Hardrock River Rising
The Gold King Mine Spill was only a symptom of damage caused by hardrock mining, but it may also be the impetus for change.
On the morning of Aug. 5, 2015, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency began to conduct a series of tests on an abandoned mine called the Gold King, situated above the tiny mountain town of Silverton, Colorado.
A day later, a massive flume of fuming orange sludge made its way down the Animas River into the city of Durango, some 50 miles to the south. The EPA ordered the communities affected by the spill to not use the water for nine days. All activity connected to the Animas, from agricultural operations relying on the river to recreational summer activities, came to a grinding halt while investigations into the safety of the water took place.
The response of both locals and the nation at large was unprecedented. There were calls from both Colorado and New Mexico for the EPA to take economic accountability. Native tribal councils erupted in fury as their agricultural operations were crippled without their main water source.
Activists cried out, claiming that the pristine waters that the Animas was known for — that helped make towns like Durango and Silverton tourist destinations — would forever have their reputation sullied.
But there’s a secret that was rarely mentioned in the weeks of media coverage to follow: the Animas River has always been a dirty river.
For a century, toxic wastewater generated from abandoned mines north of the town of Durango has seeped into the Animas. Channeled from smaller tributaries like Cement Creek, the wastewater often goes unseen to the untrained eye, as the waste comes in narrow, consistent trickles that are diluted upon entering larger waterways.
At the Gold King Mine alone, an average of more than 100 gallons of waste water per minute have gushed from the site since data started being collected in 2006. Though it took a three-million-gallon rush of wastewater over the course of an hour to turn the Animas orange, it was simply a drop in the bucket. The process that causes these mine shafts to leach toxins is impossible to mediate.
Regardless of the media attention it brought; regardless of the countless statements from government officials released in its wake; regardless of the outpouring of sentiment from environmental advocates, the spill at Gold King Mine is minuscule both in its immediate and ongoing consequences.
The deeper story is much more complicated, much longer — and much dirtier — than a single spill on that single day in August 2015.
‘Well, there has been this spill’
“This isn’t a place where people come to rest. This is a place where you come to work.”
On a brisk September morning in Durango, Colorado, Brad Crist stands in the pre-dawn light, overlooking his farm, Calloused Palms.
Though intended to be a retirement home for the former owner, the property now run by Crist is used as a farm, a place where healthy organic food is grown for the community at large. Small operations like this require smaller management; owners become managers, and for Crist, that means no real days off. As a result, a vacationing Crist found himself on the opposite end of a telephone call from Durango on the morning of the spill.
“I get a call from Rachel — she’s my farm manager — and she’s wondering if we should irrigate today,” Crist said. “I’m in Wyoming. I tell her, ‘Well, what do you mean by that? Why would we not irrigate? If the crops are dry, yeah, we’ll irrigate.’ And she goes, ‘Well, there has been this spill.’”
Crist’s first thought was to ensure his crops weren’t contaminated by the mixture of toxic sludge coming down the Animas River—the very river Calloused Palms uses for their primary source of water. He called his ditch rider, the manager of his water claim, and received a more detailed account of what was occurring in the Animas.
“I said no, don’t irrigate,” Crist remembered. “Turn off the water and don’t let it out on the crops. The ditch rider says we had the ability to supply water from the Hermosa Creek, and we did. Hermosa Creek comes down from Purgatory from under the mountain here and is pure, good water.”
Within an hour, Crist had ensured that the Fanta-orange waters of the Animas wouldn’t taint his crops, his decision mirrored by all those using the same water supplier as Calloused Palms. And just nine days later, the EPA declared the water in the Animas safe for recreational and agricultural use once more.
If the water wasn’t safe for agricultural use in the immediate aftermath of the spill, how did Durango residents — and the communities farther south of the Animas — obtain clean drinking water? There was no rush on bottled water in grocery stores, no mass purchasing of Brita filters and iodine tablets. In fact, for most water districts, ensuring contaminated water stayed out of plumbing systems was as simple as flipping a switch.
Danny Paul, a water technician for the Glacier Club water district, was working on the day of the spill and was the first in his district to respond to the incident.
