#AnimasRiver: A silver lining to a toxic orange legacy? — Environment America

silverlininganimasenvironmentamerica

Here’s a call to action from Environment America (Russell Bassett):

“Catastrophe!” read the local headlines after 3 million gallons of metal-laden muck spilled into Colorado’s Animas River earlier last month.

The spill forced the city of Durango to close its drinking water intake, and local business that depend on the river were shut down for weeks. The spill traveled through Colorado into New Mexico and Utah, creating concerns for drinking water, crops, and wildlife all along its path.

The orange river made international news, but it also helped highlight a problem that is long overdue for a solution. Hard rock metal mining is the most destructive industry in the world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is the nation’s top toxic water polluter.

Mining in the western United States has contaminated headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West. Remediation of the half-million abandoned mines in 32 states may cost up to $35 billion or more.

The main reason for this wide-scale degradation of our waterways is an antiquated law that still governs hard rock mining throughout the country. The 1872 Mining Law allows foreign and domestic companies to take valuable minerals from our public lands without paying any royalties, and it still allows public land to be purchased and spoiled for mining at the 1872 price of less than $5 an acre — that’s the price of one mocha for an acre of public land.

Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015
Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

This outdated law contains no environmental provisions, allowing the mining industry to wreak havoc on water supplies, wildlife and landscapes. For example, abandoned mines are still leaking 540 to 740 gallons a MINUTE of acid drainage into the Animas River headwaters, degrading miles of the watershed. This was the case before the Gold King Mine spill and is still the case after the spill, and there are many more examples throughout much of the West. In fact, it’s estimated that there are half a million abandoned mines throughout the nation.

While the Animas River spill was a tragedy of the first order — and some polluters friends in Congress want to turn it into a witch-hunt of the Environmental Protection Agency — the spill should be the much-needed motivation to enact a solution to clean up after mining’s toxic legacy.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR 963) would fix the problem, but, unfortunately, due to the current political situation in both houses of Congress, this bill has basically zero chance of getting passed. And we need action now because several proposed mines throughout the country could be approved before a real solution to mining’s toxic legacy is passed by Congress.

The Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Upper Peninsula Mine near Lake Michigan, Black Butte Mine on Montana’s Smith River, and the Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon are just a few examples of proposed mines that could wreak havoc on local ecosystems and potentially contaminate watersheds for generations to come.

People from across the country travel to raft and fish in these rivers and lakes. It’s time to protect them from toxic mining pollution. Tax payers are bearing the brunt of cleaning up after the mining industry through superfund designation and other federal funding programs. Using public funds to clean up after a toxic industry, while at the same time allowing that industry to continue to create new mines, is unacceptable. Since Congress won’t do what’s needed, our president should act quickly and decisively.

President Obama has the authority to put a moratorium on all new mines near our waters on public lands. The mining industry should not be allowed to use our public lands to build new mines in and around our cherished waterways until it cleans up from past mining operations. Please tell President Obama to reject all new mine proposals near our rivers until the mining industry cleans up its act. Let’s find the silver lining to the toxic orange river. Please add your voice now.

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday [October 1, 2015] expressed concerns with the prospect of federal officials moving forward with a Superfund listing for Silverton near the inactive Gold King Mine.

A divide has emerged over the Superfund question, with some residents and officials of Silverton worried the listing would be a stain on the community. Silverton and San Juan County officials in August clarified their perspective, suggesting that they are open to a listing but that they have not “foreclosed any options.”

In comments before the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, Tipton, a Cortez Republican, stated: “Designating Silverton a Superfund site … could severely damage the town’s reputation and prove costly to the local economy.”[…]

Andy Corra, owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango, who spoke at the same hearing, pushed officials to pursue a Superfund listing.

“Right now, adding the Animas Basin’s offending mines to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List is really the only clear path forward,” Corra said.

Listening to the hearing was Colorado U.S. Sens. Cory Garner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat. They joined Tipton in pushing for good Samaritan legislation, which would allow private and state entities to restore inactive mines without the fear of liability. [ed. emphasis mine]

From the Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

A rafting company owner, a county commissioner and a chamber of commerce official told the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that they don’t yet know the full economic impact of the spill, but it has been devastating so far, scaring away visitors and triggering layoffs at travel-related businesses…

La Plata County Commissioner Bradford Blake said outdoor recreation companies, farms, greenhouses and other businesses that rely on the river and its water suffered immediate losses ranging from $8,600 to $100,000 each. “Clearly, we do not know yet what the long-term impact of the Gold King spill, and the publicity generated by it, might be,” he said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Navajo Nation leaders on Friday announced they are asking the federal government for a preliminary damage assessment in the wake of the August Gold King Mine spill upstream in Colorado.

