One Year After the Animas River Spill: Coloradans Want to See More Done to Clean Up Mining Pollution

By Audrey Wheeler

One year ago, workers contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally disturbed a plug that had been retaining contaminated water for years. Three million gallons of toxic waste poured out of the mine and spilled into the Animas River, turning the water mustard yellow for miles.

On the anniversary of this destructive spill, we wanted to see what Coloradans think about mining pollution. Working with Chism Strategies, we found that Colorado voters are still very concerned about mine waste and believe that not enough has been done to clean it up. Today, 92 percent of Coloradans know about the Gold King Mine spill, and 86 percent are concerned about Colorado’s rivers and streams. According to the poll, 88 percent of Coloradans think it’s a serious problem that our state’s inactive mines have not been cleaned up.

Colorado’s mining roots run deep. Our state wouldn’t have been settled when it was if a lucky prospector hadn’t discovered gold in a stream on his way to the West Coast. The history of the American West is intrinsically tied to mining — a fact that can’t be forgotten among mountain towns, where Leadville, Silverton, Telluride, and others can never shake the history embedded into their names.

Unfortunately, some remnants of the mining legacy are extremely problematic. There are tens of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines in Colorado alone, many of which are leaking toxic waste into our watersheds every day. This pollution can be harmful to wildlife, and can burden local communities, due to both financial and quality of life impacts.

Photo from SKYTRUTH map of Inactive U.S. Metal Mines in 2012

The Gold King Mine incident isn’t isolated. In fact, the overall discharge from inactive mines across Colorado equals at least one Gold King disaster every two days, dumping heavy metals into our rivers. This pervasive problem is much less visible than a river turning suddenly yellow — but the issue is the same, and the impacts to our environment are far-reaching.

When the Animas River turned yellow from mining waste last summer, there was enormous outcry. Photos of kayakers in opaque sludge went viral, the news flickered around the country, and Coloradans and our neighbors were outraged about the spill. However, little has been done since then to address the underlying issues.

There are many ideas on the table for what we should do, from amending outdated federal legislation to addressing mine cleanup on a local level. National mining policy hasn’t been updated since 1872. Locally, there are still loopholes that allow mining companies to get out of paying for the messes that they cause. Disasters like the Gold King Mine spill too often burden local communities.

Most Coloradans want to see fixes to the toxic legacy of mining pollution. A majority (68 percent) support closing policy loopholes to keep mining companies from avoiding cleanup costs. In addition, 64 percent say mining companies should direct a percentage of their revenues towards future cleanup. In terms of liability, 70 percent of Coloradans agree that mining companies should be financially responsible for their damage and pollution.

This is an issue that we should keep in mind for elections in November. We have the ability to tackle this issue at the state level, but we need conservation-minded policymakers in office. An incredible two-thirds of Coloradans think their elected officials should do more to clean up unsafe and polluting mines. (Colorado’s legislators, meanwhile, showed their willingness to reach across the aisle on this issue when they passed a bill this year to put aside funding for mining disasters.) On national policies, 54 percent of Coloradans believe we should update our country’s mining laws. Considering that 77 percent of Colorado voters say they consider the environment when deciding who to vote for, politicians on both sides of the aisle should take note.

As we reflect on what has (and hasn’t) happened in the year since the Gold King Mine spill, it’s important to remember that this mining disaster didn’t happen in isolation — pollution from dormant mines is a widespread problem across Colorado. Though it’s easy to ignore it, mine waste is affecting our watersheds, economy, and natural heritage every day.

For more details on polling numbers mentioned, read the full report here.

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