“We got a call from the state health department, and it notified us within three hours of the accident,” said Paul. “The spill hadn’t reached us yet. I had plenty of time to shut out our pumps.”
Located roughly 20 miles north of the town of Durango, the Glacier Club water district supplies gray water to a golf course, as well as clean potable water to the small surrounding community. Because the Glacier Club is its own water district, Paul and his co-workers are responsible for conducting various monthly, weekly and annual tests for the state health department.
Water for the district comes from three sources: groundwater from a well near the facility’s treatment center, a reservoir and the Animas River. All three are regularly tested for contaminants. So although the Animas is a main source of the district’s water, with the safety of a secondary water source guaranteed, Paul simply had to turn off the pumps coming from the river and instead direct water from the other two sources.
“It’s all automated,” Paul said of the water pumps. “It just goes in the computer, and we shut it off.”
The spill didn’t affect operating costs for the Glacier Club, nor did it endanger the health of anyone within its water district. For organizations such as Crist’s or Paul’s, where the livelihood of others relies on their product, precautions have to be in place in case of accidents such as the Gold King spill. Yet for the individual who simply lives near at-risk areas but whose activities have no immediate risk of impacting human health, the affect of the spill has a much greater implication; one that goes far beyond one singular event.
The area where the Gold King Mine site is located is known as Cement Creek. A heavily mined area, the creek itself no longer supports fish species, and it is one of the most polluted regions in Southwest Colorado.
But Cement Creek is also home to Silverton Mountain, a mecca for extreme skiing. The surrounding peaks outside the resort’s boundaries hold endless potential for backcountry skiing as well, making the area popular for winter cabins.
For longtime Durango residents like JJ Schiffel, owning one of these cabins is often a lifelong experience.
“We were the caretakers as we call it of this property, me and my partner, Ben,” Schiffel said. “We’ve been skiing here since like high school days basically and we never wanted to leave at the end of the day, so we kind of took over this cabin behind you, and then bugged the guy that owned it long enough that he finally sold it to us.”
Schiffel’s property is unique. It spans the top of a ridge line all the way down into the center of a steep ravine below, making the vast majority of his land dramatically sloped. It sounds like a skier’s dream until you hear about the neighbor across the ravine — the Gold King Mine site.
‘It was right in our backyard’
When the mine blew out, it eroded land on both sides of the ravine, including on Schiffel’s property.
Further, after the EPA began routing the continuous flow of wastewater down the ravine toward a temporary treatment site, a retaining pond of toxic wastewater formed on the bottom of the ravine, straddling Schiffel and the mine site’s property boundaries. Unlike at Calloused Palms and Glacier Club, where they could reach a conscious decision to stay out of contact with toxic waste, Schiffel had no such option.
In fact, neither Schiffel nor his partner were informed that the spill had affected their property.
“You know, my first noticing of (the spill) was I was in town, driving across Trimble Bridge, and it was pretty obvious that something was going on,” Schiffel said.
Schiffel did a Google search and noticed a short story on the Durango Herald website saying there had been a spill at the Gold King site.
“And I had no idea when or where or anything like that,” Schiffel said. “When I became aware that it was where it was, it was maybe a week after the spill itself, we came up to do a visit to the property and realized that it was right in our backyard.”
Few Durango or other Southwest Colorado residents knew what was happening.
- Brad Crist was fortunate enough to have observational partners on the day that the sludge reached his neck of the Animas; otherwise, he never would have known to redirect his water source.
- JJ Schiffel had to rely on the Durango Herald, a small town newspaper, to realize his property was being puddled with toxic wastewater.
- The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contacted Danny Paul and the Glacier Club only because there was an immediate risk of contaminated water reaching the public’s washrooms.
But public ignorance of the mining problem extends beyond awareness of the risk of singular tragic events. Most people don’t understand that the EPA calling the water “safe” after a few days doesn’t mean it’s free of contaminants. Most people don’t understand that every day, wastewater still seeps into the Animas and other rivers like it across the state of Colorado; a continuous trickle of toxins. Most people don’t understand that there is no possible way to stop the wastewater from abandoned mines from being created — forever.
