#AnimasRiver: Mine pollution and kicking the environmental can down the river — Mountain Town News


From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Mustard-colored water in the Animas River of southwestern Colorado illustrates more than anything else the long gestation time of many environmental disasters.

The surge was unleashed last week by a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency who unwittingly breached a dike, allowing contaminated water backed up in the Gold King Mine to flood into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas. The images from the river downstream in Durango were appalling.

The makings for the disaster, however, began almost 130 years ago. Located seven miles north of Silverton at an elevation of 11,400 feet, the Gold King was among several big mines and mills clustered around a company town called Gladstone. The Gold King had a brief but productive life. The mine was staked in 1886 and the vein that made it a bonanza was identified in 1896. Until mine portals were shuttered in 1922, it produced $8 million in ore. That was more than a tenth of all production in San Juan County, according to “The Rainbow Route,” a railroad and mining history.

If a bonanza to owners, the mine was deadly to workers. Six people died of carbon dioxide drawn into the mine by a fire at the nearby boarding house. Another five people died in an avalanche, reports Scott Fetchenhier, an amateur historian and San Juan County commissioner.

Central City back in the day
Central City back in the day

Mining can be hazardous to people living downstream, too. In the 1930s, farmers along Clear Creek, northwest of Denver, complained bitterly of their irrigation water being sullied by gold miners upstream at Central City and Blackhawk, to the detriment of their crops.

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

Even after state and federal laws were enacted, seeking to curb pollution, we’ve continued to cut corners. When mining ended in 1979 after a century at the Eagle Mine, located a few miles from Vail, Colo., a giant mess remained. Pollution made people uncertain whether they should eat fish caught in the Eagle River.

That question was soon answered. The settlement between the mining company and Colorado regulators assumed that sealing the mine would prevent water from flowing into the rivers. The experts were wrong. By early 1990, the Eagle River looked like Kool-Aid. The fish vanished. Belatedly, the EPA was called in and, after $100 million, the pollution has largely been cleaned up. However, heavy metals must continue to be removed from water in the mine before it gets into the river. The last time I checked, in the 1990s, the plant cost $1 million a year to operate. This will continue in perpetuity.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

That cost near Vail is being borne privately, by a corporate conglomerate. Not so the $155 million cleanup at Summitville, an open-pit mine in southern Colorado where cyanide was used to extract gold from low-grade ore. After the mess became public, Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy in 1992.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Mines from around Silverton had been causing trouble long before this spill. The Silverton Standard & Miner had reported that water quality has worsened 2005. Four of five trout species in one area had vanished.

Since 1995, the non-profit Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to address these legacy problems. It has been thwarted by absence of federal Good Samaritan legislation. Independent groups can’t afford to touch problems like the Gold King because, in case of accident, they “own the damages,” in the words of Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers, a conservation group. He explains that environmental communities worry that Good Samaritan legislation will allow big mining corporations to skip out on their responsibilities, such as occurred at Summitville.

The larger lesson derived from this giant mess in Silverton and Durango is that mining just doesn’t belong in headwaters areas, says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for American Rivers. He cites a copper-mining proposal for the Smith River in Montana. “Eventually, inevitably, the (contaminated) water will make it back to the river, whether it’s by catastrophic accident or a natural event,” he says.

I take a bigger view yet. Don’t blame the miners of 100 years ago. I have friends whose parents and grandparents worked at these mines near Silverton and Vail. They led hard lives.

But today we know better. We also know better than to pollute the atmosphere with reckless abandon, creating a bigger, denser greenhouse around the planet. Yet we keep doing it. People want 100 percent certainty. People complain about the costs. Right now, I’m wondering which would have cost more on the Animas River, prevention or cleanup.

From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown And P. Solomon Banda) via The Denver Post:

The spill of toxic wastewater from an abandoned gold mine high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains caused untold millions in economic disruptions and damages in three states — to rafting companies, Native American farmers unable to irrigate, municipal water systems and possibly water well owners. And largely because the federal government inadvertently triggered the release, it has vowed to pay the bill.

That bill could be years in the making. Attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah vowed to ensure citizens and towns are compensated for immediate and long-term damages from the spill. But Colorado’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, acknowledged it could be years before the full impact is known.

