Gold King spill heightens concern and awareness of abandoned mines

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Toxic mines hang over this haven [Crested Butte} for wildflowers, contaminating water and driving residents — like counterparts statewide — to press for better protection.

A local group went to federal court this month seeking long-term assurances that a water-treatment plant will always remain open as the collapsed tunnels and heaps of tailings leak an acid mix of heavy metals: arsenic, cadmium, zinc and others.

State data show these contaminants reaching Coal Creek — the primary water source for Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley’s green pastures — at levels exceeding health standards.

“A lot of people are nervous,” said Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates. “We’d like to get it as clean as possible.”

Municipal officials in Nederland, Georgetown, Breckenridge and other mountain towns also urge faster cleanup of festering inactive mines after the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine disaster, where an Environmental Protection Agency team triggered a spill of 3 million gallons that turned the Animas River mustard yellow.

Tens of thousands of inactive mines in Western states continue to taint headwaters of the nation’s rivers, including an estimated 230 sites in Colorado where state officials have documented bit-by-bit degradation of waterways.

But stopping the harm — even as clean water increasingly is coveted — remains technically and politically difficult.

Congressional efforts to create a national cleanup fund haven’t gotten off the ground. Gov. John Hickenlooper and fellow Western governors are trying to sort out liability and funding to spur cleanups. State lawmakers are asking questions.

Five miles west of Crested Butte at Standard Mine, the EPA a decade ago declared an environmental disaster and launched an $8 million Superfund cleanup. EPA contractors currently are designing a “flow-through” bulkhead plug that could partially block mine drainage before it contaminates the valley.

That’s a tricky approach because bulkheads can back up muck and cause it to rocket out elsewhere — poisoning more land and water. At Gold King Mine, a bulkhead in nearby Sunnyside Mine may have set up the deluge the EPA set off…

The High Country Conservation Advocates’ lawsuit seeks financial assurance from U.S. Energy to guarantee that treatment of Keystone Mine drainage would continue if the company closes. High Country Conservation targeted the U.S. Forest Service, because mining activities occur on federal land, accusing the feds of failing to collect, as required, financial assurance bond money.

In a 2012 memo, Forest Service officials acknowledged they’re required to do this. Agency officials this month declined to discuss the allegations.

Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep and the Gunnison County commissioners support residents, asking state health officials, in an Aug. 18 letter, “to protect the public against the environmental and human health catastrophe that would ensue” if U.S. Energy failed to operate the plant…

Problems at mines

The old mines leaking above Crested Butte exemplify problems at the estimated 230 inactive mines statewide that health and natural resources officials know are contaminating waterways.

West of Boulder above Nederland, a plug blocking waste in Swathmore Mine popped loose around Sept. 20, turning the Middle Boulder Creek orange. A hiker noticed and alerted Nederland authorities. Firefighters raced to the mine, followed by the EPA, town administrator Alisha Reis said.

“We routinely see orange iron runoff in the spring. It is a fact of life around here. And definitely, post-Gold King, folks are more aware than usual,” Reis said. “We pay to do our own water testing. It is in our interest, if we have anything happening — to be sure we know the nature of any release and what we need to do to handle it. That is our watershed. We’re always incredibly vigilant about protecting our watershed.”

In Georgetown along Interstate 70, town leaders last summer implemented a watershed-protection plan that focuses on threats from mining, town administrator Tom Hale said. Town officials also encourage the Forest Service to clean up old mines on federal land.

Breckenridge projects to make more open space available for recreation increasingly collide with toxic mine waste.

Acid drainage and water leaching through tailings have poisoned French Creek and Blue River to the point that fish cannot reproduce, town manager Tim Gagen said. Breckenridge recently was forced to embark on water treatment at a 1,800-acre site southwest of town, Gagen said.

“The problem with these old mines is tunnels go for miles underneath the mountains and they have different leakage points that you can’t detect,” he said.

An association of mountain resorts has had the issue of toxic mines on its agenda for years, and the Gold King and Crested Butte situations probably will make protection, if not final cleanup, more of a priority, he said.

Statewide, drainage from inactive mines is the main cause of harm to rivers and streams, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — a problem that has left 1,645 miles of waterways classified as “impaired.”

And the specific heavy-metal contaminants trickling into Coal Creek above Crested Butte are among the most pernicious. The CDPHE has found cancer-causing cadmium contaminating 809 miles of rivers statewide. Arsenic contaminates 244 miles. Lead contaminates 185 miles. Manganese contaminates 403 miles. And zinc, lethal for fish, contaminates 907 miles.

Handling toxic mines

Methods for dealing with toxic mines include rerouting streams around tailings, installation of various bulkheads, and building water treatment plants.

Yet, at the federal level, there’s no dedicated funding for cleanup — other than Superfund money that may or may not follow an official declaration of environmental disaster — which usually requires support from a governor.

Colorado officials said state funds are even more limited.

“We will continue to direct available time and resources to the highest priority sites where we can have an impact,” state spokesman Todd Hartman said.

In Congress, staffers for Sen. Michael Bennet said he’s still working on a bill with New Mexico senators to reform the 1872 law that governs hard-rock mining — aiming to charge companies royalties to create a cleanup fund. Bennet, Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton also are working on legislation to shield groups that embark on voluntary cleanups from liability for accidents.

Meanwhile, Western governors are discussing the problem.

“These are all conditions that were created by previous generations. And there’s a resistance to the present generation wanting to pay for it — because it is expensive,” Hickenlooper said. “To address all the issues, just at the mines in Colorado, you’re looking at billions of dollars.”

“(Western governors) are looking at that, and looking at how do we cobble together some local funding and some federal funding? What would that look like? And what timeline is reasonable? How do you prioritize what comes first?”

Hickenlooper adviser John Swartout, who was working on the issue recently in Washington, D.C., said towns seeking Superfund intervention may face a stigma without necessarily receiving funding for cleanup. “(But) because of this terrible accident,” Swartout said, “it is the right time to have this conversation and have it result in some legislation.”

For some residents, Superfund stigma is the least of their worries, and waiting on Congress appears futile.

Earlier this month, an EPA crew working on Standard Mine accidentally triggered another spill — of only about 500 gallons — and blamed it on a vacuum truck dipping too low into metals-laced sludge that spilled into Elk Creek, which flows into Coal Creek. No major harm to town water was expected.

For assurance, the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition expanded its water testing and was waiting for results. While Crested Butte’s town water-treatment plant purifies water before it reaches households, the plant manager said it couldn’t handle a massive toxic spill.

Even after this hiccup, the EPA, working in partnership with the coalition to contain acid waste from Standard Mine — and possibly, in the future, Keystone Mine — holds the greatest promise for protection, said Steve Glazer, a resident of Crested Butte since 1969 and president of the watershed coalition.

The coalition is looking for ways to expand water monitoring to include groundwater, which may be contaminated and reaching Coal Creek, Glazer said. And residents want to make sure current contamination isn’t hurting children and residents whose immune systems may be relatively weak, he said.

“We’d like Congress to be much more proactive. It’s unfortunate they politicize everything they do. They can’t agree to blow their nose. It’s unfortunate there’s so much dysfunction in national politics,” he said. “We have a problem. How can we fix it? We’re moving forward. The reason this unfortunate accident happened (Oct. 6) is that we’re doing something. We’re not just sitting around. When you’re active, and you have a potentially dangerous site, things happen.”

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