From The Christian Science Monitor (Brad Knickerbocker):
The US Environmental Protection Agency says it’s now safe for recreational boaters to use the Animas River following a mine waste spill in Colorado that befouled the river with toxic metals and turned it a mustard yellow.
But the long-term effects of the spill at the Gold King mine are unknown, and the episode points to a much larger environmental problem – many thousands of such mines across the West, many of them abandoned and with piles of potentially polluting materials left behind after the ground had been scraped and scoured and blown up in the search for gold, silver, and other valuable minerals.
The problem has its historical roots in the General Mining Law signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and still in effect.
Critics say the law made it too easy for individuals and corporations to obtain the rights (and sometimes the title) to areas claimed for mining on public land, demanded no royalties on the profits from such mining (which are required of other extractive industries, including coal, oil, and natural gas), and made no provision for cleaning up mine waste.
The industry – which has grown from individuals with a pick ax and a dusty mule to large corporations with massive earth moving equipment – denies this, noting modernized means and methods of extracting valuable minerals from the land, most of it in the American West…
The Associated Press reports two major examples:
California’s 150-year-old Iron Mountain mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge a day before a clean-up by the EPA, which declared it a Superfund site in 1983, 20 years after it shut down. The sludge caused massive fish kills in the Sacramento River system, which supplies a fifth of the state’s water, more than 30 times. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisons, and expect to keep at it forever.
At Montana’s Berkeley Pit, meanwhile, an acid lake created when Atlantic Richfield Co. turned off the pumps at its copper mine in 1982 grows by millions of gallons every day. The EPA made it a Superfund site, too, planning to keep acid spills from Butte Valley waterways. Meanwhile, the notorious pit grows in infamy: In 1995, an entire flock of migrating snow geese perished after setting down in the water.
“The 1872 Law’s legacy includes 550,000 abandoned and inactive mines; 10,000 miles of degraded rivers and streams; hundreds of polluted lakes and reservoirs; and, more than 50 Superfund sites,” reports the Center for Environmental Equity. Mining activity has contaminated the headwaters of more than 40 percent of watersheds in the West, according to the EPA.
Earthworks, another nonprofit environmental organization, estimates that it will cost taxpayers between $32-72 billion to clean up these mines. A congressional report based on EPA figures put the total cleanup costs for such hardrock mines at $20-54 billion.
“Westerners should stand up and take notice: Our communities are at risk,” Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel wrote in a CNN opinion column. “This is not our first mining disaster and it won’t be the last. Until we tackle the root cause of mining pollution and modernize the 1872 mining law, we are gambling away our most precious resource, water.”
In 2007, the US House of Representatives passed the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, which prevented companies from gaining full title to land on which they had established mining claims, set new environmental rules, and established an 8 percent royalty on the gross incomes from mining. The bill died in the US Senate.
Critics of the 1872 mine law are trying again. In February, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015.
The bill would: establish an 8 percent royalty on new mines and a 4 percent royalty on existing mines; use those royalties and money raised by newly established pollution fees to clean up abandoned hardrock mine lands; end the patenting system that allows companies to purchase public land containing minerals for as little as $2.50 per acre; establish strong reclamation standards and bonding requirements aimed at companies that cease work at a particular mine or go bankrupt; protect wilderness study areas, roadless areas, and wild and scenic rivers from mining; and allow state, local, and tribal governments to petition federal authorities to withdraw certain areas from mining in order to protect drinking water, wildlife habitat, cultural and historic resources, or other important values.
To date, the bill has 26 cosponsors – all Democrats.
Even if such legislation were to pass – likely an even longer shot in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada is the son of a hardrock miner – it would still leave those many thousands of old mines leaking toxic waste, threatening wildlife, water quality, and local economies.
“You can expect such failures like the one we had at Gold King,” Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, told The Wall Street Journal. “These sites are just sitting there waiting to fail, and most of them are going to fail sooner or later.”
