photo of the Animas River with orange water
Kayakers paddling in the orange water on the Animas River in southern Colorado. The water color was due to heavy metal content from the Gold King Mine spill that occurred on September 5, 2015. Photo credit: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald (AP).

By Yagesh Panta
Sustainability Analyst Intern
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

On August 5, 2015, a mine spill occurred in the Animas River in Colorado. The spill was a result of releasing mine wastewater, and the waste, approximately three million gallons, subsequently got mixed with the river. The spill was caused by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers while conducting studies on environmental contamination levels at the Gold King Mine. Experts say health effects may carry on for many years to come due to spills of heavy metals such as lead and mercury.

The most common health risks faced by humans due to the resulting exposure to these heavy metals are cancer, kidney disease, and developmental problems in children. The lead level in the river is almost 12,000 times higher than the standards set by the EPA. Other wastes that have been found to be at a higher level than standards are arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, and mercury. Apart from human beings, the eco system is also set to suffer because of this, as farms used the river as a water source for irrigation. The high pH level in the water has also affected aquatic life.

This underlies a bigger problem than what we initially perceived. According to Professor Mustafa Aral from Georgia Tech, “All human interventions to natural environments, our demand for built environments and natural or forced disasters sooner or later will be associated with health issues”. This is a very powerful statement and its implications are very daunting. Examples can be seen throughout history such as the Bhopal Disaster in 1984, The Great Smog in London I 1952, and in more recent times, and BP oil spill in 2010. We have gone through lots of paradigm shifts on the way we view the environment, and it’s role to us. Initially, we used to think that economy was the driving force of our living, and this train of thought reversed. Human health was considered to be important but never was the focal point. Due to the rise in Environmental Laws, and more research being done, it was realized that there is a direct tie between human health and the environment. This slowly led to a new approach being formed where environmental constraints were deemed to be important and the protection of the environment was placed as important as the preservation of Human Health and Sustainability of Populations.

It cannot be argued that many resources we need come from the environment and in many cases, there are no alternatives. With that being said, we cannot effectively control the environment. The term in itself is a misconception. Our goals should be to manage the environment in such a way that it utilizes a broad range of environmental factors that evaluates the impacts of human intervention while preserving the natural state of the environment the best we can. Integration among disciplines is key here, we need to create a fundamental system that encompasses a variety of fields such as engineering, public policy, public health, anthropology etc. This allows a broad range of organizations and populations to evaluate, manage, and improve the environmental impact and to help preserve health and safety of populations. As a whole, we have come a long way. In the days of antiquity, we were concerned with the survival of the human species. In the middle ages that changed to the survival of communities, which leads us to now, survival of individuals. But if we can work together, we can come to a decision on many environmental related decisions that benefits both the environment and human health.

References:
Effects of the Animas River Spill 
Health impact of Animas River toxic spill: ‘This is a real mess’
Environmental Agency Uncorks Its Own Toxic Water Spill At Colorado Mine

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