On Wednesday, Congress held its fifth hearing on the August 5 spill of 3 million gallons of toxic mine drainage in to Colorado’s Animas River. On this occasion, the House Natural Resources Committee invited Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell to testify about her agency’s technical report on the causes of the spill.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen
In case you skipped the first four hearings, here’s what happened. The Gold King Mine stopped operating in the 1920s. It belongs to a network of inactive mines and tunnels near Silverton, Colorado that continue to drain their acid mine pollution in to the Animas River watershed.
In 2009, Colorado’s Division of Mine Reclamation and Safety (DMRS) collected the owner’s forfeiture bond to pay to backfill four portals, re-grade waste piles, and seed the roads. The bond did not have funds for any long-term maintenance or monitoring.
So in 2014, DMRS calls the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because the band-aid patch over the Gold King Mine is failing. EPA cooks up a plan to insert a pipe behind the bulkhead to relieve water pressure building up against the walls of the mine. While digging, the EPA contractor noticed a two-foot high spurt of water shooting up from a hole in the mine. Within an hour, the devastating spill turned the Animas River orange, carrying a pollution plume from Durango downstream to the Navajo Nation.
DOI’s report squarely pins the blame on the EPA for underestimating water levels and pressures behind the mine.
Preventing Future Disasters
In addition to EPA’s engineering mistakes, the Committee also focused on cleaning up our nation’s 500,000 other inactive and abandoned hardrock mines. Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) likened the House Majority’s approach to merely seeking volunteers- as if it were the Adopt A Highway program. If we had Good Samaritans with $50 billion for mine cleanup, we would not need legislation.
Congressman Grijalva has introduced HR 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015. This bill best protects communities and the environment from the dangers posed by abandoned mine pollution. Following the polluters pay principle, HR 963 places a modest fee on mine waste while assessing a royalty on the minerals. The bill dedicates this revenue toward hardrock mine clean up. For nearly 40 years, the coal industry has operated under a similar system. DOI’s annual budget also calls for these reforms.
This problem is not going away. Mining has polluted 40% of America’s Western watersheds and we have not nearly enough resources available to prevent future Gold King disasters. Relieving the taxpayer burden for clean up and minimizing risk to other communities’ water supplies should remain a top priority for policy makers.