From Conservation Colorado (Micha Rosenoer) via The Colorado Independent:
The recent disaster on the Animas River is news to no one at this point. Headlines across Colorado and national outlets have spread this recent development far and wide. The Animas turned orange, and that’s a big problem. That’s true — an abandoned mine leaking toxic chemicals into one of Southwest Colorado’s primary rivers, which sustains countless residents’ livelihoods, is a tremendous problem.
This is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. We’re all angry and profoundly saddened to see the lifeblood of Southwest Colorado spoiled. And the question on most of our minds is how on earth was this allowed to happen?
So what actually happened?
The Environmental Protection Agency was trying to clean up the Gold King Mine when a plug failed, which sent 3 million gallons of yellow toxic sludge into the Animas. Efforts at Gold King are one of many projects the EPA is undertaking to clean up the thousands of abandoned old mines that remain from Colorado’s mining legacy.
Yep, that’s right — there are thousands of mines like Gold King across our state, and many are like ticking time bombs. As anyone who has lived in Southwest Colorado for longer than a few years will tell you, the region is no stranger to mining-related catastrophes. This time around, the EPA’s hand happened to be on the shovel, but disasters like this one demonstrate the need to recognize our history of reckless exploitation.
What can we do to confront that history?
Quite a bit, actually. Here are some ways we can prevent future disasters, and how you can get involved:
- Support efforts of local science-based groups conducting independent monitoring in conjunction with the EPA
- Contact your elected representative and engage in public comment opportunities like town hall meetings and opportunities to speak with elected officials
- Back legislation like the Good Samaritan bill that makes it easier for the community to help clean up abandoned mines
- Get involved with current and future BLM planning processes. Many of these plans invite public input on where and how industry should be allowed to mine and drill within our communities. Strong standards and limitations for industry could prevent accidents like this one decades down the road.
Why do we have to deal with such rampant pollution?
It’s because, in the late 19th century, westward expansion was largely about mining. People broke their backs to glean their wealth out of the ground in the form of gold, silver or other metals. And they found that wealth in mineral-rich Southwest Colorado, which led to an explosion in mines in the area.
Here’s the big problem. Many of these mines were established far before environmental protections were even a part of our country’s vocabulary. But they continued to provide welcome financial support to the area, so the mining industry continued until the 1990s. After they ceased to be financially viable, those mines largely closed.
Cleaning up their toxic sludge has fallen to the EPA, which leads us to our current situation.
At this point, it is absolutely imperative that we work together to find solutions. The legacy of mining in the Southwest and across Colorado is a massive problem, but it’s a solvable one. We need to ensure that mining companies are held accountable for the messes they make. They’ve been allowed to pass the buck for far, far too long.
One silver lining in this disaster is that it has brought worldwide attention to the sorry state of our mining legacy here in Colorado and the thousands of mines that pose similar unacceptable risks to our water, recreation and wildlife.
While the spill is awful, the Animas River has struggled with water quality for decades thanks to runoff from mines like Gold King, across the watershed.
It’s unfortunate that the river turning such an alarming shade was required to increase our sense of urgency on this issue, because conditions have been deplorable for a long time.
Whenever it rains reasonably hard in Southwest Colorado, zinc and cadmium levels go up 100 percent on the Animas River. This is not a hazard that we should be comfortable with in Colorado.
While it’s a shame that it took an incident of this magnitude to generate the appropriate alarm and urgency, perhaps we will see some real improvements as a result.
The best result from this disaster would be if Coloradans mobilized political will to take decisive action to clean the mines around Silverton and develop longterm solutions for the hundreds of miles of Colorado rivers currently impacted by mine drainage.
Returning to the status quo of ignoring pre-spill contamination levels is not good enough for Silverton or the future of Colorado’s rivers.
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
These old mines have leaked so much for so long, thousands of gallons a minute, that state agencies don’t track the combined toxic flow. But by the estimates at sites where the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in, the overall discharge equals at least one Gold King disaster every two days — spreading cadmium, copper, lead, arsenic, manganese, zinc and other contaminants.
