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EPA's heavy metals spill will poison fish and water wells for decades to come

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(NaturalNews) Despite government assurances to the contrary, the heavy metals accidentally released when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breached a mine tailings dam in Colorado are likely to continue poisoning people and the environment for years or even decades to come, scientists have warned.

On August 5, the EPA was engaged in an effort to stem a leak in a tailings pond from the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. Agency workers accidentally breached the dam holding back the pond, and three million gallons of wastewater poured into the Animas River, turning it temporarily orange.

Slow-acting poisons

The most immediate concern is the risk to local residents, whose tap or well water ultimately comes from the Animas River. Experts are still unsure how much toxic exposure these residents are likely to have. Nevertheless, tests are showing that levels of toxic metals in the river are returning to "pre-event levels."

However, scientists warn that this could become a problem in and of itself. That's because the toxic metals are not actually leaving the river; they are simply settling into the sediment at the bottom.

"Remember, this is mine waste, it's heavy," toxicologist Dan Teitelbaum said. "It's going to sink to the bottom of these streams, it's going to get into the layer at the bottom."

From there, they are likely to keep affecting local humans and wildlife for the indefinite future.

"The long-term effects are the concern that every time we have some sort of a high-water event, whether a good rain in the mountains or spring runoff next year, that's going to stir up sediments and remobilize those contaminants that are sitting at the bottom of the river right now," said Ty Churchwell, Colorado backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

In particular, scientists and conservationists are concerned about the effects of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc.

"They're a problem because they're long-term poisons," said Teitelbaum. "And low levels consumed over a long period of time create serious problems, particularly arsenic, produce very serious problems."

Many of the metals released, such as arsenic, can also cause more subtle damage, such as hormonal problems that can affect future generations.

This can affect not only humans who drink the water or use it to irrigate their fields, but also the entire river ecosystem starting with invertebrates and working its way up the food cahin.

"With the initial plume, maybe there wasn't as big of a die-off, but long term it may become more of a habitat availability issue and also a spawning habitat issue," said Shawn Rummel, also of Trout Unlimited. "Those are pretty common concerns with abandoned mine drainage."

Mining's toxic legacy

It is impossible to understand the Animas River disaster except in the context of the history of mining pollution in the river and in the West in general. Due in large part to a high concentration of heavy metals in its sediment even before the recent disaster, the Animas River has struggled to sustain fish populations for years. The overall biomass of fish in the river has dropped an astonishing 80 percent since 2000 alone, and the Animas no longer contains breeding populations of trout.

While some scientists have pointed to a long history of mining spills across the West as a cause for optimism, others note that this history is actually a cause for alarm. Moreover, it raises the question of when the next tailing pond will blow out.

"The truth is, it's so complex and there are any number of players and legal issues," Churchwell said. "It's not as simple as one mine popped its head and blew its water. If you walk away with one underlying theme here, it's that this is not an isolated incident. There are ticking time bombs all over the western U.S."

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