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Yours, Mine, and Ours: Contamination and Blame

Local groups could keep mine waste out of rivers like the Animas if not for this legislative roadblock

By now, you’ve probably seen reports of the mine accident in Colorado and the disturbing images of the Animas River turned yellow by the release of 3 million gallons of water contaminated with mine wastes. This occurred after an EPA-supervised cleanup crew accidentally breached a debris dam inside the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, last Wednesday.

As far as we know, there haven’t been reports of fish die-offs or drinking water contamination, and the river is starting to return to normal. The county has requested that the agency assist with analysis of the impacts to fish and wildlife, and outdoor recreation businesses are waiting for the all-clear to regain safe access to the Animas—we’ll be closely tracking news on all of this.

A great deal of blame has been directed at EPA—and deservedly so. Without question, there needs to be a full review of what went wrong and those responsible should be held accountable so this doesn’t happen again.

But we shouldn’t forget that while EPA may have caused this release, it didn’t create the pollution.

ImageCourtesyofJoeRoss (1)Our best estimate is that there are at least 161,000 abandoned mines, like the Gold King Mine, across the West. They are the dirty legacy of past mining booms that helped settle the region. The mines don’t just pollute our waterways after accidents; they are constantly leaking water polluted with heavy metals into rivers and streams—some at a trickle, and others at hundreds of gallons per minute. These mines were excavated prior to the creation of modern environmental laws that help ensure responsible mining practices, and there is no one to be held responsible for them now.

Federal agencies have stepped in to deal with the mess. Between 1997 and 2008, the EPA, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service spent $2.6 billion on abandoned mine cleanup, with EPA contributing the lion’s share ($2.2 billion).

Many other groups, like Trout Unlimited, want to help. TU wants to return fish to stretches of river so polluted by abandoned mines that they can no long support life, while watershed organizations want to revitalize their communities and boost their outdoor recreation economies and mining companies want to be good neighbors in the areas they operate. These good Samaritan and volunteer groups are stymied by provisions in environmental laws that would force them to be responsible for the entirety of an abandoned mine’s pollution should they even attempt a cleanup. That is a financial and technical burden that is impossible to bear. As a result, they can’t help clean up the worst of the pollution.

My former boss, Sen. Mark Udall (CO), repeatedly introduced legislation to fix this roadblock, and the time has come for other Western lawmakers to take up the cause and unleash the power of well-meaning groups to help clean up the West’s abandoned mines. As proven in the Gold King Mine incident, we can’t afford to leave anyone on the sidelines if they want to help.

Trout Unlimited has been fighting for years to address the problems of mine pollution in the West. To learn more about the abandoned mine problem and how to take action, go to sanjuancleanwater.org.

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Yours, Mine, and Ours: Contamination and Blame

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