“We have to be vigilant as attorneys general, as the lawyers for the state, as protectors of the environment, to be sure that the assurances that we received today from the Environmental Protection Agency are the same in two years, in five years, even 10 years when we discover what the damage to the environment actually is,” Coffman said Wednesday after she and her counterparts gathered in Durango.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency took full responsibility for the spill, which was unleashed Aug. 5 when an EPA-supervised crew accidentally unleashed the torrent of wastewater from the Gold King mine. The plume of heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, flowed into southwest Colorado’s Animas River and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.

McCarthy also said she had ordered agency personnel across the country to cease field investigation work on abandoned mines while the spill was investigated. EPA officials said they were seeking details on what the stop-work order means.

The Gold King spill was proving devastating to the Navajo Nation, which recently negotiated a settlement giving it rights to water from the San Juan River. The tribe plans to build a $20 million water treatment plant in northwestern New Mexico to take in the extra volume of water granted by the settlement and provide a clean drinking source to more of the 16,000 families on the reservation who still haul water to their homes.

Heavy metals already were present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river,” complained Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. He said meeting EPA standards for clean drinking water could double the plant’s cost and require millions more in operating costs each year…

Current Colorado law requires a mining company to post a bond to cover the eventual cost of cleanup before a permit is issued to start operations, said Tony Waldron, supervisor of mine programs for the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. If the company fails to clean up the site when the mine closes, the state uses the bond to hire a contractor to do the work.

In most cases, the bonds have been sufficient to cover the cost of cleanup when mine operators don’t finish, Waldron said. The state has a fund it can use to make up the difference.

But the Gold King Mine isn’t covered because it was abandoned in 1923, before the law was in effect. In the absence of an owner, the federal government was working with local residents and the state to do limited mitigation work in the area around the Gold King mine — one of a cluster of old and polluted mines perched more than 11,000 feet high — when the spill occurred.

Cleanup costs alone can be staggering — and continuous.

Colorado tightened its bond requirements in the 1990s after the operator of the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co., declared bankruptcy and couldn’t complete a cleanup. Summitville became a federal Superfund site, with the EPA in charge.

The cleanup is ongoing because contaminated water continues to drain from the mine. The total cost to date is more than $100 million, according to the U.S. Geological Service.

Authorities said Wednesday that the waste from the Gold King spill will continue to be dangerous when contaminated sediment gets stirred up from the river bottom.

“There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time,” said hydrologist Tom Myers, who runs a Nevada-based consulting business. “Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”

EPA spill liaison Nat Miullo suggested the danger from the spill had diminished with the dissipation of the initial burst of tainted water. Any future spike in contaminant levels caused by stirring up sediments would be “much, much smaller in scale,” he said.

But environmental regulators in downstream New Mexico warned that it was crucial to determine where the contamination settles.

“Those are some of the longer-term issues that affect humans as well as wildlife,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Seven days after her agency’s massive mine wastewater spill into a major southwest watershed, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said water quality in the Animas River through La Plata County has “returned to pre-event conditions.”

Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a boots-on-the-ground appearance Wednesday in Durango that’s expected to continue Thursday in Farmington, N.M., called the Aug. 5 incident “heartbreaking” and said the EPA “couldn’t be more sorry.”

“Right now, rest assured, we will learn lessons from this, and we will move those lessons forward in the work moving ahead,” she said of the spill of 3 million gallons at the Gold King Mine near Silverton.

In a 15-minute news conference, McCarthy said cleanup operations at similar mines throughout the country have been “put on hold” until the EPA determines how the Gold King accident happened. Speaking outside a command center, McCarthy said the EPA plans to solicit an independent investigation of the calamity.

Not satisfied

Some Durango residents are angered that McCarthy is neither planning a trip to the Gold King Mine nor holding a public meeting. EPA officials and McCarthy said the mine — roughly a 55-mile trip, some of it over unpaved road — was too far to visit.

“As you know, it is a significant distance away, but I did visit the river. I took a look at it myself to get a sense of the river,” McCarthy said. “And I think the good news is it seems to be restoring itself, but we have continued work to do and EPA is here.”

