The Environmental Protection Agency decided this week that the Gold King Mine near Durango is a top priority for Superfund designation. The mine, which was abandoned in 1923, spilled about 3 million gallons of mustard hued, toxic sludge into the Animas River in August 2015 and continues to leach today.
The agency added the Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes Gold King, to its National Superfund Priorities List, meaning that congressional approval is the only remaining obstacle to Gold King becoming a Superfund site. The designation would unlock millions of dollars for the EPA to investigate and address years of contamination.
Environmentalists, however, aren’t optimistic about swift action from Washington.
Erica Brown, a spokeswoman at the Durango-based environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance, called Congress “wholly uninterested in acting.” Brown noted that the area around Gold King receives funds for cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, so cleanup will continue, but Superfund money is still out of reach.
The fact that it took more a year after the spill to access Superfund dollars has some wondering why there wasn’t a swifter federal reaction. According to Brown, it was actually a rapid response by the standards of federal bureaucracy. The EPA only considers sites for National Priority listing twice a year – and Gov. John Hickenlooper asked that they do so for Gold King’s district last winter.
The agency then assessed the district’s needs and held a public comment period. Wednesday’s announcement marked the end of the review process, which actually took less time than usual.
Overall, Brown said that the spill helped to highlight the gravity of the mining industry’s legacy in Colorado. State estimates put the number of abandoned and inactive mines in Colorado at about 17,000. But Brown says that, in the past, the potential hazard those mines presented wasn’t perceived with urgency. “A lot of folks in the downstream communities did not understand how bad the problem really was, so was there very little engagement.”
Now, public opinion research shows that Coloradans are more concerned about their waterways in the wake of the mine spill. According to a poll conducted by Chism Strategies in Colorado, 67 percent of Coloradans say they want their elected officials to do more about cleaning up mines.
Of particular concern is the fact that Gold King is still leaking. On the one-year anniversary of the spill, the mine was estimated to be spewing 500 gallons per minute into the river, which serves as a backbone for the region’s economy and way of life. It’s an alarming number, but not cause for alarm, thanks to mitigation efforts from the EPA. The agency installed a treatment plant at the mine in the wake of last year’s spill, so the water emerging from the mine is not likely to cause environmental damage.
While the Gold King disaster grabbed the country’s attention, environmentalists say it’s only a symptom of a much more widespread and grave problem. Some are looking ahead to wholesale reform of the mining industry and mining clean-up – but there are serious challenges.
At issue is the fact that taxpayer-funded government agencies are often on the hook for the impacts of mines abandoned by private companies, which is permitted by mining law from 1872, just before Colorado gained its statehood. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced legislation in November 2015 that would reform how the law works, but it has not yet been voted on in the Senate..
Brown expressed profound frustration about congressional apathy, saying that elected leaders are “more concerned with making the mining industry happy than they do the American people.”
Gold King is among ten other toxic sites being added to the priorities list, including a plastic manufacturing site in New York and a lumber site in Florida.
Photo Credit: Waldemar Winkler, Creative Commons, Flickr