May 30, 2011--Thousands of old mines pollute Colorado waters, with no help in sight (Denver Post)

As mountain snow starts to melt, trickling toxic acid laced with dissolved metals — arsenic, cadmium, copper, zinc — is fouling Colorado watersheds. Nobody dares try to stop it. Among the casualties: Peru Creek east of the Keystone ski area has been pronounced "biologically dead." State environmental officials also have listed 32 sites along the Animas River in critical condition. Some headwaters of the Arkansas River, too, are "virtually devoid of any aquatic life." The source of the contamination is abandoned mines — about 500,000 across the West, at least 7,300 in Colorado. Federal authorities estimate that the headwaters of 40 percent of Western rivers are tainted with toxic discharge from abandoned mines. Colorado Department of Natural Resources records show 450 abandoned mines are known to be leaking measurable toxins into watersheds. So far, 1,300 miles of streams have been impaired. But as bad as the damage is, community watershed groups, mining companies and even state agencies contend they cannot embark on cleanups for fear of incurring legal liability. Under the Clean Water Act, parties who get involved at abandoned mines and accidentally make matters worse — even over the short term — could be vulnerable to federal prosecution for polluting waterways without a permit. Obama administration officials two years ago promised to break gridlock on this issue, spurring a legislative fix to enable "good Samaritan" cleanups and devoting "significant resources" for watershed restoration. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week acknowledged there is still gridlock and that more must be done to deal with tens of thousands of leaking abandoned mines nationwide.

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