#AnimasRiver: Antiquated mining law hamstrings cleanups — The Durango Herald

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From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Outdated hard-rock mining laws enacted in the 1870s tie the hands of the federal government to curb pollution that contaminates water supplies, as was the case with the Gold King Mine spill.

Perhaps the most significant deficiency comes in the form of a “free and open” provision of the Mining Law of 1872, otherwise known as a “right to mine.” Limited reforms have been made to the law over the last 143 years, leaving in place a provision that prohibits the federal government from blocking a mine from opening or even collecting royalties from operations.

The law also left little to government regulation, falling in line with the theme of Manifest Destiny from Western expansion in the 19th century. When the nation’s mining laws were crafted, the goal was settlement, not environmental regulation.

“The 1872 mining law is the freest ride of all free rides on the books,” said Roger Flynn, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and the director and managing attorney of Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit that handles hard-rock mining cases…

Just who holds the liability remains unclear. Flynn said some of the responsibility rests with the mine’s owner, Todd Hennis. Some liability also may fall on the EPA, which became a sort of operator when it began working there.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Gold King, near Silverton, became inactive in the 1920s. But the neighboring mine of Sunnyside also is entangled in the web. The mine became inactive in the 1990s, and ownership at the time reached an agreement with Colorado to install bulkheads in the mine. Since that mine was dammed, wastewater in nearby mines has increased.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Kinross Gold, entered into a consent decree, allowing for the mine to continue to leak heavy metals, while the company agreed to costly reclamation projects.

Judging by the disaster earlier this month, overall efforts have not been enough, which begs the question: How did it get to this point?

The simplest answer is money. The Mining Law of 1872 allows companies to extract billions of dollars worth of precious metals – such as gold and uranium – pay no royalties and avoid liability for environmental damage in several situations. Without the royalties, there is limited government funding for reclamation, and few burdens are placed on the companies themselves.

Over the years, beginning in the 1970s, the federal government began to take action on environmental issues, enacting laws around clean water and endangered species. But companies have found loopholes. One example is hiring experts to vouch for water quality.

Because the federal government is charged with the “free and open” provision under mining laws, officials often default to this clause. In other words, if the experts say the water is safe, and the government is obligated to let a company operate, then there’s little recourse for regulators.

An option for reclamation is declaring an area blighted with a Superfund listing, which opens the doors to funding. But as was the case with Gold King, communities sometimes resist the federal listing, as they fear it leaving a stain. Flynn said the end result is a government that is rendered impotent.

“The 1872 mining law makes mining the highest and best use of the land,” he said. “Whatever minerals you find on that are free. … Agencies will say we can’t say no to the mine no matter how destructive, unless you can prove there will be a Clean Water Act violation on Day 1.”

The irony, of course, is that those violations don’t occur until well after operations have begun.

“The feds don’t have the ability on public land to say no – no matter how bad the idea is, how bad the place is – because of the 1872 mining law,” Flynn said. “So, they permit these things all over … and they allow potential pollution.”[…]

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is not so sure that the answer is additional regulations, suggesting that there are new technologies out there that allow for cleaner mining activities. Coram has years of experience in hard-rock mining, having owned several mines, including uranium.

“I don’t think the problem lies with what we’re doing today. … That changed. We do a lot better,” he said.

“I’m not comfortable with the EPA being in charge,” Coram said. “I would much rather that federal funding goes into letting the state run those projects.”

Meanwhile Durango and parts thereabouts are worried about the spill and its affect on the economy. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Some fear the frenzy of images broadcast around the world when the Animas River turned a sickly orange for more than 12 hours could have an effect for years to come.

“Stigma is the perception of the public, even after fixing the problem,” said Tom Alleman, an attorney at Dallas-based Dykema Cox Smith. “The Animas had brand damage.”

Alleman told the crowd of about 20 people Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel that the state of Colorado does allow individuals to file claims for compensation for stigma damages, but those kinds of situations aren’t common and can be subjective.

He said the law lists stigma damage as an event that is not “reputationally enhancing,” and in the case of the Gold King Mine spill, that might be easier to prove.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director at the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to tell the long-term effect the spill will have on the city’s tourism industry, but there is no denying the hit river-related businesses took in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.

“We definitely saw an impact, and it directly affected the river-rafting industry. It was like shutting down Main Street at Christmas time,” Llewellyn said, referencing the fact that August is a critical revenue month for summer tourism businesses.

Llewellyn added that just the other day, a woman bringing 20 senior citizens to the area called ahead to ask if the water was safe to drink, and it’s that skepticism he fears might influence other visitors to choose a different destination when making vacation plans.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Owner Al Harper said the train suffered some cancellations at first, but ridership rebounded rather quickly. Most of the railroad’s projected 183,000 riders come from outside Durango.

He’s more concerned about how stakeholders of the mining network north of Silverton will implement a wastewater-treatment plan.

And that brings in yet another layer of “stigma” in connection to the Gold King Mine spill: a Superfund listing, which is an EPA program that cleans up hazardous waste sites.

Since the spill, there has been considerable pushback from Silverton residents who believe visitors will fear and avoid the small tourism town if it is designated a “Superfund” site and prefer to explore other options.

However, those in favor of the Superfund argue the stigma of a town that refuses to clean up once and for all a history of unregulated mining regulations that have tainted the Animas for decades is far worse.

Harper, who also owns a hotel in Silverton, said residents of the town may be more open to the Superfund designation if the EPA draws clear lines of where the boundary extends.

“Let’s face it, the city limits of Silverton have not been polluting the river,” he said. “We need to make clear the mining area is a Superfund; Silverton is not.”

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