Navajo President Russell Begaye on Thursday sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking the estimation.

Begaye said it is the first step in the application process for public assistance for recovery from a disaster for eligible applicants.

“The spill caused damage to the water quality of the San Juan River to such a massive extent that a state of emergency was declared by the Navajo Nation,” Begaye in the letter. “All of the economic, health, cultural and other impacts to the Navajo people are not yet known.”

#COWaterPlan “…lays out a path by which we may start saving our rivers” — Ken Neubecker

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Ken Neubecker):

It has been pointed out several times that the recent mine spill into the Animas River was, in one sense, a good thing. It re-awoke the public to Colorado’s checkered mining heritage, and the damage done to our rivers for more than a century. But Colorado’s mining legacy is more than old mines polluting mountain streams. It also gave us the fundamental laws and traditions that govern our rivers and the water they hold.

In 1859, David Wall dug a small ditch from Clear Creek to irrigate his two-acre garden, from which he sold produce to the miners up stream in Gregory Gulch. People back east objected to Wall’s diversion to land not directly adjacent to Clear Creek. But the miners from California who had come to Colorado brought with them a new idea of water allocation called prior appropriation. On November 7, 1859, the territorial legislature passed a law making Wall’s and any other agricultural diversion legal under the “rules of the diggings.”*

For the next 114 years dams and diversion projects were built with no concern for rivers or the health of the ecosystems they support. Water left in the stream was considered a waste and many rivers were severely degraded from altered flows and lack of water. That began to change in 1973, with the passage of Colorado’s in-stream flow water rights program. While not perfect, and not as protective as some might want to think, it recognized the natural environment as a beneficial user of water.

Now Colorado is developing a coordinated plan for the growing water needs of farms, ranches, communities, and — for the first time — the environment and the recreational economy that supports so much in Colorado. Rather than a simple endorsement for more projects that could further harm rivers, this water plan lays out all of the anticipated needs and myriad ideas for meeting them. Indeed, it lays out a path by which we may start saving our rivers.

The Colorado Water Plan has been in the making for more than 10 years, crafted by water stakeholders and the public from all across the state through the Basin Roundtables. Ranchers, farmers, municipal water providers and utilities have worked closely with many from the environmental and recreational communities to make sure that the plan incorporates serious consideration of the health of rivers, including bringing them back from the damage caused by past projects.

This has not been an easy task, and completion of the Colorado Water Plan does not guarantee success. A lot of time has been spent simply building trust after a long history of distrust between people with competing needs and values, and there are still stark differences between competing water uses that must be overcome. Colorado faces a daunting future — balancing the needs of agriculture, cities and rivers will not be easy. Growth, climate change, new economies and values, the need to fulfill downstream compact obligations and the simple reality of living in an arid region where water supply is shrinking, all make the transition from the Colorado of Dave Wall’s irrigation ditch to 21st century water management complex and challenging. Solving the puzzle of our water needs and restoring rivers will take all of us, working together, looking to the future, not the past.

From the Boulder Daily Camera (Nick Payne):

As important as the Colorado Water Plan is to the future of our state and its hunting and angling heritage, we can’t lose sight of what is happening in Washington, D.C. Several pieces of legislation are working their way through Congress to respond to drought in California and throughout the West. Federal agencies are pumping millions of dollars into drought-relief efforts and scrambling to find ways to make our country more resilient to future droughts, too.

Lawmakers can help sportsmen by spurring and supporting state and local solutions that work for entire watersheds, making it less likely that we will reach a crisis point in future droughts. We can build in assurances by using federal water programs to create:

Flexibility. In an over-allocated system like the Colorado River, we need federal programs that allow the transfer of water voluntarily and temporarily to other users in times of need without jeopardizing property rights, sustainable farming and ranching, or healthy fish and wildlife populations.

Incentives. Watershed groups demonstrating successful drought solutions on the local level — where they work best — should be rewarded, and the federal government should encourage the development of similar groups in other watersheds.

Access. With dozens of programs available across multiple federal agencies to improve water resources, it is difficult for Coloradans to know where to turn for assistance or how to navigate the different bureaucracies. We can get more out of limited resources by making these programs more accessible and decreasing the transaction costs of working with the federal government.

Healthier watersheds, overall. It’s the most cost-effective means of increasing water supply, reducing wildfire threats, protecting against floods, and improving drought resilience, and improving watersheds is something we can start doing right now.

From the fisherman pulling trout out of a high mountain reservoir to the Front Range city responsible for providing drinking water to its residents, we are all in this together. Colorado’s representatives in Congress must advance widely-supported conservation and efficiency measures, along with creative financing mechanisms, to meet water demands while protecting and restoring healthy river flows. Sacrificing species or targeting agriculture are not lasting solutions.