DURANGO – When the temporary seal covering the Gold King Mine broke and 3-million gallons of contaminated, potentially toxic orange water flooded the Animas River, the protective bubble sheltering our privileged community burst. Unlike other towns located near mining districts – like Prenter Hollow, West Virginia where coal slurry poisons local water wells – the environmental effects of mineral extraction in Colorado can go unnoticed, or at least conveniently ignored for years until a disaster like the Gold King Mine forces the issue.
On August 5th, a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency and Environmental Restoration LLC resumed a 2014 inspection of the Gold King Mine above Silverton, CO. For years, the mine had been leaking 7-gallons of contaminated water per minute into Cement Creek, which drains into the Animas River. While attempting to “tap” the mine’s tailing pond to relieve pressure, the EPA caused the dam to break, releasing a flood of wastewater containing cadmium, lead, and possibly arsenic. Within 24-hours, the cold and clear Animas River turned an opaque orange.
The Durango Sheriff shut down the river to kayakers and rafters, sending the local tourism industry into a state of emergency. Vitriol dominated town hall meetings and briefings. The EPA got punched in the gut and said, “Thank you, sir, can I have another?” Governor Hickenlooper drank from the Animas to prove it was safe. And people left comments like these on The Durango Herald’s website:
This was a bungled attempt by EPA to have the site declared Superfund by causing a spill on purpose.
Just one question for those of you who still love the EPA and the federal government; why do you cheer for the bully over the weak? What’s wrong with this sick culture that leads people to that?
Please Ask…What Levels Are Safe For The Children?
Why are we not getting any test results??? What are they not telling us?????
This catastrophe should not be minimized; however it is by no means unique or out of the ordinary. It has happened before and it will undoubtedly happen again, if not here, then elsewhere. Not because the EPA has a secret agenda to destroy the State of Colorado, but because Gold King is one of at least 230 abandoned mines leaking toxic minerals into our river systems. Right now. There are over 1,500 miles of polluted rivers from our “rich mining history” in Colorado.
According to a recent article in The Denver Post, “These old mines have leaked so much for so long, thousands of gallons a minute, that state agencies don’t track the combined toxic flow. But by the estimates at sites where the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in, the overall discharge equals at least one Gold King disaster every two days — spreading cadmium, copper, lead, arsenic, manganese, zinc and other contaminants.”
One Gold King disaster every two days.
Perspective. It’s kind of a bitch.
Because of an 1872 law (talk about outdated), hard-rock mining companies are not required to cleanup after themselves or pay for the damage they’ve caused. That leaves an underfunded state agency to pickup the tab, unless the federal government is allowed to classify the area as a superfund.
‘Superfund’ has long been a dirty word in Silverton, a former gold and silver boomtown. Since 1991, residents have fought federal cleanup – afraid it would permanently damage tourism, its only industry – despite being one of the dirtiest mining areas in the state. Gold King is one of several disused mines polluting the small mountain streams and rivers above the town of 500. Cement Creek and the Upper Animas were all but dead long before the August 5th incident.
(Silverton shouldn’t be totally vilified. Its existence is essentially dependent upon four-months worth of tourism dollars.)
If Silverton were to become a superfund site, it would be placed on the National Priorities List and the EPA would be granted control of the cleanup. The San Juan Corporation, which owns Gold King, and other mining companies would be responsible financially.
But the EPA isn’t real popular in Durango right now. (In a blatant act of terrorism, the EPA was caught, red-handed with the smoking gun, poisoning the lifeblood of our community. If the river water doesn’t kill me, the hyperbole will.) On August 12th, the EPA stopped all mine inspections and fieldwork nationwide. Because that’s going to stop the other 230 dirty mines in Colorado from poisoning the ecosystem.
No, Durango, your outrage is misplaced. Yes, we should be mad as hell, but not at the one government agency remotely concerned about the welfare of the environment. If we allow it, the Gold King incident will be used as a weapon to rip apart one of the most important successes of the environmental movement in the 20th Century. The EPA isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got.
Even more importantly, Durango, now that the Animas is re-open to recreation, don’t let its pre-spill toxicity levels cool your temper. Don’t re-inflate your bubble and go on pretending that we are above “real world” problems like pollution and climate change. Let’s cleanup Gold King and Silverton and the rest of the mess the mining industry left in Colorado.