The recent disaster on the Animas River is news to no one at this point. Headlines across Colorado and national outlets have spread this recent development far and wide. The Animas turned orange, and that’s a big problem. That’s true — an abandoned mine leaking toxic chemicals into one of Southwest Colorado’s primary rivers, which sustains countless residents’ livelihoods, is a tremendous problem.
This is a tragedy. There’s no doubt about that. We’re all angry and profoundly saddened to see the lifeblood of Southwest Colorado spoiled. And the question on most of our minds is how on earth was this allowed to happen?
So what actually happened?
The Environmental Protection Agency was trying to clean up the Gold King Mine when a plug failed, which sent 3 million gallons of yellow toxic sludge into the Animas. Efforts at Gold King are one of many projects the EPA is undertaking to clean up the thousands of abandoned old mines that remain from Colorado’s mining legacy.
Yep, that’s right — there are thousands of mines like Gold King across our state, and many are like ticking time bombs. As anyone who has lived in Southwest Colorado for longer than a few years will tell you, the region is no stranger to mining-related catastrophes. This time around, the EPA’s hand happened to be on the shovel, but disasters like this one demonstrate the need to recognize our history of reckless exploitation.
What can we do to confront that history?
Quite a bit, actually. Here are some ways we can prevent future disasters, and how you can get involved:
Support efforts of local science-based groups conducting independent monitoring in conjunction with the EPA
Contact your elected representative and engage in public comment opportunities like town hall meetings and opportunities to speak with elected officials
Get involved with current and future BLM planning processes. Many of these plans invite public input on where and how industry should be allowed to mine and drill within our communities. Strong standards and limitations for industry could prevent accidents like this one decades down the road.
Why do we have to deal with such rampant pollution?
It’s because, in the late 19th century, westward expansion was largely about mining. People broke their backs to glean their wealth out of the ground in the form of gold, silver or other metals. And they found that wealth in mineral-rich Southwest Colorado, which led to an explosion in mines in the area.
Here’s the big problem. Many of these mines were established far before environmental protections were even a part of our country’s vocabulary. But they continued to provide welcome financial support to the area, so the mining industry continued until the 1990s. After they ceased to be financially viable, those mines largely closed.
Cleaning up their toxic sludge has fallen to the EPA, which leads us to our current situation.
At this point, it is absolutely imperative that we work together to find solutions. The legacy of mining in the Southwest and across Colorado is a massive problem, but it’s a solvable one. We need to ensure that mining companies are held accountable for the messes they make. They’ve been allowed to pass the buck for far, far too long.
One silver lining in this disaster is that it has brought worldwide attention to the sorry state of our mining legacy here in Colorado and the thousands of mines that pose similar unacceptable risks to our water, recreation and wildlife.
While the spill is awful, the Animas River has struggled with water quality for decades thanks to runoff from mines like Gold King, across the watershed.
It’s unfortunate that the river turning such an alarming shade was required to increase our sense of urgency on this issue, because conditions have been deplorable for a long time.
Whenever it rains reasonably hard in Southwest Colorado, zinc and cadmium levels go up 100 percent on the Animas River. This is not a hazard that we should be comfortable with in Colorado.
While it’s a shame that it took an incident of this magnitude to generate the appropriate alarm and urgency, perhaps we will see some real improvements as a result.
The best result from this disaster would be if Coloradans mobilized political will to take decisive action to clean the mines around Silverton and develop longterm solutions for the hundreds of miles of Colorado rivers currently impacted by mine drainage.
Returning to the status quo of ignoring pre-spill contamination levels is not good enough for Silverton or the future of Colorado’s rivers.
Micha Rosenoer is the Southwest Field Organizer for Conservation Colorado.
Photo credit: Nancy Fisher