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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/11/2015 - 11:26 am.

    It isn’t just this spill that portends risks of hard rock…

    …mining in Minnesota. The metals pollution of the waters in the news today has been going on for a very long time. This spill is newsworthy to our media only because of its drama, and you can rest assured if there had been no spill, we’d have seen no news about the Animas River today.

    Some day, we may be looking back at the delayed effects in a similar way – trying to figure out how to mitigate the effects of pollution sources left behind by the proposed MN mining projects.

    “There are hundreds of abandoned and inactive mine sites in the region. Major mining operations ended in 1991. Part of the mining legacy is metal loading to alpine streams and creeks in addition to the natural metal loading already occurring in this mineralized area.”



  2. Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 08/11/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    We Know Better?

    From another commentator on another story, I thought this quote would make an excellent contrast to the news presented in this story:

    “I am starting to think of Dayton and these folks as the condescending “We Know Better” crowd. They live far from the area / consequences / costs and they believe they should be in control because the local folks are too ignorant and backwards to make a reasonable decision.”

    Myopia, anyone? Who is going to count the total costs, direct and indirect to the taxpayer, of cleaning up this mess from this one mine?

    Claiming that “Dayton and these folks” live far from the consequences seems like a wildly inaccurate and baseless statement. How much did the Reserve mining operation wind up costing Minnesota taxpayers, again?

    Excellent story and background, Mr. Meador. Thank you.

  3. Submitted by Rod Loper on 08/11/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    Locals know better

    Make the iron range delegation host a viewng of the Mount Polley and Gold King disasters for the house mining and envirnment committee and dispense with the special session.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 08/11/2015 - 02:34 pm.

      Well, they SHOULD know better, Rod.

      However, history has shown that there are too many people who will sell themselves out for a paycheck and have no interest in looking at the big picture or visualizing the end result of that activity.

      • Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/11/2015 - 05:21 pm.

        Speaking of…

        Here’s a little gem of legislative beauty (that was never seen or heard in any committee) that was slipped into an obscure part of House File 846 – the 200-page “Ag and Environment” omnibus bill – “in the middle of the night” in the “Ag and Environment” conference committee that was chaired by Denny (Ag’s It!) McNamara and Dave (All Mine!) Tomassoni:

        “(e) The commissioners of the Pollution Control Agency and natural resources shall apply Minnesota Rules, parts 7001.3050, subpart 3, item G, and 7035.2525, subpart 2, item G, to solid waste facilities permitted under and in compliance with those rules and in compliance with Minnesota Rules, chapter 6132.”

        Isn’t that something? It’s the kind of thing only a local person (that has spent some time with local “industry advisors”) could appreciate and understand the local value of.

        In case it’s not clear from the wording, that’s the new part of Minnesota law that says owners or operators of mining facilities (like the one Polymet owns near Hoyt lakes in the headwaters of the BWCA, the St. Louis River and Lakes Superior) don’t need to bother with applying for a “solid waste management” permit because, the Rules say, they are “deemed, by Rule” to already have one.

        No one I could locate knew who slipped it in, but there’s a pretty good chance it was one of those elected local folks who, I guess, knows better about how to handle “solid waste” from mining than, say, the people at the MPCA and others who don’t live there.

  4. Submitted by Colin Brownlow on 08/11/2015 - 03:08 pm.

    More on the locals know better argument

    This whole argument rests on 3 utterly false assumptions. The locals have the motivation, knowledge and power to prevent environmental degradation. As Jason points out, there is no motivation – jobs trumps every other consideration. In regards to knowledge – invariably this is specialized chemical and environmental engineering. Guess who has that knowledge – almost never the local populations where the extractive industries are located. As to the power – well that is laughable. Once the mine is in place who do you think controls its operations. Again not the locals.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/11/2015 - 05:57 pm.

      “As to power” – indeed !! The agency with the most…

      …influence on the decision whether to allow this mining, the MN DNR, is hopelessly conflicted in its dual roles of

      1. Protecting the environment
      2. Promoting the extraction of MN natural resources

      These conflicting missions are simply too much for the DNR in the case of sulfide mining.

