From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):
For a few days in August 2015, invisible mining pollutants could be seen by the world
Five years ago today, a breach at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton sent a deluge of water loaded with heavy metals into the Animas River, turning the waterway an electric-orange hue that caught the nation’s attention.
But five years later, and four years into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program, there has yet to be meaningful improvements to water quality and aquatic life.
Dan Wall, with the EPA’s Superfund program, said most of the focus since the Bonita Peaking Mining District Superfund site was declared in fall 2016 has been on studying the watershed and the multitude of mines impacting water quality.
The EPA is still in that effort, Wall said, and there’s no time frame for when the agency will present its final work plan for a comprehensive cleanup in the Animas River basin.
The EPA has spent more than $75 million on the site to date.
“It may be slower than what people want,” Wall said. “But we want to make sure our remedy selection is based on science … so the money won’t be wasted and we can be confident to see improvements based on the work we take.”
The stretch of the Animas River between Silverton and Bakers Bridge, about 15 miles north of Durango, is virtually devoid of aquatic life. Fish populations in the river through Durango are unable to reproduce, in part because of heavy metal contamination. And, years ago, the city of Durango switched its main source of water to the Florida River because of quality issues in the Animas.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 and brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested people, who sought to improve the health of the river amid heavy metal loading from legacy mines.
Despite the many Stakeholders Group successes, water quality in the Animas River in recent years has diminished, mainly from the mines leaching into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek.
In 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad that it stepped in with a $1.5 million cleanup project of its own…
Despite millions of dollars in claims, no one was reimbursed for their losses after the EPA claimed governmental immunity. A lawsuit still lingers in the federal courts from those seeking to recoup costs.
But ultimately, the Animas River did not appear to be too adversely impacted – the spill did not cause a die-off of fish, and long-term studies have shown little to no effect on aquatic life or the waterway…
What the spill did accomplish was to highlight the legacy of mines chronically contaminating the Animas River: The amount of metals released from the Gold King Mine spill is equal to that released every 300 days from all the mines around Silverton.
After years of the possibility of the EPA’s Superfund program stepping in, it became official in fall 2016, with the agency singling out 48 mining-related sites set for some degree of cleanup…
Immediately after the Gold King Mine spill, the EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the mine and removes metals, which costs about $2.4 million to $3.3 million a year to operate.
But other than some minor projects around the basin, the EPA has focused on studies to better understand the complex mining district, and evaluate what long-term options would be best for cleanup.
The EPA is set, remedial project manager Robert Parker said, to make stronger headway on a quick action plan to address about 23 mining sites over the next few years while longer-term solutions are being examined.