A year later the Animas River mine spill could happen again

This blog post originally ran in The Hill.

Anyone who saw the river turn orange will remember it for the rest of their lives. One year ago over 3 million gallons of toxic waste from the inactive Gold King mine cascaded into Colorado’s Animas River.  

Arsenic. Lead. A variety of other cancer-causing pollutants. Together they made the Animas River one of the West’s most contaminated places, nominated for Superfund designation. And since we lack the necessary rules to hold mining companies accountable for the pollution they create, American taxpayers like you and me are the ones who will pay the tens of millions of dollars to clean it up.

One year later, the river no longer glows, but it will be much longer — decades — before the area recovers. In the meantime, those who enjoy the fish and wildlife or rely on the river to irrigate their fields face the reality that nobody knows the long-term consequences of all the harmful metals spread along the riverbed.

So has anything changed? More specifically: have our leaders taken steps to prevent this from happening again? The answer is no — not yet — though there are encouraging signs that action is finally being taken to protect communities from costly mine cleanups.

Thanks to a recent lawsuit, a federal court is requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to finally write rules to implement a neglected section of the Superfund Law, our national hazardous sites law. Originally mandated when the law passed in 1980, Congress designed these new rules to prevent the too-common problem where companies creating toxic sites and then declare bankruptcy and walk away, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for cleanup.

The details of these proposed new rules are important. EPA must ensure that they require mine owners to financially guarantee mine cleanup before mining operations begin — that means real money up front, not empty corporate promises. This protects taxpayers and the mining economy by limiting costly cleanups and sending a market signal to mining companies to avoid this pollution in the first place.

While technology has made many sectors of our economy cleaner, the ability to dig deeper and move more rock has only increased the scale of mine waste. Today, producing one ounce of gold generates more than 80 tons of mining waste. The EPA estimates that 40 percent of the headwaters of watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by mining. And, our public lands are increasingly under pressure by new mine proposals.

A second critical step is to reform the standards that govern hardrock mining on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service can modernize mining regulations under current public lands laws without going through Congress.

Like Superfund, federal regulations governing hardrock mining on public lands have not been meaningfully revised since 1980. Updating federal mining regulations to create modern performance, reclamation, and enforcement standards will help protect our nation’s lands and waters from damaging practices and future toxic mine waste disasters. Revised rules will also allow us to balance the value of public lands with mining and other uses, instead of always putting mining first.

It is encouraging that Colorado and New Mexico’s Members of Congress have stepped up to champion much-needed mining law reform. Years of delay to finally enact taxpayer protections and update federal mining rules allowed the Animas River to run orange. EPA estimates that the backlog of cleanup costs for hardrock mines is already $20-$54 billion; we must act now. Until we do, communities across the West remain at risk of becoming home to the next Animas River spill.