Colorado Mine Waste Spill Highlights Urgent Need for Mining Law Reform

It’s time to shift focus from the EPA’s mistake to the problems posed by half a million abandoned hardrock mines in the US

Last Wednesday, the US experienced one of its worst mining-related disasters in decades, and it’s received a lot of attention both here in Colorado and nationally. There’s been no shortage of name calling and blaming, but few seem to be speaking of the bigger picture: How can we learn from this and write policies and regulations that stop this from happening again? 

Gold King MinePhoto by courtesy of the EPAThe mouth of the Gold King Mine and the channeled runoff on the mine dump (right).

The Gold King underground mine near Silverton — about 40 river miles north of Durango on a tributary of the Animas River — was slated to be plugged so that acid mine drainage would stop spilling into the river system. When crews began clearing debris and a temporary blockade to finish the work, they underestimated how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, and three million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water came pouring out at once, turning the clear waters of the Animas deep orange for roughly 60 miles. The river was closed to all recreation while scientists rushed off to sample waters that had increased two orders of magnitude in acidity within 48 hours. Municipal water suppliers, farmers, and ranchers shut off taps and valves to brace for the worst.

Many have suggested the spill would have happened anyway at some point because nearby plugs at other mines caused the water table to rise, thereby increasing water pressure behind the Gold King mine (which was mined from the 1880s to the 1920s and then periodically after that).  But even if that wasn’t the case, the mine had for years been leaching hundreds of gallons of acidic waste per minute from the shaft, which ties into a complex hydrologic system linking many mines together.  

This spill is tragic. It has put drinking water and wildlife at risk, and polluted a river that I know well, one right in my backyard. But the focus should be less on the crew that accidentally triggered the release, and more on the broader story of entire regions throughout the country, facing immense cleanup challenges from mines of the past.

As Dan Olson, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance said: “While we need to address the immediate impacts of this disaster, we also need action to address the thousands of inactive mines across Colorado.”

Hardrock mining has been a major industry in the United States for more than a century, and much of the West’s heritage was fundamentally shaped by those early pioneers. As a result, hundreds of thousands of mines were built across the American landscape, some of which were quite large for the time, and environmental safeguards were simply not a common practice.  Mines were built however possible regardless of impacts, and wastes were often dumped directly into creeks.

Back in the early 1990s, a report by my group, Earthworks, called “Burden of Gilt,” detailed the problems posed by these abandoned and inactive mines. The report called these mines “silent killers” that threaten public safety and health and create long-lasting environmental hazards. It noted how mine wastes destroy aquatic life downstream and contaminate vital groundwater resources, and called for major reforms for both funding cleanup projects of yesterday’s mines as well as regulating newer ones to avoid future problems and ongoing liabilities.

Not much has changed in the two decades since that report was published. Currently, about 12,000 miles of our nation’s waterways and 180,000 acres of our lakes and reservoirs continue to be contaminated by mining pollution.   Increasingly tight state and federal budgets continue to struggle to provide the funds needed to deal with these mines properly, so we see an occasional remediation project rather than watershed-wide approaches to cleanup.  But if the hardrock mining industry paid royalties on minerals, just like the coal and oil and gas industries do, we’d have a revenue source to tackle remediation projects on a more meaningful scale.

When we consider the tens of thousands of abandonedand inactive mines that leak, impacting water quality and wildlife 24/7, there has never been a better time to act. It’s time to urge our elected officials and regulators to create the framework needed to address the broader problems.

Because of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, companies take federal (read: publicly owned, by you, the taxpayer) minerals with no royalty payments and are generally allowed to operate on any federal lands they select, regardless of public opposition.  Even more heinous, new mega-mine proposals are being given the green light even though it’s clearly understood that they will have to treat acidic, metal-laden runoff for thousands of years at extreme cost. Not only are we allowing companies to take minerals for free, but we’re also telling them it’s OK to create the same type of permanent water treatment liabilities that has polluted the Animas.

Reforming the governing laws that allow today’s mines to be the problems of future generations is long overdue.  By placing a federal prohibition on new mines that we know will pollute forever, we will make sure that no mine gets built that can’t clean up after itself.  And by making mining companies help pay to correct past mistakes, we can make sure agencies and citizen groups have the money they need to do remediation projects properly and holistically, not by pinching pennies and cutting corners because of budget cuts.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, introduced by Congressman Grijalva (D-AZ) will do just that. Contact your member of Congress now to urge them to support reform of the 1872 mining law! 

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