Bandera Mine wastewater flows into a creek that feeds the Animas River. State mining regulators often don’t discover old mine discharges until health
Bandera Mine wastewater flows into a creek that feeds the Animas River. State mining regulators often don’t discover old mine discharges until health responders are called to test water after residents report bright colors or dead fish. (Brent Lewis, The Denver Post)
“We’re not OK with any of this. We’re not OK with contaminated water running into waterways,” said Ginny Brannon, director of reclamation, mining and safety for the state.
“It is beyond our control. We inherited what we inherited. We took that, all those sites, and every year we steadily move forward with the goal of cleaning it up. We do as much as we can every year. We would love to do more. If we had the money.”
The EPA has calculated that 40 percent of river headwaters in the West are impaired by acid mine drainage. In Colorado, state health officials Thursday determined that discharges from the 230 old mines have contaminated 1,645 miles of rivers and streams.
But there is no state or federal program for systematically inspecting those mines, tucked away in high mountains, the hangover from mining booms and busts that made Colorado a state.
Colorado mining regulators say that’s because culprits at most sites have vanished.
The waterways contaminated by old mines — concentrated around historic mining hubs Silverton, Leadville, Lake City, Salida, Montezuma, Central City and Ouray — include segments of the Arkansas, Animas, Eagle, Big Thompson, Gunnison, South Platte and Uncompahgre rivers.
First impacts of water contaminated with heavy metals generally show up as dead fish or aquatic life, with drinking water supplies threatened. Later damage, depending on exposure, include human health harm and higher costs of cleaning up water at municipal treatment plants. Fully restoring poisoned fisheries after past disasters in Colorado has taken decades.
State mining regulators often don’t discover the old mine discharges until state health responders are called to test water after residents report bright colors or dead fish.
While state mining officials have visited all 230 sites, Bruce Stover, director of abandoned mine lands reclamation, emphasized limits on what Colorado can do to launch cleanups. Liability risks and weak laws are to blame, he said.
“These are inactive sites that do not have a permit. There are no inspections on them whatsoever. They are just out there in the woods,” he said.
Short of EPA takeover for federally run cleanups, which include installation of continual water-treatment systems, state officials said the best Colorado can do is to try to move forward on a few cooperative projects each year.
They have to rely on funds funneled from outside federal and private sources. Unlike coal mining and extraction of oil and gas, hard-rocking mining in the West, under the 1872 mining law that still governs, companies are not required to pay royalties or other fees that could help deal with festering abandoned mines.
Last year, state mining officials spent $1.5 million on six mine cleanup projects, which includes tailings removal, riverside restoration and plugging leaks, down from $4.5 million in 2013 — reflecting what federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, have been able to contribute.
State mining officials spent $12.3 million on mine-reclamation work between 2009 and 2014.
Stover noted that most of the 230 old mines still leaking, while they cause harm, probably would not individually meet EPA criteria for launching a Superfund cleanup.
When Colorado has to go it alone, officials typically face legal and technical controversy. State mining engineers have favored installation of bulkhead plugs inside mines — a way to stop toxic discharge.
But that approach appears questionable after the Aug. 5 Gold King blowout, triggered by an EPA crew. Bulkheads backed up water inside Gold King and nearby mines, possibly priming them for blowouts.
Gold King owner Todd Hennis last week said the spread of backed-up water in the nearby Sunnyside Mine was a factor in the blowout.
EPA records on the adjacent Red and Bonita Mine show that state-backed installation of bulkheads in the Sunnyside Mine led to loaded-up wastewater in the Mogul, Red and Bonita, and Gold King mines, worsening contamination of Animas headwaters.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group is calling for installation of a water-treatment plant on Cement Creek, the hardest-hit Animas tributary — at an estimated cost of $5 million to $20 million, plus $1.2 million a year to run the plant.
“The ultimate goal should be to change the 1872 mining law,” said Bill Dvorak of the National Wildlife Federation. “It should be changed to say those who caused the problem should have to deal with it and not walk away from it and leave it to the taxpayer.”
