SILVERTON, Colo. -- One million gallons of mine pollutants are in river water flowing toward Southeastern Utah after federal contractors breached a wall blocking the waste from a decommissioned mine near Silverton, Colorado.
The waste has turned the Animas River orange as it flows through the biggest towns in the four corners area: Durango, Colorado and Farmington, New Mexico. The animus is the largest tributary of the San Juan River, which flows through Utah into Lake Powell.
According to a statement from the EPA, the spill occurred while the EPA was conducting an investigation at Gold King Mine to assess the on-going water releases from the mine, treat mine water and assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. During an excavation aimed at loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry, the loose material gave way and opened the mine tunnel, spilling the water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, which is a tributary of the Animas River.
They call the stretch of pollution a "pulse", which is moving slowly and is not expected to reach Utah until Sunday.
The state of Utah is testing the waters of the San Juan from the Southeastern Regional Office of the Division of Water Quality and the division is sending a separate team to New Mexico, according to Donna Kemp Spangler, Communications Director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
The Director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, Walt Baker, said the biggest immediate concern for Utah is recreational use of the San Juan River, where they recommend boating, fishing and swimming be postponed.
"Mine waste is a toxic brew. There's a lot of metals and bad stuff in that water and it's not to be trifled with," Baker said.
According to a press release from officials at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, experts are urging visitors to "avoid drinking, swimming or recreating on the San Juan River within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and on the San Juan River arm of Lake Powell until further notice."
Due to the rate of movement and likelihood of sediment settling, the warning has not been extended to the entirety of Lake Powell.
Baker says the pollution likely contains heavy metals, sulfates and acids. He said this waste in particular has already cut PH levels in the Animas River near Durango by about 40 percent.
Zach Frankel, the Executive Director of the Utah Rivers Council, said the larger concern is downstream, in the Colorado River.
As a tributary to Lake Powell, water from the San Juan River joins the Colorado River system.
"The problem is people don't realize this is the water supply for Las Vegas and Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as irrigation water for much of the southwest," Frankel said.