Hardrock Mine Pollution: Environmental Hits Just Keep Coming

The London Mine in Colorado’s South Park is an old inactive mine that is polluting a nearby creek. Photo by EcoFlight
The fouling of the Animas and other rivers by 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from an old inactive gold mine in the Colorado mountains in August was dramatic and disturbing. Yet that’s just the beginning.

“I wasn’t surprised that there wasn’t a big die-off of fish,” says Eddie Kochman,  a retired state aquatics manager and member of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

That’s because the immediate threat from the waste that turned parts of rivers in three states yellow eased as the blowout at the Gold King Mine was stemmed. Flows from the rivers eventually diluted the toxins, including lead, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and mercury.

But it won’t be clear for a while how much of those harmful substances remain in the sediment along the river banks and what the long-term impacts will be. Thousands of old and inactive mines continue to leak making conservationists like Kochman fear for the overall health of the West’s rivers and streams and the fisheries.

A rainbow trout, one of the many species of fish found in the Animas River. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Guy Tillett
Before the Animas River spill, drainage from mines above the historic mining town of Silverton had already wiped out all the fish in the stream closest to the Gold King mine. The Durango Herald reported last year that ongoing mine pollution had killed three out of four of the fish species in the Upper Animas and decreased the volume of insects, an important food source for fish.

Although the Animas was reopened to recreation, questions remain for downstream users about the water quality. Navajo tribal members who draw water from the river to irrigate their crops are still not using the water because of concerns about lingering pollution.

More than a Century in the Making

NWF Regional Representative Lew Carpenter caught and released a brown trout in a reservoir in Colorado’s South Park where some waterways are threatened by mine pollution. Photo by Matt Vincent
With the environmental and political fall out from the Animas River spill still swirling, Coloradans got another jarring reminder of the dangers of not coming to grips with the old hardrock mines that number about a half million nationwide. A few thousand gallons of wastewater flowed from an abandoned mine above Crested Butte Oct. 6 when an Environmental Protection Agency crew responding to seeping pollution triggered the spill. The waste ran into a creek that flows into the town’s main water source.

The circumstances were similar to the Gold King Mine, where an EPA contractor  caused the rupture. The crew was investigating a buildup of water in the mine when a dirt berm holding back wastewater was breached. After news of the Crested Butte mine spill, critics of the EPA were again swift to lash out.

“Once again the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently endangered Colorado’s waterways while drilling at an abandoned mine.” Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman told The Denver Post.

In September, members of Congress used the Animas River spill as an opportunity to flog the EPA for its “far-left environmental agenda.”

Disasters Waiting to Happen

The truth is the Gold King Mine mess was a disaster waiting to happen. It’s just one of a handful of old polluting mines high in the San Juan Mountains. Those mines and thousands of others across the country have been allowed to fester under a law that, despite repeated attempts, has changed little since its adoption in 1872.

The law, originally designed to encourage the settlement of the West, still allows miners to extract gold, silver, and uranium from public lands without paying royalties and fees, similar to those paid by the coal industry to clean up abandoned coal mines.

 Time for a Change

At least 3 million gallons of wastewater from an old gold mine fouled Colorado’s Las Animas River. Photo by Tom McNamara, La Plata County Office of Emergency Management
There is some hope. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona are among the federal lawmakers pushing to bring the nation’s hardrock mining law into the 21st Century.

Change is way overdue, says Kochman, who doesn’t have to venture far from his cabin in Colorado’s South Park to find evidence of what happens when accidents occur. He’s still sifting through sediment that washed down the Middle Fork of the South Platte when water in a holding pond at the active Alma Placer Mine spilled Oct. 3, 2014. The water turned a brownish-yellow for about 15 miles. Kochman worries about the long-term effects on the flies that feed the trout in the tributary that’s among the region’s most popular fisheries.

The mine, which produces gold and gravel, was fined. All but $5,000 of the fine was suspended.

Meanwhile, in the mountains above Kochman’s cabin, a constant stream of acidic metals flows from the old inactive London Mine into Mosquito Creek, which runs into the South Platte River. The creek is devoid of life. Problems with a treatment plant has resulted in releases of zinc, cadmium and other pollutants.

“We’re going to be dealing with this forever,” said Bill Dvorak, NWF’s public lands organizer in Colorado, during a recent tour of South Park by EcoFlight.
Take ActionTell Congress to end 140 years of public subsidies for the hardrock mining industry and use the resulting royalties to clean up toxic mines!