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A torrent of mustard-colored waste shows lasting risk of sulfide mining

Minnesotans can ask themselves: Who can guarantee that a Gold King disaster can’t happen here?

Yellow mine waste water from the Gold King Mine is seen in San Juan County, Colorado.
REUTERS/EPA

Nothing quite like 80 miles of mustard-colored river to bring the murky abstraction of “acid mine drainage” into sharp focus, is there?

As the multimillion-gallon mine-waste spill near Silverton, Colorado, spreads and settles, Minnesotans can safely brace for a series of placating messages on how the copper/nickel mines proposed for our north woods would be oh, so very different from the Gold King operation that produced this fresh catastrophe.

And to be sure, there are differences in terrain, ore composition, mine design, processing methods and so forth. Some are significant and can be considered potentially favorable (mining technology has advanced since Gold King shut down in the 1920s); others, not so much (wet environments create more drainage).

But there is also one huge commonality uniting all hard-rock mining for precious metals: When sulfide ores are dug up and crushed, moisture mixes with sulfur in the waste rock, and acid drainage follows as surely as night follows day.

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The question yet to be answered for the northern Minnesota mines is how thoroughly their wastes can be managed with containment, treatment and controlled discharge. And as those stomach-turning photos from the Animas River remind us, the bigger question yet is:

What happens when the retention setup goes suddenly, disastrously, to pieces?

So as you listen to the reports from Four Corners tracking Gold King’s heavy metals down the Animas, the San Juan and the Colorado as the contamination heads for Lake Powell and beyond, you might keep your eye on the systems and not just the sludge, and keep asking yourself:

Who can possibly guarantee that this could never happen here?

Leaking mines all over

“We typically respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them, but this is just something that happens when we are dealing with mines sometimes.” − David Ostrander, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, quoted Monday in a Fox News report.

Ostrander will need a while, I’m guessing, to live down his choosing to describe the Silverton spill as “just something that happens” from time to time.

But let there be no doubt that the conditions EPA was trying to address at Gold King are as common as cottonwoods across the mining districts of the American West, the permanent legacy of precious-metals production. The gift that keeps on giving.

According to an AP piece that appeared in the Strib on Monday, there are 55,000 abandoned mines in the west, and “40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.”

One example: Some years ago, on a visit to Missoula, Montana, I visited the largest Superfund site in the western United States and viewed a dam that was holding back vast quantities of mine-waste metals in sediments that, if loosed, would poison the Clark Fork River – you know, the River [That] Runs Through It.

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Colorado alone has 14,000 abandoned mines that are leaking waste into water sources, according to the Denver Post – and that figure used to be closer to 23,000 before a long, expensive series of cleanup efforts.

Progress has been sufficiently slow, and pollution sufficiently serious, to prompt private landowners and citizen groups to seek the EPA’s permission to undertake their own cleanups as a public service, but the agency has warned them off because of the very real chance they would just make things worse.

The moment of blowout

The Post piece also includes a dramatic account of the Gold King spill’s dramatic opening moments, as the EPA worked on reinstalling retention ponds and setting up contaminant screens for a drainage flow that had been running at 200 gallons per minute for a very long time. As Bruce Finley writes:

EPA mine site coordinator Hays Griswold, one of four workers at Gold King when an estimated 1 million or more gallons of orange acid water blew through a loose dirt barrier, said he had been working to install a pipe to drain rising water in the mine. That project, he said after the disaster, “couldn’t have worked. … Nobody expected the water to be that high.”

An initial torrent tearing down from Gold King’s collapsed portal (elevation 11,458 feet) wiped out a gray Suburban — now yellow – and ripped out trees and culverts as it raged into the main stem of the Animas. This raised the acidity of Cement Creek to pH 3.74, a level comparable to black coffee, EPA officials said, and in the Animas below Silverton at a level comparable to orange juice or Dr. Pepper (pH 4.8). And it spread the mustard-yellow sludge.

The failed effort also managed to more than double the volume of contaminated water leaking from the mine, to 548 gallons per hour; it was holding steady there as of late Monday.

Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster area around the tainted portion of the Animas on Monday to make $500,000 in emergency relief available, and soon afterward New Mexico’s Gov. Susana Martinez did the same, with a pool of $1.25 million.

Nobody has yet attempted to estimate an overall damage figure for the spill and the problems cascading from it now and in the future.

Water supplies tainted

Municipal water systems drawing from the Animas shut their intakes as levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper and other metals rose, and some private wells near the Animas tested above health guidelines for contaminants.

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Farmers and ranchers along the Animas and San Juan rivers were advised to suspend use of their withdrawal rights to irrigate crops or water livestock, and officials of the Navajo nation were preparing legal action against the U.S. government to recover damages, according to the Navajo Times

In La Plata County, south of Durango, the EPA was distributing bottled water from the fairgrounds.

Visible contamination in the river itself was falling as the sludge dispersed, and the Animas was said to be mostly clear above Durango, with the mustard tint persisting in eddies and puddles.

But EPA officials noted that the heavy metals would settle in bottom sediments, only to be churned in future high-flow periods, so long-term monitoring will be required.

And though the overall acidity may sound fairly benign in terms of human exposure, we don’t expect fish or other aquatic organisms to thrive in coffee, OJ or Dr Pepper.

Why now? Why EPA?

If you’ve been following the Gold King story, you might be wondering: Why this mine, why now, and why EPA?

Good questions, and good answers are to be found in a piece prepared by Stephanie Paige Ogburn for KUCN Radio in Greeley, Colorado.

She says the mines in the Animas District, including Gold King, were considered some of the most productive in the state in terms of toxic waste flows, but the town of Silverton resisted EPA efforts to create a Superfund site there because of concern it would discourage tourism.

Recently, the town and the agency came to a sort of detente. The EPA wouldn’t list the site as Superfund, also called the National Priority List, as long as efforts were made to improve water quality near the mines. The EPA agreed to pay for those efforts, which recently got underway.

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Somewhat ironically, the Gold King mine was not the object of the cleanup. The agency had planned to plug a mine just below it, the Red and Bonita Mine, with the goal of reducing acid runoff from that mine.

Since mines are interconnected, however, and a plug in one can lead to more water flowing out the other, the agency planned to “remove the blockage and reconstruct the portal at the Gold King Mine in order to best observe possible changes in discharge caused by the installation of Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead.”

That project began July 2015. The Gold King Mine released its toxic load at 10:30 a.m. August 4, 2015.

Two disasters in a year

It’s merely coincidental, but weirdly so, that the Gold King blowout should come just a year and a day after the catastrophic failure of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley copper/gold pit mine in British Columbia.

Each will stand among the most important North American mining disasters of the era, and though the circumstances were very different the lessons are less so.

Mount Polley demonstrated that an up-to-date mining operation can still fail in ways that yield  an enormous waste release.

Gold King shows us that up-to-date efforts to address festering drainage problems at a mine closed for nearly a century can have the same result.