On Monday, Aug 5, 2015 a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency was cleaning the Gold King Mine in southern Colorado, when all of the sudden a leak sprung. The leak slowly started to progress until it was out of control, and a river of heavy metal flowed down stream turning many miles of the Animas River to a mustard color.
Because of the leak, a substantial amount of toxic wastewater, from the mine work, began to flow out of Gold King. The river rapidly filled with 3 million gallons of waste and began changing colors. The thousands of people, who depend on the water were uneasy not knowing how or what they could do to solve this issue. The Denver Post reported the last time there was a spill this extreme it was in the early 1990’s.
Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. As a result of the leak at the Gold King Mine and the heavy metal wastewater that flowed into the Animas River, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared the incident a natural disaster.
The 3 million gallons of water that was contaminated
by red sludge, which is a thin, crusty layer that sits on the very top of the soil. That sludge was potentially harmful to those who were utilizing the river as a primary water source. The three states including Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as the Animas and San Juan Rivers, were the locations that were contaminated the worst.
“It was quite concerning that this type of situation was going on, and there was no one to clean up the mess,” Carla Millares, a doctoral student at Texas Tech, said.
David Weindorf, PHD associate dean for research in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, was called upon to take a team to collect soil samples that were affected by the mine spill.
“About two weeks after the spill had happened, the EPA was mobilizing and assessing, while trying to figure out what the damage was going to be like” Weindorf said.
I was just sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing, it was Washington, D.C. The State Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) from New Mexico made a call to Washington D.C, and Washington, D.C said, ‘call Dr. Weindorf at Texas Tech.’
“I was sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing. It was Washington, DC.”
“I received the call and they said they needed me and my team right away, the very next week we were on sight, and started to scan the soil.”
Weindorf is considered to be a national authority when it comes to using the portable x-ray florescence spectrometer gun.
“On the Texas Tech campus I am the only person who has this piece of equipment,” he explained. “Every research project that has needed this equipment in the last ten years, my team was the one who conducted it.”
Weindorf, along with his research assistants Bogdan Duda from Romania and Carla Millares from La Paz, Bolivia, have since provided the NRCS with all of the data and results, and detailed reports. Which allowed them to receive a new grant from the NRCS and New Mexico State University for monitoring the farmland in the area that was most significantly affected.
For the next three years, the researchers will continue to collect data by scanning the soil a few times per year to monitor what is happening with the medal levels in that specific area. To see if there has been an increase in the medal inhibition or if the counts be staying at a constant number.
“This research project has not only allowed me to see new places and conduct new research, but it has given two schools an opportunity to work together to try to enhance information and see better results on these types of projects.”
“The same issue with the higher levels of metal is going on back in Romania, by working on this project we have also been able to compare the data that was taken from this river and compare it to the one over there,” Weindorf said.
“If more people would adopt these type of technologies and use the cutting edge tools that are available, we would have been able to figure out the issues sooner.”
Multiple researchers across the Texas Tech campus in different departments have started to utilize this technology from collecting data on chemical compounds to testing the different sounds that antique horns make using the x-ray gun.
History tends to repeat itself, and it has been roughly estimated there are almost 500,000 mines similar to the Gold King Mine that need to be cleaned up. This spill was treated like a crisis issue, but now with the research available and technology, researchers will be better prepared, not if it happens but when it happens again. This now begins the waiting game, and researchers are not sure when or how the spill will occur. However, the crisis in Colorado, more research is being done to prepare. Despite the negative effects of the Gold King spill, there were some positive outcomes, more awareness for the abandoned mines.
Weindorf, along with the help of Duda and Millares, are prime examples of the different levels of research that one is able to start and perfect at Texas Tech University. Through the hard work, long tedious days, and many hours of research on and off the river, these three individuals have excelled in the representation that they provide for Texas Tech.
One phone call saved many gallons of water, provided new data and research, and has prepared multiple researchers for the future. Though it was a national crisis these researchers will be prepared for the worst.