Last week, the Animas River in Colorado turned a bright orange after an accident sent toxic mine wastewater into the river. But how did it happen and who is to blame?
Many are quick to point the finger at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and contract workers for the environmental disaster affecting four states and one Native American Nation. Yes, the botched EPA clean-up job did trigger the large release of mine wastewater—3 million gallons of toxic water to be exact—from the Gold King Mine site in Silverton, Colorado. Although the EPA’s mistake was the straw that broke the camel’s back, archaic laws and years of neglect meant that this emergency was long in the making.
The story begins with President Ulysses S. Grant signing the 1872 Mining Law to encourage development and settlement in the West. The law allowed miners to take minerals from public lands without paying royalties to the federal government. The law has essentially been untouched since its creation 143 years ago, which means that companies that mine hardrock minerals (including gold, silver, and iron ore) can take public resources without adequately compensating American taxpayers. The law also largely lets companies off the hook for cleaning up hardrock mines.
Though the Gold King mine hasn’t been operational since 1923, the lack of regulation then and now has allowed the environmental costs of mining to spill over into the 21st century. As is the case with many nonoperational mines, a pool of toxic wastewater sat in a basin in the Gold King mine for decades.
The EPA estimates that 40 percent of the watersheds in the West are contaminated from mining. The agency also says it will cost $35 billion to clean up the approximately 500,000 abandoned mines across the country.
The Gold King mine is one of the 500,000 abandoned mines that needed cleaning up. Enter the EPA. In the 1990s, the EPA found that mining-related contamination in Upper Animas region (where the Gold King mine is located) posed a severe threat to aquatic life. However, fearing that the stigma of being labeled a Superfund site would destroy local tourism and any possibility of mining’s return, the community repeatedly declined the EPA’s offers to help clean up the Gold King mine.
Sunnyside Gold Corp., identified by the EPA as a “potentially responsible party,” offered to pay millions of dollars to help get abandoned mines cleaned up and water treated as long as there was no Superfund designation.* While the water quality of the Upper Animas region did improve once Sunnyside took on the job, the EPA assessed that water quality has still been declining since 2005.
The EPA and the community finally came to an agreement this year to address the growing problem. The EPA would not list the site as a Superfund site as long as serious efforts were made to improve the water quality around the mines, paid for by the EPA.
This brings us to why the EPA was in the Upper Animas region on August 5, 2015, the day of the toxic wastewater spill. The EPA had agreed to provide $1.5 million to bring in a contractor, now identified as Environmental Restoration—a recipient of almost $380 million in EPA contracts since fiscal year 2008, according to USAspending.gov—to plug the Red and Bonita Mine, which had been leaking for years. However, plugging one hole doesn’t make the wastewater go away—it simply reroutes it elsewhere. That’s how, less than three miles away, the Gold King mine breached. Cue 3 million gallons of wastewater flowing down the Cement Creek into the Animas River.
It is clear that the EPA did not perform flawlessly. First, this incident points to poor contracting oversight as Environmental Restoration could have done more to secure other mines in the area before plugging Red and Bonita. Second, the agency deserves criticism for its lack of transparency after the accident. The agency didn’t notify New Mexico, downstream from the spill, until almost 24 hours after it occurred in Colorado. When New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez finally did get the information, it came from the Southern Ute Tribe, not the EPA. What’s more, the EPA initially downplayed the severity of the spill. And as Representative Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, pointed out five days after the release, “the EPA has failed to answer important questions, including whether the polluted water poses health risks to humans or animals.” As a result of these concerns, the EPA Inspector General opened an investigation on August 17 into “the cause of and EPA’s response to” the Animas River release.
However, the real culprit of the Animas River disaster is not the EPA. Rather, it’s the archaic mining law that allows corporations to mine freely with little regard for the damage or high costs they dump on the local community and the federal taxpayers. Without an overhaul of hard rock mining laws, including a requirement to clean up legacy mines, Americans are looking at a future with hundreds of thousands of mines leaking toxic waste into waterways, just like Gold King.
*This article has been corrected from an earlier version which claimed that Sunnyside Gold Corp. was a former operator of the Gold King mine.