‘You make Swiss cheese out of a mountain’
The mine problem is not new. In fact, much of the toxic mine drainage being dealt with today has been brewing since the 1880s. Because of a century-old law, those responsible for creating the mines — parties who often drew fortunes out of their claims — haven’t borne much economic accountability for these sites.
But before discussing legislative challenges, one must first understand the science behind the spill.
A hard rock mine is one that is drilled with the intent to mine hard minerals, mainly precious metals such as ore containing gold and silver. Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, explains how this type of mining results in toxic mine drainage that cannot be stemmed.
“What happens when you do hard rock mining is that you essentially make Swiss cheese out of a hard rock mountain,” Olson said. “And when you do that, you create passages for water to move through these rock layers that were historically not exposed.”
When a mineshaft is created, the minerals exposed to oxygen aren’t just the gold and silver ore typically being sought by mining companies. Other minerals such as zinc, cadmium and copper, are also brought to the surface of the rock. When these materials meet the groundwater within the mountain, combined with oxygen, they form acid mine drainage — a toxic sludge containing a hodgepodge of heavy metal deposits. Acid mine drainage can permeate through a waterway without causing immediate damage, but leaving toxic sediment that can potentially cause longterm damage to ecosystems.
There are no solutions to this waste. Organizations such as the EPA have both short and long-term measures that they use to attempt to mediate acid mine drainage. However, because the drainage will never stop being produced once oxygen is introduced into a mineshaft, the solutions are either to stem and monitor the flow of waste or to open treatment facilities beneath leaching mines to clean all of the acidic water coming out.
Treating the water is extremely expensive. A treatment facility must be constructed directly in the path of a mine’s wastewater, meaning it has to be routed through a reliable path out of the opening of the mine; one that ensures no contact with other waterways is ever established. Further, the facility must be able to operate consistently for the rest of time, which could be financially draining on the communities that rely on the treatment.
As a result, the EPA frequently turns to less stringent methods of mediation. Such is part of the story of the Gold King. In 2008, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety developed a plan to close off the four openings, or adits, to the Gold King Mine. The goal of the plan wasn’t even to stop the flow of water from the mine, but simply to divert the discharge more controllably. However, one of the mine’s adits had already partially collapsed, and the EPA knew there was pooling wastewater behind the opening–they just weren’t sure how much. In an attempt to examine the condition of the mine entrance and its wastewater, an uncontrollable leaking began that resulted in the entirety of the mine’s reservoir of wastewater — all three million gallons — rushing down Cement Creek and into the Animas River.
As of Nov. 16 2015, the EPA states that it has spent a total of $17.23 million on the Gold King cleanup. This isn’t including the original cost of the wastewater diversion plan, which was paid for by the state of Colorado. In fact, the EPA knew and internally acknowledged that the state’s chosen work plan for the Gold King was not viable in the longterm, but allowed it to be undergone anyway because the state had the money to fund the project.
The mediation that was ongoing at the Gold King Mine was unique to the site. More frequently, the EPA and state departments use a bulkhead as a means of partial wastewater management. A bulkhead is essentially a cork that goes into the opening of a mineshaft. The purpose is to either block the mine drainage from exiting, or to mediate the amount that can come out at once; the latter being in the form of a drain or plumbing coming of the mine and through the bulkhead.
But the success of bulkheads in containing acid mine waste is arbitrary. Often, by plugging up one source of drainage from a mountain mine, the toxic water simply permeates through the bedrock and finds an exit elsewhere. Some believe this is the cause of the Gold King spill; that potentially, the neighboring Sunnyside Mine’s bulkhead caused a growing balloon of waste to find the next nearest exit.
So if the safest, most permanent solution to a permanent problem is treatment facilities, why aren’t they being constructed with gusto? The problem is the cost. The use of bulkheads as temporary solutions to acid mine drainage is common across the state because they’re cheaper than treatment facilities to construct and maintain. They’re less burdensome than treatment facilities. The EPA cannot afford to construct these facilities at every single leaching mine site in Colorado, let alone in the U.S. There are an estimated 23,000 abandoned mining claims in the state of Colorado. While only a small percentage — perhaps a couple hundred — are leaching waste daily, this still represents a massive project were remediation to take place on a large scale, and the funding simply isn’t there.
