Meet the Toxic Time Bombs Hidden in the High Country
The mine responsible for turning the Animas River bright orange is far from the only one threatening to poison the country's rivers and streams
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The sudden spill on August 6 from Colorado's Gold King mine turned the Animas River a sickly shade of orange, prompted emergency declarations in two states, and garnered front-page headlines around the world—but it was no anomaly. It's a symptom of a more insidious problem: Nationwide, federal authorities estimate there are 500,000 inactive or abandoned mines, most of them from former hard rock mining operations. Many are more than a century old, and slowly and silently leak toxic acid and sediments into streams and creeks—day after day, year after year. They have contaminated headwaters on an astounding 40 percent of watersheds in the U.S, according to the EPA.
In Colorado alone, there are more than 20,000 such mines, and they've been wreaking ecological damage in the state for decades. In 1989, the Eagle Mine, near Vail, leached huge quantities of zinc and other metals into the Eagle River, killing fish and yellowing the water. (In 2012, another leak there of hundreds of thousands of gallons of tainted water turned the river green.) The Yak Tunnel disaster dumped a slug of toxic mine slurry into Colorado’s Arkansas River in 1985. The Summitville mine spill killed most aquatic life along a 17-mile stretch of the state’s Alamosa River in the early 1990s. The list goes on. These poorly managed waste-ridden time bombs are the legacy of an industry that has simply walked away from its environmental responsibilities when boom times end.
“These abandoned and inactive mines are perpetual polluters,” says Lauren Pagel, the policy director of the environmental group Earthworks. “It is widely acknowledged that if you have an acid-generating site, it will require constant maintenance to deal with the pollution.”
Yet the federal government has no comprehensive plan or central source of money to deal with this vast and complicated problem. That must change. The Animas spill is a message from the mine-riddled mountains: finally, once and for all, it’s time to clean up the frontier-era pollution that poisons the high country. And the mining industry, not taxpayers, should fund the effort. If the problem is allowed to linger, the streams and waterways, the fisheries and river towns of the West will continue to suffer blowouts, polluted water, and the hefty taxpayer-backed cleanup bills that come in their wake.
The dawn of hard rock mining began with the California gold rush, carried through the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, and accelerated during the early 20th century. Excavation and milling operations between the Rockies and the Sierras resulted in thousands of tunnels, shafts, and holes dug deep in mountain ranges. Once the gold or silver ran out, mine owners simply abandoned these sites.
They left fields of toxic mine tailings—piles of waste rock and other refuse produced when metal is separated from ore. When oxygen and rainwater, groundwater, or snowmelt seep into old mines and mix with exposed rock or tailings, the ensuing chemical reaction can produce potent acids capable of dissolving heavy metals. The toxic liquid can then leak into nearby waterways and cause all kinds of damage to flora and fauna. The liquid is called acid mine drainage. It’s what came gushing out of Gold King this month. It's our hard rock mining heritage.
When oxygen and rainwater, groundwater, or snowmelt seep into old mines and mix with exposed rock or tailings, the ensuing chemical reaction can produce potent acids capable of dissolving heavy metals.
This is not a cheap problem to fix. For instance, the Bureau of Land Management’s Abandoned Mine Lands program, which started in 1997 and is funded through federal appropriations, spent $100 million to catalog and restore mine sites between 2006 and 2011. Of the 46,000 known abandoned mines on its lands, the bureau was able to restore only about 10 percent of them (just over 4,000 mines). The EPA estimates the cost of cleaning up and monitoring abandoned and inactive mines nationwide at a minimum of $35 billion.
But there is no centralized mechanism for funding or coordinating such a task. At the state and federal levels, responsibility for cleaning up old hard rock mines is spread among many different agencies, each with its own inventory of mines and priorities for handling them. Colorado, for example, has a dedicated division of mining reclamation within its natural resources department, whereas mine cleanups in California are handled through the state department of conservation. “It is a patchwork and it is crazy,” says Jim Lyon, vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. “This is not going away unless we change our approach.”
The worst sites achieve Superfund status—an EPA designation that routes Congressional appropriations and other funds to large, highly toxic sites like the Eagle Mine. The status has benefits, like federal money and expertise, but it also brings unwelcome notoriety. Many residents in Silverton and other towns near Gold King, for example, have vehemently opposed Superfund status for the Gold King, fearing that the designation would hurt their town’s tourism and extraction economies.
Nonprofit and community groups also try to chip away at the problem. In Durango and Silverton, for instance, residents, state and federal agencies, mining companies, and environmental groups formed the Animas River Stakeholders Group to start cleaning up old mines in the San Juan Mountains. (The group has led about 20 remediation projects over the past 21 years.) But the efforts of these groups are constrained by financial and legal hurdles. For instance, provisions in the Clean Water Act hold that “good Samaritans” who take on acid drainage cleanup and other kinds of mine remediation become legally liable for all future waste discharges from the site. That is a risk most small groups aren’t willing to take.
A new proposal currently moving through the House of Representatives, if approved by Congress, would alleviate that risk to citizens' groups and shift the burden to where it belongs: on the back of the industry.
The main piece of legislation that controls metal mining in America today is the General Mining Law of 1872, which was passed to give legal recognition to the mining claims of western settlers. It regulates today’s hard metal mining industry as if the frontier-era never ended. It doesn't require metal miners to pay royalties on the riches they remove from public lands nor does it establish a fund for abandoned and inactive mine remediation. Without royalty payments streaming into a federal remediation fund, there is no consistent source of money to pay for mine reclamation and taxpayers are on the hook when cleanup does happen. Many want to see reform, and soon.
“The law is antiquated,” says Ty Churchwell a staffer at Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit group that advocates for clean waterways and has assisted with mine cleanup projects in the west. “It is the industry that causes these problems and it is the industry that needs to pay for them.”
Churchwell, Lyon, and others are urging lawmakers to consider a model imposed on the coal industry nearly 40 years ago. In 1977 Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which levied new taxes on coal companies and created an abandoned mine lands reclamation fund. Since then the fund has spent more than $7.2 billion to reclaim, or return to a natural and economically viable state, more than 295,000 acres of abandoned coal mine land. It has been remarkably effective in sealing old mines, treating mine drainage, and otherwise protecting air and water from the toxic impact of coal extraction. (At times, when money is flush, it has even been applied to abandoned hard rock sites.)
A bill currently moving through Congress would institute similar rules for the hard rock mining industry. Introduced in February by Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who has long been an advocate for abandoned mine cleanup, the Hard Rock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 would establish an eight percent royalty on new mines and a four percent royalty on existing mines. Those royalties would, in part, fund abandoned mine reclamation across the country. It won't help the damage done by the Gold King breach, but it could prevent future events.
Andy Corra, owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango, is all for mining reform. After watching the orange waste water course down the Animas, he is hoping something good will come out of this disaster. “If there is a silver lining to this spill, it is the increased attention to this issue. We need to get these mines cleaned up for good.”