Colorado Mining Association president Stuart Sanderson said Colorado and federal agencies could benefit from industry expertise in cleaning up old mines.
“The industry is and has been willing to contribute more resources and expertise to clean up historic mines that are not subject to modern reclamation standards,” Sanderson said. But first, he said, Congress must take action — to shield companies that get involved, he said.
“We need good Samaritan legislation and some assurance our liability is not unlimited.”
Meanwhile, the discharge from the 230 mines continues.
Colorado officials blame a complex mix of factors for why this problem has festered for more than five decades.
They cite a general lack of political will, leading to poor funding. The entire $8 million budget for Colorado’s 65-employee mining division, which focuses mostly on active mining, is less than the amount needed for a single major cleanup.
At the federal level, a U.S. Geological Survey abandoned-mines program was canceled in 2008 amid budget cuts.
State officials also point to the difficulty of cleanup, which means mobilizing work teams at sites above timberline where rock, debris and collapsed timbers block tunnels.
And they lament a legal liability nightmare. Under federal law, anybody who embarks on mine cleanup and who, no matter how well-intentioned, makes the problem worse, can face federal prosecution for tens of millions of dollars for environmental damages.
Conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, despite significant funding from hunters and anglers, say this cripples their ability to get involved.
“We need some national policy change for groups like ours to be able to get out there and work on old mines,” said Steve Krandall, Trout Unlimited’s Durango-based director of conservation in the western United States. “There could be a much more robust public-private partnership around this issue.”
Colorado does its best with limited resources, Krandall said.
“But this is such a large and pervasive issue. The EPA can only get to and remediate so many mines,” he said. “The potential for this kind of accident certainly exists around the West. … Why do we accept it?”
Former Sen. Mark Udall repeatedly pushed for good Samaritan laws in Congress. Those efforts failed.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said a blowout like the one at Gold King must never happen again. Colorado officials again are calling on Congress to act.
“We’d love to see a good Samaritan law that allows third parties to go in and help work on these sites without liability,” Brannon said. “Maybe there’s enough attention now that perhaps, finally, we can get that through Congress. If we had good Samaritan laws, we could do more good cleanups.”
Below Gold King, as Cement Creek flows into the Animas, heavy-metal contamination got so bad that, a couple of years ago, the EPA conducted a test. Biologists were worried that birds eating aquatic insects could be exposed to high zinc, cadmium, lead, copper and manganese. Fish had long since died.
An EPA team collected water a mile down from where Cement Creek meets the Animas and, in a lab, dropped in a batch of young trout. They left them for 96 hours, according to an EPA document. All the fish died.
That helped spur the recent EPA intervention at Gold King and other mines near Silverton, leading to this month’s spill.
Even late last week, with a 100-mile mustard-hued plume barely cleared, state and local officials largely agreed that a greater EPA role in the future is probably essential to deal with those 230 leaking mines.
“You’re going to have some people say: ‘Hey, the EPA, look at how incompetent they are.’ But others will see this is part of a longer-term problem,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas stakeholders group and a former director of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission. “Mistakes happened. We need to have this agency come in and provide more resources.
“There’s just a shortage of state resources.”
From The National Geographic (Sandra Postel):
…the stage was set by decades of neglect and the near-absence of any requirements that mining companies take responsibility for preventing harm to people and aquatic life after they close their mines. Some 500,000 abandoned mines, most un-reclaimed, now dot the nation’s landscape.
And as we’ve learned from the Gold Kind tragedy, we all live downstream…
Virtually the entire stretch of the San Juan from Farmington to Lake Powell is designated endangered species habitat for two of the four endangered native fish species in the Colorado Basin, the Razorback Sucker (Xyrauchen Texanus) and the Colorado Pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus Lucius)…
On Thursday, August 13, eight days after the toxic release, environmental officials in Utah said that while the plume is no longer visible, hydrology and water-speed calculations suggest that the contaminated waters had reached Lake Powell, some 300 miles downstream from the Gold King Mine.
