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On August 5, 2015, people in the Animas and San Juan River basins woke up to find their rivers the color of mustard. A work crew had accidentally breached part of the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton. More than 3 million gallons of acidic, orange-colored wastewater poured out of the long-sealed mine and into nearby Cement Creek.
The sludge made its way to the Animas, funneled through Durango to the San Juan, then flowed west into Utah before dispersing in Lake Powell.
In towns such as Durango, officials closed the river to human access for more than a week. Rafting companies were forced to close, putting a dent in tourism revenue at the peak of summer. The discharge also contaminated water for Navajo communities in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
The spill suddenly pointed up the dangers of abandoned mines, even though many of them had been leaking toxic wastewater into nearby waterways for years. It also brought up questions about how to fund cleanup efforts.
According to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, Colorado is home to more than 23,000 abandoned mines. And many of them leak. Periodic efforts to address the problem have gone nowhere, in part because of the estimated cost.
In 2016, a report from a U.S. House committee estimated it would cost up to $54 billion to clean up all of the nearly 500,000 abandoned hardrock mines in the U.S.
Mine drainage meets Cement Creek in the Bonita Creek Mining District near Silverton, Colorado. (Photo by Mark Duggan)
It appeared that might change in the wake of the Gold King spill. Photos and videos of the vividly orange-colored Animas were seen in news reports around the world. It was a big story, for a few hours. As the news cycle moved on to another disaster, optimism formed that the spill would finally galvanize Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency into funding widespread cleanup efforts.
What’s happened in the past five years? A Superfund declaration by the Environmental Protection Agency came in 2016. The designation area is called the Bonita Peak Mining District and includes the Gold King and more than 45 other mine sites.
The EPA is currently compiling a cleanup plan for each mine. The agency also built a temporary water treatment plant near the Gold King. It removes arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals from mine discharge.
But many observers and environmental groups say much more work is needed. Area citizen’s groups such as the Bonita Peak Mining District Community Action Group continue to review mine waste remediation efforts, even as the issue has become a political football in Congress.
Reporter Jesse Paul has been covering the fallout from the Gold King spill. In a recent story in the Colorado Sun, he updated slow-going governmental efforts to address mine waste. I reached out to him for a summary.
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