Yesterday, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held the first of four scheduled Congressional hearings pointing blame at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Gold King mine disaster. According to media reports, on August 5, EPA contractors attempting to relieve water levels and remove debris from the Gold King mine, accidently sprang a leak releasing 3 million gallons of sulfuric acid laden water in to a tributary of the Animas River near Durango, Colorado.
In fact, for years leading up to the August 5 disaster, Gold King continuously released roughly the same amount of acid mine drainage each week. To help alleviate this problem, in 2009, Colorado state regulators used the mine owner’s forfeiture bond to install a flume to divert the discharge. This band aid-like patch served mainly as a temporary “fix” to delay the inevitable. According to EPA’s own internal investigation, a disaster like this was waiting to happen.
What Had Happened Was…
EPA had tried to fix this problem before. In 2014, EPA officials studied options, including Superfund designation, for providing a permanent solution for the acid mine drainage already seeping from the Gold King mine. They quickly discovered this project posed a number of incredibly challenging geological and hydrological problems.
For starters, the original Gold King mine was initially constructed back in the 1880s. Over the decades, others had constructed tunnels, adits, and additional mines nearby creating a complicated patchwork of underground pathways for toxic mine waste to place enormous pressure on bulkheads and raise water tables.
Making matters worse, the area above the Gold King mine contained very steep slopes posing a daunting engineering problem. When the EPA contractors attempted to anchor some of their equipment on what they believed to be stable bedrock, the ground gave way. The soft bedrock, coupled with higher than expected water pressures, caused this disaster.
The Larger Abandoned Mines Problem
This problem is not unique to Gold King. Earthworks estimates around half a million abandoned mines litter the West, not including mines like Gold King that have owners, but are very old and inactive. Nearly every one of them pollutes our dwindling water resources leading to an astounding 40% of Western watersheds contaminated from mining. Cleaning up these mines will cost American taxpayers, according to EPA estimates, $50 billion.
But, we could ask polluters to pay instead of taxpayers. The coal industry already pays a tiny per ton fee on their coal removed from the ground. These funds are dedicated specifically for cleaning up abandoned mines. Hardrock mining companies should do the same.
The Long Term Solutions
Ultimately, we need to modernize our mining laws and regulations. The 1872 Mining Law still governs hardrock mining on Western lands. This pick and shovel era statute provides no environmental standards, no clean up requirements, and gives away the people’s minerals for free. Worst of all, federal land managers have no discretion to balance mining with other land uses. They get the gold. We get the tab.
Our friends at the Grand Canyon Trust have authored a petition asking the Bureau of Land Management to make a series of simple yet common sense changes to their mining regulations. These updates are long overdue and will help modernize the rules to keep up with current changes in industry practice.
Rep. Grijalva (D-AZ), Sen. Udall (D-NM) and Sen. Heinrich (D-NM) have also offered legislative reforms designed to bring the 1872 Mining Law in to the 21st century. Many other Gold King mines are out there- most completely abandoned- waiting for the time when their toxic acid waste will pollute some other community’s water resources. Reform can wait no longer.