Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- which normally works to protect the environment -- accidentally dumped 3 million gallons of toxic mining waste into the Animas River in Colorado, turning it an eerie orange color. The accident happened while the EPA was trying to treat the water flowing out of the defunct Gold King Mine in order to reduce the amount of pollution leaving the mine.
The waste in the river contains high levels of arsenic and heavy metals, and officials are warning people in nearby towns to get their water tested before drinking or bathing in it -- since high levels of arsenic can cause cancer, blindness, and paralysis. The poison has now made its way all the way into New Mexico, and several cities and the Navajo Nation have declared states of emergency.
Unfortunately, it isn't all that unusual for rivers in the U.S. to become polluted to a scary degree. A report released in 2012 showed that industrial facilities had dumped 266 million pounds of toxic chemicals in to US waterways in the year 2010 alone.
Earlier this year, an oil pipeline burst in Montana, spilling at least 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. It was another déjà vu moment -- the same exact thing had happened in the same place in 2011 -- only 63,000 gallons were spilled into the Yellowstone River that time.
Following the 2015 Yellowstone spill, the water became temporarily unsafe to drink for nearly 6,000 people in surrounding towns due to high levels cancer-causing benzene, and a state of emergency was declared in two counties. A similarly disturbing oil spill that released a million gallons of Canadian tar sands into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, making it run black with oil in 2010, is still being dealt with by the EPA now, five years later.
Last year, a water treatment plant in West Virginia accidentally released thousands of gallons of MCHM, a toxic chemical used in coal processing, into the Elk River, leaving about 300,000 residents of the state without access to water clean enough to drink or shower in for up to ten days.
In the days following that spill, the West Virginia Poison control center reported that it received phone calls from over 1,900 patients reporting symptoms like dizziness, vomiting, itching, diarrhea, and rashes related to exposure to the chemical, and people in the state reported not feeling safe drinking their water for months afterwards, despite reassurance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It isn't just the big spills that cause these sort of concerns, either -- habitual industrial waste dumping into waterways is still a huge nationwide problem. Earlier this year, the Ohio River, which flows through Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, was found to contain the most industrial waste of any river in the country, with 24,180,821 pounds of industrial discharge released into the river in 2013 alone. The Mississippi River, which runs through ten states, ranked as the nation's second-most polluted river.
In many states, all this industrial dumping has led to warnings about eating fish caught in local waterways due to concern over the amounts of mercury they may contain.
The effect that the recent Colorado spill will have on fish and wildlife remains to be seen.