Two Years After the Gold King Spill

Have We Cleaned Up Colorado’s Mines?

By Emelie Frojen

Acid mine drainage flow into Cement Creek above Silverton, Colorado. Photo: Emelie Frojen

In August 2015, the Gold King Mine broke loose, sending three million gallons of mining waste gushing down Cement Creek. From there, it flowed into the Animas River through the towns of Silverton and Durango. Then, it continued to the Southern Ute Reservation, through Aztec and Farmington, before reaching the San Juan River and meeting Lake Powell. All the while, it left a trail of orange muck behind.

The amount of pollution that flowed through Durango during the Gold King Mine Spill still passes down Colorado waterways every other day; the only difference in the spill was that the water was orange. This is an issue that extends far beyond the Animas River. There are an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado and 500,000 in the United States. Additionally, mining has contaminated the headwaters of over 40% of the western watersheds.

The Gold King Mine Spill was an unacceptable disaster and a call to action, but two years later, have we made progress in addressing our hardrock mining legacy issues?

Here, we take a look at the history of mining and how we got here, who and what are harmed, and what we need to do on both the state and federal levels to ensure our rivers are clean and protected from mining waste.

How Did Our Colorado Waters Get So Polluted?

Centuries before industry started hollowing out the mountains, and the rivers began their slow decline, the San Juan Mountains were home to the Ute tribes. However, in the eighteenth century, Spaniards from the south began to venture into the San Juans in search for silver and gold.

The San Juan gold rush began in the 1860s with Charles Baker’s expedition to Silverton, Colorado. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Silverton and the surrounding towns grew, and railroad construction began. While many miners came home with promises unfulfilled, a handful found wealth. Once the mine was dry, it was abandoned and legal responsibility was the only thing in the West left unclaimed.

Mine pollution reaching a alpine lake in the San Juan Mountains. Photo: Emelie Frojen

Today, it’s hard to imagine an industry largely free of responsibility for its actions. But, it happened when the U.S. government laid out a series of policies for miners to promote western growth and economic development. The most infamous of these is the General Mining Act of 1872, which still governs the industry today. This law opens up federal lands for hard rock mining. It says, “all valuable mineral deposits in lands belonging to the United States…shall be free and open to exploration and purchase.” Anyone can still buy claims for only $2.50 to $5 an acre depending on the type of claim. This contributed to the privatization of 3.7 million acres of public lands since 1872. The General Mining Act of 1872 also claims mining as the “highest and best use” of public lands. This means federal land managers give preference to mining over all other land uses such as wildlife, fisheries, agriculture, water supply, and recreation. The law also did not establish any environmental consideration or planning process for pollution.

In 1994, a moratorium was put in place that prevented the Bureau of Land Management — the agency that manages large amounts of our public lands — from approving any new patents for mines. However, the moratorium does not apply to claims submitted before 1994. Because of this, the BLM has approved 228 mineral patents between 1995 and 2015. There are still more outstanding claims before 1994.

The General Mining Act of 1872 also freed the mining industry of royalties. This leaves the predicament of cleaning up abandoned mines without significant industry funds. At least $231 billion worth of hardrock minerals have been extracted with no return to US taxpayers. Instead, we have to spend government dollars to clean up hardrock mines. Experts estimate that it will take at least $338 million dollars to clean up the Bonita Peak Mining District in Southwest Colorado, and a whopping $20 to $50 billion to address all mines in the West. If other extractive industries, such as coal, have to pay royalties for using public lands, mining should not be an exception.

Although the General Mining Act is by far the largest, there are many additional outdated policies that still allow for excessive mine pollution. These policies allow hardrock mining to play a huge role in Colorado today. Mining has brought immense social and economic growth to the wild west. Yet, it has left us with myriad problems that must be fixed now, so that their legacy doesn’t become our own.

Who and What Are Impacted by Mining Pollution?

Mining — especially historic, abandoned mines — causes significant pollution. The main source of this pollution is acid mine drainage. This is when water percolates through a mine and, saturated with exposed minerals, either leaks out into our streams, seeps into the ground water, or slowly builds up in a mine like water behind a corroded dam.

Photo: Beau Kiklis

This pollution means that our mineral-saturated waterways now need to be extensively treated. Consumption of these pollutants can lead to an array of serious health problems, including cancer. Mining drainage also irrevocably alters environmental health. Many waterways downstream from abandoned mines have a pH of 4 or lower — similar to acid rain or vinegar. This is deadly for aquatic life. Even before the Gold King Mine spill, three out of four of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas died from mining pollution between 2005 and 2010.

And while almost the entirety of the American West is downstream from one mine or another, economic and social minority groups are disproportionately affected. Native American tribes in particular are severely harmed by mining legacy. As just one example, the Gold King Mine spill had a tremendous impact on the Navajo Nation. In an interview with Indian Country Today, Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said,

“The spill has transformed our sacred river — once the life-giver and protector of the Navajo people — into a threat to our people, our crops and our animals. It has impaired our ability to maintain the cultural, ceremonial and spiritual practices that undergird the Navajo way of life.”

Snowmelt mixing with mining drainage in the San Juan Mountains. Photo: Emelie Frojen

Have We Made Any Progress?

Unfortunately, no progress has been made on either the national or the state level when it comes to cleaning up our abandoned mines since the Gold King Mine spill. While bills have been introduced and been discussed, our political leaders are reluctant to be perceived as working against the mining industry.

Both President Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency and Congress are unlikely to take any steps in the right direction. Indeed, Trump wants to cut the EPA’s Superfund budget by 30 percent. Colorado has 24 Superfund sites, including the Bonita Peak Mining District. This budget is not good for Colorado communities. As a Superfund expert told a U.S. Senate committee earlier this week

“It’s hard to imagine that you can continue to do long-term cleanups with that kind of a draconian cut.”

In addition, Colorado Representative Scott Tipton sent a letter last week to the EPA suggesting more rollback of rules for hardrock mining. This indicates that Congress is not going to pass any efforts to fix the 1872 General Mining Act that lets companies get away with not paying royalties for mining on our public lands. And, Congress is unlikely to take action to fix the loopholes in the Clean Water Act, or establish an abandoned mine reclamation fund.

Luckily, our state legislature and leaders can take action. For example, they can send more funding towards reclaiming abandoned mines . They can also set stronger bonding requirements for hardrock mines and more responsible permitting practices for future operations. On top of this, they should make it illegal for mining operations count on perpetual water treatment from the gecho- no one should plan on polluting a waterway so much so that treatment is needed forever.

Photo: Beau Kiklis

It is now up to us. Despite discussion of these issues, limited action has been taken. We need to ask our legislators to take stronger actions more often to fix our mining pollution.

Coloradans want to see action to clean up our old polluting mines. Indeed, according to recent public opinion research on Colorado voters:

  • 88 percent believe it’s a problem that tens of thousands Colorado’s polluting mine sites have not been cleaned up.
  • 70 percent say mining companies should be held financially responsible for the damage and pollution that they cause.
  • 53 percent support closing loopholes that allow mining companies to avoid their cleanup responsibilities.
  • 54 percent support updating our nation’s outdated mining laws.

Our mines are trickling time bombs. Let’s not wait for another Gold King Mine incident to fix this problem.


Like this story? Learn more about the key environmental issues in Colorado at ConservationCO.org.