, despite McCarthy's testimony, the government agency is not acting with enough urgency. Michael Bennet, a Colorado senator, told The Wall Street Journal that he found their initial response to be "slow and insufficient."

When all is said and done, the EPA may have to pay up. Costs for environmental contamination can reach millions in legal fines and cleanup efforts. Let's not forget Duke Energy's coal ash spill last year — one that set the electricity company back $102 million.

Photo courtesy of Instagram.

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