Gold King Mine ‘Incident’

By now, most everyone has heard of the August 5, 2015 accidental release of more than 3 million gallons of acidic mine waste into the Animas River and Cement Creek above Silverton, CO. The mishap occurred at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, approximately one hour north of the City of Durango, when a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety crew investigating possible alternatives for remediation at the mine triggered a large release of wastewater, which resulted in acidic mine water containing metals and sediment flowing as an orange-colored discharge downstream. The risk was inherent in the remediation process. According to Steve Fearn, a respected Silverton engineer familiar with the Gold King Mine, “the problem was that neither EPA nor their contractor took adequate precautions in removing the blockage at the portal and they did not have facilities prepared to minimize the impact in case they lost control of the discharge. They also did not have a plan for notification of downstream parties in a timely basis nor had they analyzed what the potential toxicity might be.” Much to their credit, the EPA has admitted all of this.

As a result of the discharge, however, Durango and La Plata County declared a state of emergency, the Animas River was closed for nine days, and users were advised to stay off the river until the contaminated water had passed through Durango. The incident affected three states and everything from farming and recreation to Indian tribes and private well owners. The situation was alarming, and countless businesses and associated incomes were affected. With water dilution and the passage of the plume, the situation dissipated. Thus far, sampling by EPA, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE), and La Plata County have indicated that there is little evidence of any long term impacts or short term toxicity issues.

What Is the Contamination?

Silverton residents have a term for the water discoloration in the mine blowout’s aftermath—familiar! Every spring, during peak runoff, Cement Creek and in turn a portion of the Animas River downstream, run almost that same turbid hue. It’s the nature of the place. Fearn indicated of the river water’s orange/brown color “it is commonly referred to as limonite that is essentially an iron/oxide/hydroxide compound that is a product of oxidation of iron pyrite or fools gold.” He further explained that it exists nearly everywhere in the mineralized areas of the San Juan Mountains and other areas of the Colorado Mineral Belt. In itself, limonite is not particularly toxic but can cause problems for aquatic life. Tests conducted by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, found that only a handful of more than a 100 test fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water and that this was within the normal mortality expected. 

Big River Burp

In March 2013 the EPA determined that the century-old Gold King Mine was discharging approximately 300 gallons per minute of acidic water containing high concentrations of aluminum, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese, and zinc. That is more than 158 million gallons of acidic discharge per year, so in essence the 3 million gallon spill on August 5th was nothing more than a big river burp at less than 2% of the annual total. The CDPHE estimates there 232 such mines leaking toxic waste statewide, and the EPA said that adds up to about one Gold King Mine spill every two days. The CDPHE further estimates these 230+ mines are impairing approximately 1,645 miles of the state’s streams. Of those, 47 abandoned mines have active water treatment programs in place for the water that comes out of them. Another 35 abandoned mines that are leaking water are being investigated by the state or being remediated. But most of the abandoned mines discharging water, 148, are listed as likely impacting water quality with no active treatment. 

Animas River Stakeholders Group

The EPA’s investigation of possible alternatives for remediation at the Gold King Mine was supported by the Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG). The ARSG, which formed in 1994 just after the last mine in the Silverton area closed, works to improve water quality in the Animas River drainage. In its first years of operation the group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and agencies, sampled some 200 abandoned mine sites, then prioritized 33 in need of the most work. They directly sponsored nearly 20 mine remediation projects in the upper Animas River watershed and were indirectly involved in 40 more. This considerably improved the water quality in several tributaries to the Animas River, including Cement and Mineral creeks. The ARSG also developed recommendations for a number of site-specific water quality standards that were ultimately adopted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission. Bruce Whitehead, Executive Director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District (SWCD), indicated that for more than 10 years the SWCD has provided substantial financial support to the ARSG to assist their efforts in mine remediation, including direct funding of water quality monitoring below Silverton. “There’s no question this group has developed the site-specific knowledge, working relationships, and expertise to take on the water quality challenge over the long term. As communities along the Animas River and the EPA work to address the consequences of the Gold King Mine spill, we encourage them to take advantage of the local leadership of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.”