Thus, the financial responsibility would fall upon state and local environmental departments, who also cannot afford such measures. This stalemate has led environmental advocacy groups to demand that those responsible pay for cleanup. Yet a law nearly as old as the mining problem itself protects the latter party.
‘Polluters should pay, not the taxpayers’
In 1872, the U.S. government became enthralled with settling the West, entrenching the concept of Manifest Destiny as it expanded toward the Pacific. Yet too few people were willing to uproot their lives and move into the harsh, largely unmapped and unsettled territory. To boost the incentive, the federal government passed the General Mining Law of 1872.
Essentially, this allowed for anyone — be it a mining company or an individual — to take a mining claim for free. Unlike coal and other mining industries, where royalties and reclamation fees are applied to all operators and used to pay for environmental mediation, the mining industry still operates beneath the tenants of this law. There is zero cost to operators past and present for the millions of dollars in precious metals — from mining claims acquired for free — they’ve earned in profit.
The only way to reverse the cycle of affected communities being forced to pay for or ignore abandoned mines and their wastewater is to change the 143-year-old law that protects the hard rock mining industry.
Aaron Mintzes, a policy advocate at the environmental nonprofit Earthworks, claims that a change in policy is the only possible way to seriously ramp up current efforts in mine drainage mediation.
For Mintzes — as well as the legislation his organization advocates — it’s all about the money.
“Polluters should pay, not the taxpayers,” he said.
Mintzes endorses the idea that regulation around hard rock mining should follow suit with the coal industry, turning fees into funds for reclamation. Using the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 as an example, Mintzes explains how it’s possible to generate the finances needed to address acid mine drainage on a national scale.
“For the last two generations, we’ve had a reclamation fee charged on the coal companies,” he said. “That money goes into a fund that pays to clean up abandoned coal mines, a portion of which according to a formula … goes to pay for hard rock mines as well.”
Mintzes’ solution is to do the same for the hard rock mining industry that the government does for the coal industry — that is, institute a reclamation fee on the actual value of the mineral or on the mass of its weight.
The money collected from owners of operating hard rock mines would go into a fund, which would then be used to mediate both operating and abandoned mines whose owners couldn’t be identified. So if two of every 10 hard rock mines has an operator paying into the fund, the treatment of the other eight abandoned sites would be piggy-backed off the same dollar. It’s not ideal, Mintzes says, but it’s a jump-start toward a better solution.
Currently two bills sit in the U.S. Congress that aim to establish these principles for the hard rock mining industry. In February 2015, Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) introduced H.R. 963, which would reform the General Mining Law of 1872, resulting in a fund created by royalties and fees on the existing industry.
This bill’s verbiage is nearly mirrored by a similar bill being presented in the Senate, known as the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2015. The bill, sponsored by Senators Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), was introduced as a direct result of the Gold King Mine spill, a reflection on how an event that captures the nation’s attention can inspire lawmakers to seek relatable reforms for their communities.
Still, the bills face challenges in both the House and the Senate, respectively. The bills’ success will rely on the lawmakers’ ability to attract support from both sides of the aisle. Regardless, their introductions are part of a new chapter in proposed hard rock mining law.
Along with underscoring the goals of bills proposed at a federal level, the Gold King spill has affected policy decisions on a local level. Silverton has opposed a Superfund designation on abandoned mine sites near the community for decades, claiming such a label would ruin the town’s appeal to tourists. However, in the wake of the spill, Silverton town officials have been touring other Superfund sites in Colorado to become familiar with the process. The pressure and demand for change has demonstrated to local officials that the best solution for remediation is the multi-million-dollar investment in cleanup that a Superfund designation brings.
The story of the Gold King Mine spill is not one of tragedy but of awakening.
Members of the Durango community who had long known of the existence of abandoned mines at Cement Creek suddenly learned of their dangers, even after spending a lifetime without knowingly being impacted. The world looked on as a seemingly picturesque mountain community mourned for nine days the loss of its great Animas River.
Although most media coverage of the spill discussed only the temporary orange state, this event became an impetus for policy makers to reevaluate the lack of industry liability in decades-old mining regulations. Ironically, the thickened orange sludge of the Gold King’s wastewater may be a symbolic rising sun for environmental policy change.