Her appearance came after Colorado’s senators and the congressman representing Durango-area residents urged her to visit the impacted areas.

“The most important thing for me, for this trip, was to come to the unified command center,” she said, citing a necessity to meet with local and state officials to ensure that their needs are being fulfilled.

“That is my first order of business,” she added…

Just before McCarthy addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, members of the Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations released a letter they sent to President Barack Obama requesting federal resources. In the letter, the group also said the federal government should explore creating a water-treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.

While the EPA says it’s treating contaminated water still flowing from the Gold King Mine, three adjacent mines continue to release more than 540 gallons per minute of waste laced with heavy metals.

Looking ahead

Asked about what politicians across the Southwest have complained was a slow response by the EPA to notify the public of the spill, McCarthy said, “We will address those issues as we look at the investigation. … .

“The most important thing is we are moving forward. We are fully ramped up. We have data coming in. We can assess that data.”

Wednesday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment informed the city of Durango that “drinking water treatment facilities can begin to use the Animas River to collect and treat water for customers.”

The Animas River in La Plata County, including Durango, remains closed by authorities. The county sheriff’s office has not said when it will reopen the water. Meanwhile, local businesses that rely on the Animas’ flow remain shuttered.

EPA officials Wednesday said the plume of contaminants is approaching Lake Powell in Utah and that apparatus are in place there to conduct testing.

“We are already there,” McCarthy said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, saying his state has mobilized resources.

A spokeswoman for the San Juan Basin Health Department on Wednesday said results of water testing on private wells in the area have not been returned but are expected “very soon.” A county spokeswoman says the EPA is paying for the tests.

The department earlier this week said a call center set up to answer questions and take requests for well testing was “overwhelmed.” Samples have been sent to labs in Denver and Georgia.

2 thoughts on “#AnimasRiver: Mine pollution and kicking the environmental can down the river — Mountain Town News

  1. Good report on the current conditions here as well as on some of the history but certainly not all of it.

    I hear that the current owner of the Sunnyside Mine disputes that his mine connects to the Gold King Mine. However, in an extensive 60-page history of the San Juan mining district done by the USGS and published in 2008, (USGS Professional Paper 1651, Stanley Church et al, Chapter C). their historian asserts that the American Tunnel was formerly the Gold King’s drainage tunnel, and also says that after it was purchased from the estate of the long-closed Gold King in 1960 that the previous owner of the Sunnyside enlarged the tunnel so that it could also serve as a haulage tunnel to connect the Sunnyside workings to decent road access in Gladstone, as the narrow gauge train that had served the Sunnyside Mill at Eureka on the east side of the mountain had been ripped-out during World War II for the steel content of its rails. If his statement is correct it is rather obvious that the Gold King and the Sunnyside are connected underground.

    I also have to wonder how much mine effluent was draining from the Sunnyside’s Terry drainage tunnel before it was plugged, as well as how much effluent was pouring from the drainage tunnel from the former Gold Prince mine before it was also plugged? I have to wonder just how many other of the old mines within that same mountain also have had drainage tunnels or portals plugged over time by the State trying to control the downhill movement of acidic and toxic mine effluent and improve water quality downstream.

    The reason that I wonder is because if we just add-up the flow rates for the various mines and drainage tunnels plugged by the State over some years there could easily be 100-200 million gallons of toxic and acidic mine effluent laced with dangerous metals backed-up inside that mountain right now, involving every mine tunnel over at least 1000 to 1200 feet of vertical drop between the portal of the American Tunnel at Gladstone and the leaking tunnel at the Gold King, including those that may not have originally been interconnected to either the Gold King or the Sunnyside mines.

    The downward and outward pressure of 1000-1200 vertical feet of mine effluent would be immense and virtually every installed bulkhead inside the mountain would be at-risk of failure as a result, due to the very-high pressure of the trapped effluent forcing open fissures and faults in the rock, and even around bulkheads, which is why the Red & Bonita Mine, abandoned sometime around the turn of the 20th Century and not interconnected to either the Gold King nor the Sunnyside, started leaking 300 gallons of mine effluent per-minute in 2006, nine years after the initial plugs were installed in the American Tunnel.

