The snow is beginning to fly in Silverton’s high country, and a temporary water treatment plant has been completed – in the nick of time – to handle the discharge from the Gold King Mine over the winter.
That hurry-up, stop-gap treatment option for the hundreds of gallons of heavy metal-laced water still draining each minute from the old mine comes with a hefty price tag – about $100,000 per day. That daily amount is being added to the $14.8 million already spent on the huge three-million-gallon spill that turned the Animas River an acid yellow on Aug. 5 and triggered emergency declarations in four states.
An EPA spokeswoman said she doesn’t know how long the temporary fix on the leaking mine will continue to rack up high daily costs. But she does expect that cost to drop as a command center in Durango is dismantled by the end of November and the crew at the Gold King high in the San Juan Mountains is chased out by winter conditions. The treatment facility sits at 10,500 feet in an area where temperatures regularly drop to -20, making any manual work at the treatment plant unsafe.
EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Clair said the treatment facility that pipes bad water from holding ponds at the mine to a treatment area nearby at the mining ghost town of Gladstone is being fine-tuned this week for “optimal performance.” It should then be able to operate through the winter without the 33 workers who have been at the site recently and the 29 officials who have been tackling the problem of the Aug. 5 leak from an office downstream in Durango.
The officials and the workers on the ground have included personnel from the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Coast Guard. Four State of Colorado and New Mexico agencies have also had officials involved in the work.
The exodus of many of those leak responders, and the start-up of the treatment plant, doesn’t indicate the problem is solved, or even near to being solved.
Over the winter, federal, state and local officials will be tackling the tough question of what to do in the long term about this and other leaking mines that have troubled the Silverton area for decades. The EPA is waiting on reports from the Inspector General and the Department of Interior. Those entities are examining the leak that was caused by an EPA contractor when a plug was breached in a long abandoned mine.
The leak at the Gold King didn’t just put alarmed focus on a waterway in southwest Colorado, southeast Utah and northern New Mexico and Arizona. It drew attention to the tens of thousands of old hard-rock mines that pock the West’s landscape and, in thousands of cases, leak contaminated water that has collected in shafts and tunnels.
Some are being mitigated through Superfund designations that bring federal dollars – and federal decision-making – but that is not a universally popular option in Silverton.
Last week, the Sunnyside Gold Corp. renewed its pledge to put $10 million into building a permanent water treatment plant for acid drainage that runs into Cement Creek through Silverton and on into the Animas River. Sunnyside never operated the Gold King Mine, but the company did operate the nearby Sunnyside Mine and American Tunnel that are all part of an interconnected drainage problem. Sunnyside proposes using lime to treat contaminated water and is asking for no Superfund designation and no liability for the company in exchange.
Sunnyside’s option will be one of many kicked around this winter as officials try to come to an agreement on how to move forward with the spring thaw.
In the meantime, the EPA and some of the other involved agencies will continue to have a presence in Silverton sampling and monitoring water quality below the Gold King.
Photo credit: Eric Vance/EPA