UNM Expert: Human threat from river pollution has passed


ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE)- The giant orange plume moving down the Animas River and San Juan rivers is getting lighter and lighter and a UNM professor says the danger is fading as well.

An updated EPA estimate says about three million gallons of waste water from a Colorado mine has spilled into the Animas River, bringing with it heavy metals like lead and arsenic.

The spill sent a bright orange plume of pollution streaming through communities from Durango to Farmington down the San Juan. That’s prompted cities to stop pumping water from the river, calls for families to stop using their private wells and orders for people to stay out of the river.

But after analyzing the EPA’s initial report, UNM Water Quality Expert Dr. Bruce Thomson says the threat to humans has passed.

“Once it got to the Animas River, virtually all of the drinking water metals, metals that are regulated for human health, were diluted to very low concentrations,” said Dr. Thomson.

Thomson says, thanks to that dilution, he believes even well users located on the river flood plain could start using their water again. He says those types of metals don’t easily contaminate wells.

Thomson says, “If you’re just even a few 100 feet away from the shoreline, I would be very surprised if there was any contamination detected whatsoever, those types of contaminants move through the surface water, but they don’t move very well through the ground water, they’re filtered out by the soil.”

He says in this situation the color of the river is a good indicator of safety. If the water is no longer orange, it is likely safe for human contact and use. But he says fish aren’t so lucky.

“In particular, there were high concentrations of aluminum, iron, manganese and copper. That may be toxic to fish if exposed to them for any period of time,” said Thomson.

Dr. Thomson says that means fish could die and have problems with future reproductive cycles. But he doesn’t expect other wildlife, like ducks and geese, to be impacted. He says there is probably little that can be done to clean up the pollution, minus natural dilution due to water flow.

Dr. Thomson is just one expert and residents in the affected areas should continue to follow guidelines put in place by their local leaders.

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