Blue River near Breckenridge turns orange; mine waste cause of murky runoff |

Blue River near Breckenridge turns orange; mine waste cause of murky runoff

Deepan Dutta
Summit Daily
Nelson Lopez plays on the rocks as the Blue River in Breckenridge turned orange due to spring runoff passing through old mines upstream Saturday, April 27, 2019. The river flows into the Dillon Reservoir, the source of water for Denver metro area. (Hugh Carey/Summit Daily News via AP)
Hugh Carey / Summit Daily

The Blue River turned orange in Breckenridge on Saturday afternoon. The river’s water went from its natural blue-green hue to a bright, burnt orange within a few hours, with emergency officials believing the discoloration to be runoff from an area above Illinois Gulch known to cause similar discoloration in the past. 

After investigating, fire officials determined that the runoff came from a mine located on private property at the corner of Boreas Pass Road and Bright Hope Circle. The water runoff at the source appeared as a thick, muddy orange stream with no obvious unique odor or taste. Fire officials said that the location has been the source of orange mine runoffs in the past.

A similar event in 2006 was caused by runoff from a mine in the same general location. The orange spill continued for several days, carrying with it high levels of toxic heavy metals. The incident resulted in the mass death of many fish in the Blue River.

Red, White and Blue Fire District issued a press release Saturday evening stating that first responders were alerted about discolored water in the Blue River at 3:15 p.m. Multiple fire companies and a specialty HAZMAT unit responded. The fire district determined that the source of the orange water was a known release point on Boreas Pass Road. Initial testing done by fire district personnel found the water to not be an immediate danger to human health. The fire district also said there is no immediate corrective action possible from first responders. Typically, this kind of orange mine runoff lasts about 24 hours.

“Given the rainfall that occurred last night, it is not surprising that we are seeing this type of activity today,” said RWB batallion chief and incident commander Drew Hoehn. “We realize the optics of the run-off are in stark contrast to what folks are normally used to seeing in the Blue River, but we are confident in the assessment and assurance of the public’s welfare in this particular situation.”

Summit County’s director of environmental health, Dan Hendershott, also sought to downplay concerns about the health impact of the orange water.

“Based on previous similar releases that have occurred, we don’t have reason to believe this event poses a risk to the public’s health,” Hendershott said. “However, out of an abundance of caution, we recommend that people and pets avoid contact with this water. Untreated surface water should never be consumed, and that would certainly be the case here, too.”

Authorities are still investigating the incident and all local water districts have been notified. The Blue River is one of the primary sources for the Dillon Reservoir, which provides drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people on the Front Range.

Initial reports of the incident brought to mind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster in Silverton, Colorado. In August of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally broke a plug on a retention pond during a cleanup operation at the mine. Thath caused the release of three million gallons of toxic, orange water over the course of a week, with downstream impacts felt as far down as New Mexico. The legacy of Colorado’s mining history in the 19th century continues to haunt the state, with thousands of abandoned mines across the Rockies still polluting rivers and watersheds with heavy, toxic metals.