The full ramifications of the spill will obviously take time to uncover and assess. EPA’s early testing of the Animas turned up high levels of arsenic, copper, lead, molybdenum and other contaminants. Levels of lead exceeded federal standards for human drinking water by some 3,800 times.
Although EPA says water quality returned to pre-spill levels once the plume passed through the area, testing and cleanup of riverbed contamination and related impacts are yet to come.
It will take many years and millions of dollars to remediate Gold King Mine and the tragedy it unleashed.
Meanwhile, it is critical to take action now to prevent other spills from happening. As I write, thousands of abandoned mines are leaking acid drainage into streams, just as Gold King had been doing before last week’s spill.
It’s long past time to stop pushing mine pollution off on future generations. The 1872 Mining Law, signed by Ulysses S. Grant, is one of the most antiquated and environmentally destructive laws on the books. It requires no royalty payments from mining companies, minimal protective actions while the mine is operating, and virtually no cleanup and restoration after a mine is closed.
Its principal legacy, the New York Times wrote this week, “is a battered landscape of abandoned mines and poisoned streams.”
EPA estimates it would cost $20-54 billion to clean up the abandoned mines (not counting coal mines) nationwide.
A good place to start would be to make mining companies pay to mitigate the hazards left from past operations, as well as to strengthen regulations on new mines to avoid the creation of new threats.
Until the mining laws are reformed and the abandoned mines get cleaned up, more disasters like Gold King are bound to happen.
And we all live downstream.
From The Durango Herald (Chase Olivarius-Mcallister):
Three million gallons of sludge rushed out of Gold King Mine last week, flooding the Animas River with higher levels of metals than usual, causing economic and environmental damage in three states. Yet in the wake of the disaster, many Silvertonians are redoubling their resistance to a Superfund listing the Environmental Protection Agency has long argued is necessary to deal with the town’s network of draining mines.
Resident John Ferguson harbors a deep mistrust of the EPA – the government department that is responsible for accidentally triggering the massive spill – and questions the agency’s ability to fix leaky mines without causing greater harm.
“The institutional arrogance of the EPA is so great; it’s their way or the highway,” Ferguson said Thursday, eight days after the mine spill. “It was appalling stupidity that this incident happened. … Who’s going to protect us from the protectors?”
Tim Hewett said the “pro-Superfund forces are very vocal right now,” but the majority of the town’s residents still oppose any such listing on the National Priorities List, fearing the designation will ruin the town’s reputation, strangle credit and blight the local economy.
“I’m afraid of the EPA. They’re too powerful,” Hewett said. “There’s suspicion on my part that now the EPA is sitting judge and jury to decide the outcome of a fate that is a result of their negligence.”
But to the thousands of people living downstream of Silverton, the problem isn’t so much the EPA as it is Silverton residents’ decades-long refusal to accept that their mines require federal intervention.
River advocate Dave Wuchert of Dolores said Silverton “had to know those mines would fill up (with water). I don’t blame the EPA.”
Wuchert said it is obvious that Gold King Mine’s owner, San Juan Corp., and Kinross Gold, which owns the last company to do major mining in Silverton, Sunnyside Gold, are liable for the environmental disaster, and the public should hold them most accountable.
Even before the Aug. 5 Gold King disaster, which polluted more than 100 miles of rivers in three states, U.S. Geological Survey scientists described the metals flowing out of Silverton’s network of defunct mines into the Animas as the worst untreated mine damage in Colorado. The metal pollution in Cement Creek is so bad that it is choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.
Since the spill, Silverton, a remote tourist hamlet high in the San Juan Mountains, has been in full-blown crisis. DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, ruefully said that the financial pain caused by families canceling trips in light of the pollution had been offset by the influx of media and EPA employees.
“The hotels are full,” she said Thursday.
