Animas River disaster: More lawmaker finger-pointing on tap, but little work on actual leaks

Workers in the mountains above Silverton are racing to finish a patchwork of temporary fixes on leaking hard-rock mines above Silverton as Congress busies itself looking for culprits in the Aug. 5 blowout of the Gold King Mine.

A week after an initial congressional hearing, two more are scheduled this week on the disaster that sent three million gallons of mustard-colored, heavy metal-laced water from above Silverton to Lake Powell. The water fouled wells, ruined farm crops and brought a temporary halt to the busy water-based recreation industry in parts of three states.

The alarming nature of that spill focused increased political attention on the huge problem of abandoned and inactive hard rock mines across the West. But it has not resulted in any action to change the laws that allowed the leaking mines to proliferate and to continue to dump acidic water into 1,645 miles of waterways.

Lawmakers are not yet directly addressing the under-funding, under-staffing, inadequate regulation and antiquated laws behind the problem. But there is plenty of blame to go around.

Democrat lawmakers blame a lack of accountability in the mining industry, and Republicans use the spill as another reason to criticize the Environmental Protection Agency and its overall enforcement of environmental policies.

While the attention is on the finger-pointing, the EPA is building a temporary treatment facility at the Gold King to handle the 550 to 625 gallons of acid drainage still flowing from the long inactive mine. That facility is a stopgap measure until major system-wide work can be authorized for an area riddled with leaking mines.

The Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety has just put the finishing touches on a concrete mini dam at the neighboring Red & Bonita Mine to stop leakage there. That project was in the works long before the Gold King blowout.

Bruce Stover, director of Colorado’s inactive mine reclamation program for the division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, said change is needed at the federal level to allow for more comprehensive work, but he doesn’t expect to see action soon that will help at the 45 other worst-offender contaminated mines in Colorado.

“There is not going to be any quick fix,” Stover said about the overall problem of leaking mines.

The state division focuses on the actual “hardware” of leakage-abatement projects inside old mines while the EPA concerns itself with the polluted water flowing from those mines. But work has stopped at four EPA mine-cleanup projects in Colorado until the potential for more blowouts is assessed. The suspended cleanups are in the vicinity of Crested Butte, Ouray, Denver and Eagle.

Last week, the first Republican-led hearing in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology focused on blaming the EPA for causing the leak during mitigation work at the Gold King, for not being forthcoming with information about the leak and for not being prepared for such an incident.

“The EPA caused this spill, and their completely inadequate response has left Coloradans with more questions than answers,” Gardner said in a statement about the need for an investigation of the spill.

The next hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. That hearing, also being chaired by a Republican, is slated to focus on the impacts of the spills on the Southern Ute and Navajo tribes. The tribes have been very vocal in blaming the EPA.

Thursday, the spill will be taken up by a Democrat in the House Natural Resources Committee. That hearing is expected to focus on the lack of liability in the mining industry. It is being chaired by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who earlier this year introduced the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act. That proposal, which would create a cleanup fund for abandoned and inactive mines through reclamation fees and royalties on mine owners, has not moved out of committee.

Those involved in on-the-ground work on mine cleanup say several existing laws need to be tweaked to make cleanup more viable. One is the 1872 mining law that did not hold mine owners liable for environmental damage and did not set any environmental standards. Many parts of that law are still in effect.

The 1972 Clean Water Act also impacts how much – really, how little – cleanup can be done.

Stover said that law requires that cleanups take care of 100 percent of pollution. If that law were tweaked, Stover said, there are filtration drains or biological reactors that could be used to clean up about 75 percent of pollution in leaking mines – a much-better-than-nothing option, and better, in some cases, that simply plugging dirty water inside old mines.

Another option for the Gold King-area problem is not popular with much of the longtime year-around population of 500 in Silverton. A Superfund designation would make federal funds available for a massive cleanup project around Silverton. But some Silverton residents fear, even after the spill, that a Superfund designation would saddle their town with a tourism-deflecting stigma. Others are beginning to say that it is time for extreme action.

“Suspicions of the EPA run deep in this community. But until I see a more viable alternative for dealing with this huge problem, this community in my view must endorse Superfund,” Silverton Standard & The Miner publisher Mark Esper wrote in a recent editorial.

Photo credit: J.E. Theriot, Creative Commons, Flickr.

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