    Here is my worry in a nutshell. If a majority portion of that 100-200 million gallons of trapped mine effluent were to suddenly burst out, whether by dislodging one or more plugs or even just by forcing its way through fissures and faults to the surface, the end result would be a wall of highly-acidic and toxic mine effluent as high as 20-25 feet tall pouring down the Animas River canyon and causing many times as much damage as this last spill as well as considerable flood damage too.

    Essentially this whole problem can be traced to a faulty decision by the State of Colorado to pursue a low cost solution only temporary in-nature, a solution that just keeps making the problem worse and worse. Sure, at first the solution looked like it was working and people downstream became convinced that the continuing danger of a major toxic mine release had passed, which unfortunately simply wasn’t true, and today the problem is 20 times as bad as it was in 1995, as that is about how much more toxic effluent is now trapped inside the mountain than was trapped there in 1995, and any day it could all come pouring down the river too, even due to natural causes rather than mad-made causation.

    Looking back it sure would have been a lot less-expensive for the State to keep the water treatment plant at Gladstone open even after the former owner of the Sunnyside stopped paying to operate it, and also, something else not-mentioned in your articles above is the fact that the Animas River Stakeholders and other Silverton locals have heavily opposed bringing-in EPA Superfund dollars which could have much more rapidly dealt with this mess, on the grounds of potential impact to tourist spending, as several other local communities in Colorado dealing with major toxic mine cleanups are doing too.

    I have a question: Should just the most immediately-impacted locals get to decide whether Superfund spending is brought to bear on toxic problems as large as this one is, or should everyone downriver get a chance to vote as everyone downriver is just as heavily affected if not more so if a huge toxic release is the end result of blocking Superfund spending? Frankly the Animas River is a tributary of the San Juan River which itself is a tributary of the Colorado River too.

    If you lived in Las Vegas, Phoenix, or any other city that uses the Colorado River for its water supply would you want a vote on whether Superfund spending should be brought in to try to improve and protect your water quality, due to toxic drainage from these century-old mines? What about all of the winter vegetables grown in the Imperial Valley that we now know have some metals content because of the people in Silverton who refuse to allow Federal spending to clean-up their historic mess? This is even an international problem as Mexico gets over one million acre-feet out of the Lower Colorado River every year too.

    So if anyone wants to see a decent short video presentation on this very subject from 2013 there is one here in this Durango Herald news item entitled “Superfund: A dirty word to some in Silverton”, written by Chase Olivarius-McAllister. The video only covers the major mines involved and doesn’t include hundreds of smaller mines that are also there too.


    And if you are one of those get-to-the-bottom-of-it types here is the full Stanley Church USGA professional paper from 2008, which runs a bit over 1000 pages, and includes 25 different research studies on various aspects of this problem in Chapter E, as well as a summary report of those 25 studies in Chapter D, and the professional prognosis of the USGS staff concerning reclamation outcomes and costs in Chapter F. The history section, Chapter C, also includes a couple dozen historic photos and maps as well as historic production figures and even a map of all of the former mining tramways used across the district too.

    The USGS paper is entitled “Integrated Investigations of Environmental Effects of Historical Mining in the Animas River Watershed, San Juan County, Colorado. Edited by Stanley E. Church, Paul von Guerard, and Susan E. Finger, USGS, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2008

    It is an extremely thorough and well-researched professional document and I personally recommend it, because once you read it you will have a much better understanding of what is and has been going on here all the way back to the 1800s. I might also add that the immediate issue with the Sunnyside and Gold King Mines is only really a small part of the entire toxic clean-up issue across the several sub-basins that all join at Silverton too, which in-order to restore to a safe non-toxic state will literally require tens of billions of dollars if not hundreds of billions, money the State nor the Animas River Stakeholders even have.

    This spill last week wasn’t the first such spill, nor even close to the largest such spill previously either, and if every affected resident in the Animas/San Juan/Colorado drainage basin got to vote on whether Superfund should bring in its troops I am sure that the overwhelming answer would be a solid yes vote too.


Leave a Reply