With merely 500 residents in town this August, Gallegos said that to combat the bad international publicity and the media circus that descended last week on Silverton, the town and county governments drafted Silverton’s lone county judge, Anthony Edwards, to act as the town’s spokesman to the wider world. But explaining Silverton’s continuing resistance to Superfund looked difficult even for Edwards, who said Thursday he wasn’t aware of any current discussion between the town trustees or the county commissioners and the EPA about Superfund.
“There’s a fair group of people in the community who worry that if we were to be designated a Superfund area, it would impact the tourist economy here and result in a lack of lending for homes and businesses,” Edwards said.
Asked how the stigma of a Superfund designation could possibly injure Silverton more than the stigma attached to being the tiny town that for decades defied the EPA’s pleading only to bestow millions of gallons of heavily polluted mine wastewater on downstream communities through Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, Edwards said, “I don’t know how to answer that.”
“I know some people are pointing the finger at the town of Silverton and San Juan County, but that’s not necessarily fair,” he said, saying the town and county had been working with the EPA on Animas River cleanup through the Animas River Stakeholders Group for decades. The stakeholders group is an organization dedicated to improving water quality in the river.
The EPA first tried to make parts of Silverton a Superfund site in 1994 and place its draining mines on the National Priorities List, which would allow the agency to treat the mine waste as it saw fit while also holding mining companies financially responsible…
But to people living outside Silverton who have been involved in the Animas River cleanup for decades, Silverton’s anti-Superfund logic is torturous, and residents’ attempts to blame the Gold King spill on the EPA rather than on mining companies is willfully incorrect.
Robert Robinson, who used to represent the Bureau of Land Management in the stakeholder’s group, said if Silverton had only embraced a Superfund designation 20 years ago, the mines poisoning the Animas would have been cleaned up by now.
“If the EPA, BLM and (Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment) had gone after Kinross back in the day, Kinross would now be in the process of cleaning it up. But the EPA, in an attempt to be good guys and sensitive to the citizens of San Juan County, didn’t. Now the cleanup is going to be at taxpayers’ expense. Downstream people are outraged – and I agree with that camp.”
San Juan Corp. President Todd Hennis told The New York Times on Monday that Kinross is at fault for the spill. Kevin Roach, Sunnyside reclamation director, said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday that it had no role in the Gold King accident.
The toll that Silverton’s draining mines has taken on the Animas River’s ecosystem has grown more deadly in recent years, killing off three out of the four trout species that lived in the Upper Animas River below Silverton between 2005 and 2010 and slashing its insect population.
Robinson said most of the watersheds in Colorado have fish in them, including downstream from Superfund sites Summitville and Leadville. But there are no fish downstream from Silverton, he said.
San Juan County Historical Society Chairwoman Bev Rich said residents’ intransigent opposition to Superfund partially stems from locals’ deep allegiance to the industry that built the town.
“There’s a lot of people who blame the demise of mining here on the EPA and mining regulations that have increased over the last century,” Rich said.
But, she added, in the wake of the Gold King spill, some locals’ antipathy to Superfund and the EPA, far from diminishing, had grown increasingly virulent.
“Now there’s a conspiracy theory going on,” she said.
On Greene Street, two of its local adherents who refused to be named, posited that the EPA deliberately triggered the Gold King disaster in order to finagle Superfunding Silverton; their smoking gun evidence was a letter to the editor of the Silverton Standard & Miner published one week before the spill in which the author, a Farmington geologist, predicted such a scheme unfolding.
The Standard’s editor, Mark Esper, said Silvertonians’ Superfund conspiracy theory had spilled into the wider world. Esper was forced to leave his office last week because the cacophony of phone calls from media and bloggers about the letter to the editor was preventing him from getting any work done.
That day, after years of editorializing about his hesitancy to favor a Superfund designation, Esper published an editorial in Thursday’s Standard full-throatedly backing it: “Suspicions of the EPA run deep in this community. But until I see a more viable alternative for dealing with this huge problem, this community in my view must endorse Superfund,” he wrote.
Intellectually and ethically, it’s the right position, he told The Durango Herald.
“But I might lose readers,” he said.