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Gold King Mine Spill May Not Have Significant Effects On Utah

Chuck Hawkins said if the discharge from the Gold King Mine is shut off, he doubts Lake Powell will see any major problems from the waste.

On Monday, waste from the Gold King Mine waste spill came to Utah, but the state may not see major biological effects from it.

Chuck Hawkins is director of the Western Center for Monitoring and Assessment of Freshwater Ecosystems, a research center at Utah State University. He said the waters released from the mine are low in PH, meaning they are acidic, and they contain a lot of heavy metals, with a concentration up to a thousand or more times above the safety limit.

“Immediately downstream, it’ll kill everything,” Hawkins said. “This is toxic enough to kill fish. It’s toxic enough to kill many aquatic insects, not necessarily all of them. So there’s going to be pretty pronounced effects immediately downstream.”

Hawkins said as the water moves downstream, there is a decline of negative effects, which he calls a “decay.”

“In many situations like this, it’s often an exponential decay,” Hawkins said. “So it’s really significant right at the point of discharge, but then it declines very rapidly in terms of its effect such that by the time you get several miles downstream, the problem may be much less severe.”

Hawkins said not a lot of data has been released, but the PH has not been significantly affected once the waste hits the Colorado River.

Hawkins said the spill is not the first example of mining activities causing harm to a body of water. He said there are about a thousand miles worth of small streams that have become biologically dead. He said the water may look clear and pristine, but nothing lives in it.

“That doesn’t get anywhere near the attention of what’s going on right now because those small streams are out of the public eye by and large,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said as long as the discharge from the mine stops, he doubts the San Juan River or Lake Powell will see any big problems from the waste.

However, he said if the discharge is not stopped, the acids and metals could come to Utah with high enough concentrations to be hazardous to aquatic life.