Last Wednesday, the US experienced one of its worst mining-related disasters in decades, and it’s received a lot of attention both here in Colorado and nationally. There’s been no shortage of name calling and blaming, but few seem to be speaking of the bigger picture: how can we learn from this and write policies and regulations that stop this from happening again?
The Gold King underground mine near Silverton – about 40 river miles north of Durango on a tributary of the Animas River – was slated to be plugged so that acid mine drainage would stop spilling into the river system. When crews began clearing debris and a temporary blockade to finish the work, they underestimated how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, and three million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water came pouring out at once, turning the clear waters of the Animas deep orange for roughly 60 miles. The river was closed to all recreation while scientists rushed off to sample waters that had increased two orders of magnitude in acidity within 48 hours. Municipal water suppliers, farmers and ranchers shut off taps and valves to brace for the worst.
Many have suggested the spill would have happened anyway at some point because nearby plugs at other mines caused the water table to rise, thereby increasing water pressure behind the Gold King mine. But even if it didn’t, prior to the plugging project the mine was already leaching hundreds of gallons per minute from the shaft, which ties into a complex hydrologic system linking many mines together.
This spill is tragic. It has put drinking water and wildlife at risk, and polluted a river that I know well, one right in my backyard. But the focus should be less on the crew that accidentally triggered the release, and more on the broader story of entire regions throughout the country, facing immense cleanup challenges from mines of the past. When we consider the tens of thousands of abandoned mines and inactive mines that leak as I write this, impacting water quality and wildlife 24/7, there has never been a better time to act. It’s time to urge our elected officials and regulators to create the framework needed to address the broader problems.
Because of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, companies take federal (read: publicly owned, by you, the taxpayer) minerals with no royalty payments and are generally allowed to operate on any federal lands they select, regardless of public opposition. Even more heinous, new mega-mines are allowed to be built even though it’s clearly understood that they will have to treat acidic, metal-laden runoff for thousands of years at extreme cost. Not only are we allowing companies to take minerals for free, but we’re telling them it’s OK to create the same type of permanent water treatment liabilities that polluted the Animas.
It’s long overdue to reform the governing laws that allow today’s mines to be the problems of future generations. By placing a federal prohibition on new mines that we know will pollute forever we will make sure that no mine gets built that can’t clean up after itself. And by making mining companies help pay to correct past mistakes, we can make sure agencies and citizen groups have the money they need to do remediation projects properly and holistically, not pinching pennies and cutting corners because of federal budget cuts.
The Animas spill was a tragic testament to the environmental liabilities that persist from mines like the Gold King, but looking at it by itself is not the path ahead. Many other locations face similar accidental risks as well as ongoing problems.