The Environmental Impact of Heavy Metals

By Carter McAuley, Associate Account Executive

With the recent spill of three million gallons of heavy metal-laden wastewater into the Animas River in Colorado, we were given a colorful reminder of the damage that heavy metals and other chemicals can cause to our environment. But it is not just mining operations that have the potential for this kind of highly damaging and visible disaster. In this case, an environmental contractor performing remediation work at the Gold King mine for the EPA caused a breach that released wastewater containing high levels of heavy metals.

Animas River Picture


(Photo credit: The Durango Herald)

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals by definition are dense metals or metalloids that are potentially toxic. You have probably heard of a few of them: arsenic, lead, mercury. However, some more innocuous metals such as silver, nickel, copper, cobalt, and zinc can also be toxic in large enough quantities.

These metals can induce serious and sometimes deadly diseases in humans, when exposed to excessive levels, including internal hemorrhaging, brain damage, lung inflammation, renal failure, diabetes, and cancer. Plants and animals absorb these compounds through the soil or ingestion. Human beings can ingest, inhale, or absorb these compounds through the skin.

Who uses heavy metals?

Numerous industries use heavy metals whether they know it or not. Certainly, the mining industry uses heavy metals, but they are also used in industries like manufacturing (such as plastic and even toy manufacturing), electroplating, and textile industries. They can also be found in vehicle emissions (for example, at a construction yard) and in aging infrastructures such as water supply or treatment systems.

What damage can heavy metals cause?

Aside from the problems heavy metals can cause to people, as the Animas river spill has shown, heavy metals can cause considerable damage to the environment. Heavy metals in the water can kill off fish and water fowl. The affected water is absorbed into soil and plants, trees, and land animals are affected. Another factor to consider in the Animas river situation is the loss of income for businesses that rely on the river and tourism (rafting, fishing and camping, etc). The EPA has already estimated a cost of three million dollars just to set up the treatment needed at the spill site. However, the total cost of the Animas river spill will take years to fully calculate as the effects on the wildlife population and tourism in the area are uncovered.

How can your clients protect themselves?

There are many types of insurance products that can help address a loss like the Animas River spill, or other heavy metal exposures. A Contractors Pollution Liability policy can help protect against third party losses caused by a contractor’s covered operations. A Premises Pollution Liability policy, while usually not available for abandoned or unmitigated mining sites, can be designed to offer protection for businesses and properties downstream from the mine.

There are many different ways Beacon Hill can assist you in helping to protect your insureds from a loss due to heavy metal contamination. For more information, contact us.


Information for this article was obtained from the following sources: