It didn’t take long after the sludge settled five years ago for the calls for change to begin.
In fact, 3 million gallons of orange-gold water that poured out of the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015, was still flowing through the Colorado River watershed when discussions about the broader issue of thousands of abandoned mines in the U.S. heated up.
Environmentalists and conservationists hoped that the disaster would provide an opportunity for change after decades of stalled efforts to address historic mining sites that leach heavy metals into waterways every day.
But for all the talk, there hasn’t been much action.
Congress has been unable to reach accord on how to clean up abandoned mines, an estimated 23,000 of which are in Colorado. In Silverton, just downstream from Gold King, people are still waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to tackle the problems related to the many other toxic sites that surround the town. In fact, in some ways cleaning up historic mine waste has actually become more difficult for environmental nonprofits since the spill as regulators, wary about another calamity, have increased hurdles for groups before they can begin work.
All the while the pollution continues from hardrock mine sites every second, creating a collective torrent of wastewater poisoning the West’s precious water supply.
“It’s not a simple issue,” said Stephen Hoffman, who worked on abandoned mines and mine pollution at the Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. “It’s a very frustrating issue. This has been banging around for, you know, 30 years.”
The Gold King disaster was caused by a contract EPA crew that was checking out the mine for future cleanup work. As they used heavy machinery to peel back a layer of rock and dirt covering the opening — or adit — orange-colored water began spilling out. And then it began gushing out. And then the Animas River, which runs through Durango, changed color and news crews from across the country descended upon southwest Colorado and the Four Corners region.
The reason the water was orange has to do with how mining exposes sulfide-rich rock to air and water. That leads to a process in which sulfuric acid is formed and then dissolves dangerous metals, like zinc, cadmium and lead, as well as more benign ones like iron, which causes the discoloration.
The heavy metals flow out in draining water and taints creeks and rivers, presenting risks to people and wildlife downstream.
In many ways, the urgency to deal with abandoned mines wore off after the Animas River returned to its normal color, said Joseph Ryan, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder whose focus area includes abandoned mines.
“Gold King was so visible,” Ryan said. “You had those great photographs of people kayaking in the orange river. Why didn’t that make a bigger impression? I think I have to come back to: some of these problems are so complicated.”
The way Congress functions
The political and legal battles that followed the spill — between states, tribes and the federal government — foreshadowed what was to come: efforts to make change caught in gears of government.
Linda Figueroa, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines whose area of focus includes abandoned mines, remembers advocating for action in the wake of the Gold King spill. She kept running into bureaucratic roadblocks and political webs that slowed progress down.
“There’s been small successes,” she said, “but that’s what they’ve been”
Colorado’s two U.S. senators — Republican Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet — have both worked on legislation to make it easier to clean up abandoned mines in Colorado and across the country. But so far their efforts haven’t actually resulted in a law.
The central policy debate, which has been going on for decades, is over how to actually fund cleanups.
One side, led by the conservation group Trout Unlimited, wants a so-called “good Samaritan” bill passed that would allow nonprofit groups like theirs to clean up mines without taking on huge liability under the Clean Water Act.
The other — mostly made up of left-leaning environmental groups — wants mining companies to begin paying into a fund that would be used to address the problem. They argue that good Samaritans don’t have deep enough pockets to tackle the multibillion-dollar problem, let alone the money to cover the costs of a Gold King-type screw up.
Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, introduced a “good Samaritan” bill — called that because of the good-will non-governmental groups are showing in cleaning up the sites — in December 2018 that would have allowed for work to be done by groups at 15 sites in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency. But it has foundered.
Bennet, too, has been pushing for good Samaritan legislation, but he and Gardner split on the specifics after working together in the months after the Gold King disaster.
Bennet has repeatedly brought a bill, most recently in 2019, that would impose a royalty on hard rock mining operations on federal land based on their gross income to pay for the cleanup of abandoned mines. He also sought to implement an abandoned mine reclamation fee between 1% and 3%.
Gardner office did not comment for this story, but Bennet, in a statement, said action is needed.
“The fifth anniversary of Gold King Mine is a reminder of the threat (abandoned hardrock mines) pose,” Bennet said. “We can prevent the next Gold King disaster with a comprehensive approach — which is why I’ve introduced legislation to reform the outdated 1872 Mining Law to take the burden off taxpayers, who shouldn’t be left with the clean up bill.”
Most chalk up the inaction to the way Washington, D.C., politics works.
“That has a lot to do, I think, with the way that Congress functions,” said Aaron Mintzes, a senior policy adviser with the environmental group Earthworks.
Hoffman, the former EPA mine expert, says if money was available, abandoned mines could be cleaned up relatively quickly. The technology is there and isn’t very complicated, but because the EPA’s Superfund cleanup program has limited resources and many sites to address, the dollars are quickly spread thin.
“The issue of cleanup is going on as quickly as the funding exists,” Hoffman said. “If Congress gave EPA more money, cleanup would materially speed up.”
He sees the solution as being a dedicated allocation from Congress. That would cut out the politics of enacting a fee on existing mining companies and allow the federal government to get to work quickly.
In 2016, a U.S. House committee released a report estimating that there are about 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the U.S. with a combined cleanup cost as high as $54 billion. The reason there are so many is that because before the 1970s mine operators were allowed to abandon the sites once they were done digging for metals like gold and silver.
The Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, EPA, and Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement spent, on average, a combined $287 million annually to address physical safety and environmental hazards at abandoned hardrock mines between fiscal years 2008 through 2017
“Most federal and state officials said they had trouble identifying and eliminating hazards at abandoned mines because doing so would cost millions and create potential liability issues,” the GAO found in a report released in March.
Since the coronavirus crisis began, there’s been a push to view cleaning up abandoned mines as an opportunity to get people back to work. Mintzes said some lawmakers have begun to embrace, or at least take a hard look at, the idea.
In the meantime, groups like Trout Unlimited are working to make a dent in the problem wherever they can. Jason Willis, who runs the nonprofit’s abandoned mine land program in Colorado, said that’s become harder in the wake of the Gold King spill as regulators are more cautious about how projects are planned and carried out.
“That eats up a lot of a budget with a project,” he said. “A lot of time you could just go out and do a project. You didn’t have to worry about a lot of the hoops that you have to jump through.”
But at the same time more private funding for his work has become available and he thinks the publicity around the issue of abandoned mines has helped.
In Silverton, working to preserve the urgency
Silverton — ground zero of the Gold King disaster — was reluctant to welcome the EPA’s help in cleaning up its abandoned mines and mining sites.
Residents were wary of the agency, especially given its contractors were responsible for the spill. And they were anxious about what the image of being listed under the EPA’s Superfund program would mean for their tourism-based economy. They also felt the federal government would move too slowly.
Some even hoped that mining would someday return and Silverton’s boom times would be resurrected. They feared the EPA would spoil those hopes.
Five years later, it’s been a mixed bag, said Anthony Edwards, a Silverton resident who serves as a liaison to the EPA. Generally things are moving in the right direction, he explained, though there hasn’t been any major clean-up work completed.
“Things don’t move as fast as many as people would have hoped,” he said.
But business hasn’t suffered since the community agreed to accept Superfund help in the year after the spill. The Superfund area around Silverton is called the Bonita Peak Mining District and includes 48 mines and mining sites.
“There hasn’t been any observable impacts on tourism,” Edwards said. “We continue to have many visitors, and many of those visitors enjoy looking at these old mining sites. I don’t think that concern has been proven to be correct, if you will.”
Doug Benevento, associate deputy administrator for the EPA, told The Colorado Sun last week that he thinks the agency has made progress. He understands the criticism that the Superfund program moves too slowly, but he said that studying a site before taking action is important.
“We’re trying to move this as quickly as possible,” he said. “… There are certain campsites up there, for example, that we know are testing hot for heavy metals. We know that under any analysis that is done those sites are going to have to be cleaned up. So we’ve moved in and started cleaning up those areas.”
He added: “What we’ve tried to do is two things: An appropriate amount of study, but also just sort of take the stuff that we know we’re going to do — that we have to do — and just get it done.”
Edwards said ensuring the EPA keeps Silverton at the top of its priorities is key to ensuring the work gets done relatively quickly. The town, which drew criticism in the wake of the spill, is eager to be an example for how well abandoned mine cleanups can work.
Ty Churchwell, the San Juan Mountain Coordinator for Trout Unlimited who has worked closely on the abandoned mines issue in Silverton, said there hasn’t been a noticeable improvement in water quality yet. But cleanup plans are in the works that have him hopeful.
Eventually, he feels, the long-held dream of pristine waters near Silverton will be fulfilled.
“Things are moving along at a snail’s pace,” he said, “but in a positive direction nonetheless.”