Nel's New Day

August 13, 2015

Toxic Spill a Lesson for Protecting the Environment

The Tang-colored Animas River in Colorado has recently been the subject of media mutterings with conservatives blaming the EPA for all the problems. Conservative officials, including New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez, are demanding that the EPA pay for all the cleanup and accusing the agency of incompetence.

yellow river

For those who haven’t kept up with the disaster that started in Colorado and moved downstream, the EPA was investigating an idled mine, the Gold King Mine near Silverton (CO), and trying to drain the heavy-metal-laden sludge that had been slowing leaking out into the Animas River. Instead, workers breached an unstable dam eight days ago, releasing three million gallons of the waste. The agency made no announcement for almost 24 hours and then underestimated the amount by two-thirds.

The Gold King, out of operation since 1923, is one of approximately 22,000 abandoned hard rock mines leaking toxic substances into the state’s waterways. (There may be 500,000 of these in the United States.) Mining exposes acidic minerals, and heavy metals and groundwater can wash them into rivers. This particular spill includes aluminum, lead, arsenic, and cadmium with tests downstream at Durango showing arsenic and lead levels peaking at 300 and 3,500 times historic levels. Despite the current fear, however, the levels of metal dissipated rapidly and only one fish of 108 in cages died during the first 24 hours. Prior to the spill, the Animas and San Juan Rivers had alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria. About 40 percent of Western headwaters have already been contaminated by these mines.

Within four days, the 500 gallons per minute emitted from the dam was diverted into two nearby settling ponds. The EPA plans to treat the waste so that it can be released into the river. By that time, however, the materials already in the river had gotten to Farmington (NM), more than 80 miles downriver where the Animas feeds into the San Juan River, on its way to Lake Powell and into the Colorado River. Towns shut off intake valves before the water arrived, but residents with wells within the floodplains of the Animas and San Juan have been directed to have their water tested before using it. The rivers will also be closed to drinking, irrigation supply, fishing, and recreation until at least August 17.

The water color has gone back to normal, but toxic metals settling in the river bottom can cause problems when disturbed by storm runoffs. Contamination in the area is not new: the Cement Creek where the problem originated was declared undrinkable in 1876. During most of the history of the West, miners were not regulated in their burrowing for gold, silver, and other valuable minerals. As they dug, they hit water that reacted with air and pyrite (iron sulfide) to create sulfuric acid and dissolved iron before it dissolved other metals such as copper and lead. The result is water with heavy metals.

Miners just dumped the water in creeks or put it in ponds with their tailings, making the water more acidic. The mines near Silverton are the worst, causing the largest untreated mine drainage in the state. Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines, said, “Problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.” For several years, the EPA wanted to declare the area as a Superfund site to bring funding for cleaning up the mess. The people in the area resisted, worried that the label would be toxic to tourism. Recently, the town agreed that the EPA could call the site “the National Priority List” and let the EPA work to improve water quality near the mines.

The conspiracy crowd decided that, based on a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, the EPA deliberately caused the spillage “to secure Superfund money. If the Gold King mine was declared a Superfund site it would essentially kill future development for the mining industry. The Obama EPA is vehemently opposed to mining and development.” The EPA takes full responsibility for the debacle, but Gina McCarthy, the head of the agency, is almost sure to be appearing before a Congressional hearing.

The accident started when the EPA tried to plug the Red and Bonita Mine just below the Gold King mine. To keep water from flowing out of that interconnected mine, the EPA tried to reconstruct the portal at the Gold King to check changes in discharge caused by the Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead. Workers started in July, and the toxic water flowed on August 4.

Todd Hennis, Gold King’s owner, said that he predicted for the past 14 years that the situation was getting worse and tried to do something about the discharge. He blames Kinross Gold, a deep-pocketed Canada-based multinational mining giant, for using influence to reduce its liability for treating polluted water and passing the risks to nearby mines. The Kinross-owned Sunnyside Mine is at fault for the accumulation of wastewater, according to Hennis. In the mid-1990s, Kinross received permission to plug a part of the Sunnyside Mine called the American Tunnel after Hennis complained about the discharge of 165 gallons a minute from Sunnyside when he tried to reopen the Mogul gold mine. Before that time, Gold King discharged seven gallons a minute, but the Kinross project increased that to 250 gallons of water a minute. Hennis claims that the wastewater came from Sunnyside Mine through drill holes and natural fractures in the ground.

Although no actual mining is being done at the Gold King, Hennis completed $10 million in exploration during the 1990s, including 400,000 ounces of gold and four million ounces of silver. The mine also has large deposits of tellurium, used in high-tech alloys. Hennis just wants to find a buyer.

Locals aren’t the only people to blame the EPA and the president, and the message has gone viral in right-wing Internet blogging. Even the less conservative media fails to point out that the mining industry had no regulation until 1970. Since then, conservative members of Congress have fought for no regulations, claiming that it’s just “big government.” With a large majority in Congress and many states, lawmakers are constantly attacking the EPA and its mandate to “protect” the environment. While the Koch brothers pay for legislators to deregulate, the mainstream media reports nothing. For example, Republicans pushed deregulation in West Virginia responsible for the chemical spill because they want businesses to make more money.

Jonathan Thompson pointed out that pollution in the Animas is not new. Miners didn’t stop pouring their tailings into the creeks and rivers until the 1930s, and portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides pull water flowing through fractures into mine tunnels and cause the contaminated water. When a huge tailings pile northeast of Silverton was breached in 1975, the 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings turned the Animas into aluminum color. Three years later, the American Tunnel was bored at Sunnyside Mine, and Lake Emma burst through, sending 500 million gallons of water throughout the mines, picking up tailings and sludge before blasting it out of the tunnel and sending it downstream. By 1991, many of the 400 mines released unmitigated discharges into streams. No fish could be found downstream from Silverton.

There is no doubt that the EPA made a mistake. If they had done nothing, however, the same thing would likely have happened with water and sludge breaking through the faulty dam. Many people believe that the disaster alerted people in Durango to the current problems; they may pressure those up in Silverton to accept Superfund and get some of the mess cleaned up. Durango cleaned up in the early 1990s with no problems to tourism and property values, and the tourism mecca of Moab (UT) is also being cleaned up.

The disaster could also save the Grand Canyon, one of the “Most Endangered Places” in the United States. Last April, U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell ruled against a request by the Havasupai tribe and a coalition of conservation groups to halt new uranium mining next to Grand Canyon National Park, just six miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The U.S. Forest Service is allowing the Canadian mining firm Energy Fuels Inc. to reopen a uranium mine without formally consulting with tribal authorities or updating a 30-year-old federal environmental review. Wildlife, including the endangered California condor, will be threatened, and toxic uranium mining waste, a toxic heavy metal and source of radiation, will contaminate aquifers and streams that maintain the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Geologists say that cleaning up such contamination will be “next to impossible.”

Uranium mining also spreads radioactive dust through air and leaks radioactivity and toxic chemicals into the environment. Every uranium mine ever operated in the United States has required some degree of toxic waste cleanup, and the worst have sickened dozens of people, contaminated miles of rivers and streams, and required the cleanup of hundreds of acres of land.

grand canyon

President Obama could protect the Grand Canyon by proclaiming its watershed a national monument. But Boehner would issue another press release complaining about the president’s “overreach.” Take a good look at this photograph of our national treasure because it, like many other important parts of our legacy, will disappear if conservatives get their way.


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