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"At thousands of abandoned mines across the West, water contamination continues unabated, and the table is set for more of the kinds of catastrophic spills we've witnessed on the Animas," writes Rhea Suh, NRDC president. (Photo: AP)

A Wake-Up Call on Mining Waste

Rhea Suh

 by NRDC / Experts Blog

Last week, three million gallons of toxic wastewater spilled into Colorado's Animas River.

As a Colorado native who fished the state's wild streams for trout as a child, I've been sickened by the tragic release of mining waste that contaminated miles of the storied Animas River.

As an environmentalist, I hear in this disaster an urgent wake-up call: It's time to get serious about cleaning up abandoned mines and the dangerous pollution building up inside them.

The Gold King mine that polluted the Animas is one of some 500,000 abandoned mines pocking the landscape of the American West, some 23,000 in Colorado alone. Many thousands of these mines were shuttered and left behind decades before the Clean Water Act and other national safeguards were put in place to protect our rivers and streams.

Even today, protections from mining waste are wholly insufficient and inadequately enforced. Mining companies put up some reclamation money through a byzantine jumble of state and federal rules. But those funds don't begin to cover the full costs of cleaning up the hazardous mess these companies leave behind, and states have been reluctant to pay for the cleanup themselves. As a result, we generally treat an abandoned mine as a plugged hole in the ground. In fact, they're ticking time bombs.

Gold King is one of thousands of these mines that are constantly leakingcontaminated water into our environment, polluting, by federal estimates, at least 40 percent of the headwaters of our Western rivers and streams.

In a tragic irony, that's exactly what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was trying to address when it inadvertently triggered the mine waste spill last week.

Gouged out of the San Juan Mountains shortly after the Civil War, Gold King was shut down more than 90 years ago. Over time, groundwater seeped into the mine, chemically and physically wearing at the underground rock and releasing heavy metals like lead, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic.

Water pressure built up inside and, by this summer, water laced with toxic mine waste was leaking out of the mine at, by published estimates, more than 30,000 gallons per hour. It flowed into Cement Creek, poisoning that once-fertile waterway, and, from there, into the Animas.

In other words, even before the disaster -- which unleashed some three million gallons of contaminated water into the river last week -- the mine was already draining that much pollution into the Animas every four days or so.

Gold King was hardly the only offender. Three other abandoned mines nearby were combining to leak more than 32,000 gallons of wastewater per hour into the river. All four of those mines continue to hemorrhage waste into the creeks and tributaries that feed the Animas.

That's why, even before last week's disastrous spill, Cement Creek was largely an aquatic dead zone, devoid of fish and other life, and the Animas itself had no fish for two miles downstream of the creek's entry point.

That's what the EPA was working to address last week, trying to clean up the mess the mining industry left behind long before the agency was created in 1970. Hoping to bleed off the toxic water and then treat it to remove the heavy metals, workers instead uncorked the mine, sending the chemical-laden water racing out.

At thousands of abandoned mines across the West, water contamination continues unabated, and the table is set for more of the kinds of catastrophic spills we've witnessed on the Animas. Here's what we need to do about it.

First, the EPA recently finalized a rule clarifying that Clean Water Act protections extend to water bodies like the tributaries of Cement Creek and the Animas River, as well as wetlands and other types of headwaters threatened by contaminated runoff from abandoned mines.

House Republicans have voted to block the new rule. It needs to be implemented to better protect millions of miles of streams -- including those that feed into drinking-water supplies for one out of every three Americans -- and to safeguard tens of millions of acres of wetlands.

Next, cleaning up an abandoned mine is difficult, risky, and expensive. Companies need to clean up the mess they leave behind, or pay for public agencies to do it. Right now, mining companies are required to set aside money, usually in the form of bonds, as a kind of insurance against those costs. The process for doing so, though, is guided by an administrative hodgepodge of state and federal requirements shot through with loopholes. To paraphrase an old country classic, they get the mine, we get the shaft.

What about royalties? Under the provisions of the General Mining Law of 1872, there are no federal royalties for so-called hard-rock minerals like gold, uranium, and copper. For that matter, the law ensures that the mining industry is subject to less public oversight than any other industry in the country.

The public stakes are too high for that. The law literally provides the mining industry with a blank check to take public resources, for a profit, without paying taxpayers one thin dime in return.

That needs to change. Congress needs to act. The 1872 law needs to be scuttled for new legislation that brings this industry into the 21st century. And the country desperately needs our lawmakers to put in place a rational system of royalties and bonds that provide ironclad assurance that we'll have the resources we need to clean up and reclaim abandoned mines. Only then can we begin to do something about these ticking time bombs, before disaster once more ensues.

© 2021 Natural Resources Defense Council
Rhea Suh

Rhea Suh

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

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