On August 5, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unleashed an estimated three million gallons of mine waste (lead, arsenic and copper) into Colorado's Animas River. Somehow, the EPA burst the dam made of old timbers and soil, creating a yellow-orange, toxic mess that stretched 100 miles through Cement Creek, and then into the Animas and the Navajo Nation.
The Gold King mine spewed out this poison when the EPA was investigating ways to insert a drainage pipe into the mine, which is part of a larger project to clean up the nearby Red and Bonita mines.
This is horribly ironic: this area of Colorado is spectacularly beautiful, with its vast sea of rugged mountains, awesome lakes and wilderness land.
And yet, as bad as this spill was, officials are saying that it could have been much worse. They are also warning that this wasn't the first spill to dye the river, and it's not likely to be the last.
As The Guardian reports:
"One expert called the mines north of Durango near Silverton and the abandoned mining town of Gladstone "ticking time bombs". Another expressed relief that the Gold King spill was not larger – if a slurry of mine waste known as tailings had spilled from the area, he said, there could have been "100 times the volume" of waste."
500,000 Abandoned Hardrock Mines
Far from being the only mine with such issues, Gold King is one of many.
There are around half a million abandoned hardrock mines around the US, most of them in the 12 western states, according to federal estimates.
They are the result of the nation's early rush to dig gold and minerals, combined with decades of lax regulations, all of which have left a massive, lingering mess that state and federal officials say they're still fighting to clean up.
In the case of the Gold King disaster, the spill was only partly caused by the EPA. According to Popular Science, "The seeds of trouble for Gold King were sown in 1996, when Sunnyside was permitted to shut down its treatment plant— an effective but expensive way to stop pollution from mine discharges — and switch to the less costly method of simply plugging the mine works with concrete."
What's Happening to Protect the Public?
For a long time, prospectors and mining companies in the US seeking gold, silver, copper and lead simply abandoned their mines after extracting all the valuable minerals. In the early 20th century, there were virtually no state rules on closing mines or handling toxic tailing ponds.
It wasn't until the 1970s that the federal government began cracking down on air and water pollution. In 1997, Congress adopted a series of policies to reclaim "abandoned mine lands" under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
But of course, in order to clean the mines, federal agencies must first find out where they are and what hazards they present.
The US Geological Survey is building a database that will identify abandoned mines, including specific features like shafts and open pits, but the information is not yet available for public access. At the same time, another federal agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has so far identified 48,100 abandoned sites within its jurisdiction.
That leaves around 80 percent of abandoned mine sites that still need further analysis or environmental cleanup efforts.
So yes, some work has been done, but not nearly enough, and it is a hugely complicated task.
At least we can hope that the alarm raised by the Gold King toxic spill will spur federal and state officials to accelerate their mine cleanup efforts.
Take Action Now
The massive unleashing of pollution from an old, inactive gold mine high in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado is a heartbreaking reminder of how past actions and the failure to deal with them can threaten our wildlife, landscapes and human health for generations.
We should all take a lesson about conservation from this ugly spill, and remember that it is not acceptable to destroy the land and leave these problems for future generations to fix.
Here's something you can do now: if you feel strongly about the Gold King spill, please sign and share this petition demanding that the EPA focus on cleaning up the three million gallons of toxic waste.