Coming to a Mine Near You: Why Another Toxic Spill Is Inevitable

Mine wastewater empties into pits below the Gold King mine along the Animas River.
Mine wastewater empties into pits below the Gold King mine along the Animas River.  Brent Lewis / The Denver Post / Getty Images

The milky Tang-colored waters have disappeared. Boaters have returned to the rapids. And even Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is so sure of the potability of the Animas River, which flowed orange with toxic silt from the Gold King Mine disaster last week, that he drank a glassful. But despite all the reassurances, the long-term impacts of the spill remain unknown. Many locals, including residents of Durango, 60 miles downstream, remain skeptical. Furthermore, the toxic spill from Gold King mine has unleashed renewed concerns that many other communities could face similar disasters.

The Gold King disaster is nothing new to the West, where many towns, including Silverton, have been suffering from regular spills from acid mine drainage into creeks for more than a century. The recent disaster stirred up such huge outrage largely because the toxins (a cocktail of lead, cadmium, zinc, pyrite, and other contaminants) were more clearly visible than usual.

“This spill stands out because it was such a big yellow-orange blob,” says Mark Williams, a geography professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who specializes in mountain hydrology and hydrochemistry. “But historically we’ve had numerous worse situations in the Animas River and many other places, and they’re not going away.”

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“Disasters Waiting to Happen”
In Colorado alone there are an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines. Of those, 230 are leaking wastewater laced with heavy metals into headwaters of major rivers, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining & Safety. The contaminated waterways including stretches of the Animas, Arkansas, Eagle, Big Thompson, Gunnison, South Platte, and Uncompahgre rivers, and are clustered around historic mining towns such as Silverton, Leadville, Ouray, and Salida. These probably sound familiar: Several are hugely popular with backpackers, mountain bikers, kayakers, and skiers.

Aspen and Crested Butte also have a long legacy of leaky mines, but they’re not as vulnerable to major bursts of toxic discharge from cave-ins or roof collapses in large part because there are fewer tunnels, but also because much of their wastewater is being treated by nearby facilities.

In a worst case scenario, like the Gold King mine, an abandoned mine plugged with concrete fills with snowmelt for years. When a plug gives way, a wave of toxic water flows into the nearest watershed. More commonly, though, it’s not only a catastrophic event that’s endangering rivers, but the slow leakage of toxic water. 

Throughout the U.S. West roughly 500,000 abandoned and inactive mines dot landscapes, and 40 percent of western watersheds are known to be contaminated by so-called acid mine drainage, according to Earthworks, an environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Many of them are “disasters waiting to happen,” says Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks. She notes that it’s difficult to know how many of them could be leaking toxic water or other wastes into watersheds largely because there is no national registry of the worst mines or largest potential disasters.

The Law That Lets Companies Abandon Mines
Most towns that harbor abandoned, inactive, or even active mines are poorly equipped to tackle disasters like that of Gold King, thanks largely to an industry-friendly mining law that dates back to 1872. The law allowed hard-rock mining companies to easily set up shop by privatizing public land (for as little as $5 an acre), then to declare bankruptcy and leave town when their mines wreak environmental havoc.

The companies are not legally required to pay royalties or other fees that would be used to help clean up polluting old mines. By contrast, coal, oil, and gas operators must pay such royalties. “Federal agencies barely lay a finger on these companies, and they don’t have resources to do it anyway,” says Roger Flynn, managing attorney at Western Mining Action Project, a public interest law firm in Lyons, Colorado, and an adjunct law instructor at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Why Locals Aren’t Doing More
Communities can pursue several ways to diagnose and treat spills and other pollution from abandoned or inactive hard-rock mines in their backyard. They can create or solicit help from watchdog groups. They can also apply for funds from federal and state agencies, as well as from mining companies. But money is rarely enough to get the job done. To add to this, many communities try to keep federal agencies, and thus their funds, at bay. For example, in the mid-1990s a coalition of residents, mining companies, environmental groups, and government bodies banded together to clean up Gold King and other surrounding mines. The goal was to clean up the watershed without having the EPA declare the area a Superfund site, which would have attracted a certain notoriety. (Superfund is a federal law designed to clean up heavily polluted or contaminated sites. Once a site is designated under Superfund, only federal and tribal agencies are authorized to fund and execute the cleanup.)

William Simon, who helped start the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said many residents feared the Superfund “stigma” would collapse property values, scare tourists away, and steal jobs from locals. Simon, an ecologist, had also benefited from the go-it-alone approach; he ran an environmental remediation business and was working on cleanup of nearby mines.

Earthworks’ Krill says she can appreciate how Silverton and other mining communities that depend economically on their mining history are “caught between a rock and a hard place.” However, their piecemeal remediation efforts typically only have a Band-aid effect, she added. Longer-term, as Krill and many scientists and other mining experts agree, the only way to prevent more tragedies like the Gold King spill, whose contamination plume has already reached Lake Powell, is to dramatically reform the relic 1872 mining law. The most promising legislation on the books so far is a bill introduced in February by Rep. Raul Grijalva (Dem, Ariz.) that would, among other things, exact royalties on companies for extraction of hard-rock minerals as well as for cleanup. A new fund would be created to pay for the estimated $50 billion worth of remediation of abandoned hard-rock mines scattered across public lands. The bill would also give federal agencies the authority to use more discretion in issuing permits for hard-rock mining.

Last week, in the wake of the Animas River spill, Sen. Martin Heinrich (Dem, N.M.) and Sen. Tom Udall (Dem, N.M.) said that they would introduce a similar bill in the Senate. “Maybe the spill has a silver lining,” said Flynn of Western Mining Action Project. “More people are realizing that the (mining) industry should not be given the free pass that it’s been given.”