Superfund

In addition to helping to improve water quality in the region, one source indicated that the ARSG was formed to fend off Superfund designation. However, Peter Butler, Co-Coordinator of the ARSG, stated that the group has never formally endorsed or rejected Superfund because its own members disagree about the designation. The Superfund program, administered by the EPA, was established in the 1980s to remediate the nation’s most polluted places, from old factories to landfills. But it has been especially strained by legacy mining sites, which are often impossible to permanently clean up and instead require water-treatment plants or other expensive measures to contain widespread pollution. In the case of the Gold King Mine, while experts agree a treatment plant would be the best cleanup option, such facilities can cost up to $20 million to build and must run as long as a mine is leaking, or forever. A previous effort to treat water near the Gold King Mine failed when its operators ran out of money in 2005, a year after the treatment system was damaged by a winter storm. Although Superfund comes with the cash and assistance to remediate environmental problems such as the Gold King Mine, many in the Silverton area fear that such designation would destroy the local economy—particularly tourism. In addition to local opposition and confrontation with mining companies that try to fend off efforts to hold them at least partially responsible for cleanup costs, the EPA has had to work with diminished finances after levies on oil and chemical companies originally intended to help fund Superfund cleanups expired and weren’t renewed by Congress. 

Good Samaritan Legislation

Individuals and organizations, such as the ARSG, willing to conduct mine reclamation if they have federal environmental liability protection from the Clean Water Act are known as Good Samaritans. As it stands now, there is concern that if a well-meaning group tried to mitigate pollution at a draining mine, it could be required to meet Clean Water Act standards. Failure to do so could mean a lawsuit. Examples of lawsuits and liability issues resulting from the Gold King Mine incident include threats to sue the EPA as statements such as the following from Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye indicate: “We are going to be suing for millions- billions of dollars.” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman indicated that a lawsuit against the EPA is "on the table" and at least one law firm is advertizing on local radio stations for citizenry to contact them about a lawsuit against the EPA for the Gold King Mine incident. It is due to these liability issues associated with directly treating polluted mine drainage that countless organizations across the West have been advocating for Good Samaritan legislation since 1994 but to no avail. A Good Samaritan law would allow groups to conduct reclamation without the liability associated with the Clean Water Act. The following from the Good Samaritan website summarizes some of the issues associated with this type of legislation:

While the need for Good Samaritan legislation is well recognized, there are a number of opinions as to how broad the liability protections should be, who they should apply to, and to what sites they should be applied. So far there has not been enough of a consensus on these issues to allow federal legislation to move forward. In the meantime, thousands of mines continue to disgorge their contaminates with little expectations that anything will be done.

With the national attention of the Gold King Mine brought on by the EPA’s own mitigation efforts, perhaps Good Samaritan legislation will finally move forward. Legislation is necessary so that Good Samaritans can proceed with vital clean-up efforts. Advocates may want to take advantage of this window of opportunity, and Senator Michael Bennet (D—CO) and Congressman Scott Tipton (R—Cortez) may be two of them. They plan to reintroduce Good Samaritan legislation to give communities another tool to clean up abandoned mine sites. Ty Churchwell with Trout Unlimited said the Gold King Mine blowout demonstrates the need for Good Samaritan legislation, and his group will continue to advocate for it. “As horrible as this event has been for us . . . it has shined a light on a much larger problem,” he said. 

Catalyst for Action

The Gold King Mine ‘incident’ is an example of the appearance of a compelling problem that provides an opportunity for action. On August 11th Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper personally inspected the Animas River after the mine spill and indicated that it puts a spotlight on a big problem in the state. “We take this as a catalyst [on] how can we accelerate remediation to make sure something like this never happens again.”  Hopefully, EPA’s installation of a treatment facility at the mine, scheduled to begin operations on October 14th and run for 42 weeks, will be one positive outcome of the incident. The passage of Good Samaritan legislation would be another.