Last August the San Juan River ran a shocking yellow after 3 million gallons of waste water loaded with 440 tons of toxic metals, including cadmium, arsenic, and lead were accidentally released at the abandoned Gold King Mine, near Silverton, Colorado. Rachell Conn of Amigos Bravos brings us up to date since the clean-up became a Federal Superfund project.
The abandoned Gold King mine was like a toxic boil on the face of southwestern Colorado. Officials could see the build-up of fluid just beneath the surface, and the steady leakage from openings like the mine.
That’s why an EPA contractor was out there on August 5 of last year, to put a Band-aid on the problem, a cap to control the seepage and eventually manage the release of the build-up below-ground
But they messed up, and suddenly released all that back-up – a gush of 3 million gallons of waste water, that carried in it 440 tons of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc.
I’m sure you remember the pictures of the shockingly yellow Animas or San Juan rivers rushing through mountains or high-desert.
So now it’s 13 months later, and the big news is that Gold King mine and 47 other mines in the vicinity were declared Federal Superfund sites. It’s big news because it brings Uncle Sam’s deeper pockets, enabled by a national base of taxpayers, to what could have been just a tri-state problem for Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
What may be bigger news is that bringing the 47 other mines into the Superfund designation signals Federal awareness of the real scope of the problem… not just 47 mines in southwest Colorado, but according to the Government Accountability Office, at least 33,000 abandoned mines across the West and Alaska have environmental issues.
The guesstimated bill for cleaning up that mess is between $20 and $54 billion.
Which begs a question – who should pay for the clean-up? …And a follow-up: A lot of people got rich from those mines, why don’t they or their corporate descendants contribute more than they do?
And now a related news story — by all news reports, just about all the people, businesses, counties, tribes or states which filed claims for damage done by the Gold King mistake say, so far at least, the payments being offered by the EPA fall 75 to 80% short of making them whole.
Disaster is still the right word for the Gold King Mine incident but it may wind up a blessing if it engages government to address the problem of the toxic mines.
Rachel Conn is the Projects Director for Amigos Bravos. She provides hands-on support to impacted New Mexico communities and watershed groups, reviews and comments on state and federal water policy issues, and conducts Clean Water Act trainings.