      So your comment about the locals lacking power AFTER the mine is in place is of course quite so. But they also lack power BEFORE the mine is in place.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 08/13/2015 - 10:51 am.

      And a fourth false assumption

      That those who don’t live there don’t have a right to have their preferences considered.

      As a resident of earth, I have preferences that we not destroy it. My preferences are deeply considered, and are variously pragmatic, moral and spiritual. My preferences are due as much consideration as anyone else’s, and don’t depend on whether I live near the Range or even ever go there.

  5. Submitted by Keith Lusk on 08/11/2015 - 04:16 pm.

    Where’s Joe?

    I’ve been checking all day to see the pro-mining crowd’s take on this. Surely they’ve got some kind of guarantee that something like this could never happen up on the Iron Range?

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/11/2015 - 07:02 pm.

      They’re blaming the EPA. Basically saying it should be eliminated. So the right-wing crowd, that wants to go back to a time with little or no environmental regulation, is suggesting the agency charged with environmental regulation be eliminated because there was an accident that occurred when the EPA was trying to clean up the mess caused by lack of regulation.

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 08/12/2015 - 09:20 am.


        can you point us to any citations of the right wing politicians that are now calling for the EPA to be abolished because of this accident? I have seen a lot of them criticizing it for causing the accident, for moving to slowly, threats of detailed oversight on their plans for recovery- and all of these are super hypocritical considering these politicians are always critics of the EPA in normal times – but I haven’t seen any of them take this chance to say it shoudl be eliminated.

        All of this makes sense, because when you have a natural disaster like this, the first response should NOT be to eliminate the government agency that is supposed to protect the environment. Even these politicans are smart enough to know that, they will use it instead to opportunistically criticize a democratic administration agency.

        What’s also interesting is that democratic criticism is very muted with the exception of some districts directly impacted by the spill, despite traditional democratic environmental focus.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 08/11/2015 - 09:42 pm.

    With 1923 technology the mine was contained until the EPA got involved. I gotta believe the technology has improved a hair since 1923 and if we can get the EPA not to screw it up like they did Gold King site we should be fine up here. I bet in 1923 they didn’t even think about waste water or pollution, to have a site contained that long without modern technology is impressive. With all the new standards in place in 2015 for mining when Polymet meets the requirements let them start pulling minerals out of the ground.
    I found it interesting that the EPA didn’t report this spill for over 24 hours. I’m sure heads will roll at the EPA for this screw up (ha ha ha), we will fine the EPA then raise taxes on ourselves to pay the fine, typical big Govt program. This is the organization in charge of the new air quality standards Obama threw at us in his latest executive action. Doesn’t inspire confidence.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 08/12/2015 - 07:22 am.

      So this is miner world?

      Where 200 gallons of acidic waste an hour being dumped into a river system is considered “contained”. Let’s see now, the 14000 leaking mines times 200 gallons an hour, 2.8 million gallons of toxic waste dumped into the Colorado environment every hour. (Its an illustration, yea I realize every probably different, some more, some less). So please explain to me again how its the EPA causing the problem when the vast majority of these extractive endevaours occurred many decades before its inception? Mining, the leech that keeps sucking, even after its dead.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/12/2015 - 01:03 pm.

      Not 23, but 91

      Sunnyside Mine group (American Tunnel Mine; American Tunnel; Gold King Mine; Washington Mine; Belle Creole; Gold Prince; Brenneman Mine; Mogul Mine), Bonita Peak, Gladstone, Eureka District, San Juan Co., Colorado, USA.

      This mine worked veins associated with the Eureka graben.

      Started in the late 1880’s and closed 1930. Reopened 1937 and closed 1938.

      Worked 1959 through 1985 (1960’s – worked the Washington vein) via the American tunnel at Gladstone. On June 4th, 1978 (fortunately a Sunday [when no one was at work]) the bottom of Lake Emma collapsed into the upper mine workings sending a slurry of mud and debris through most of the workings.

      Production resumed after about 2 years of rehabilitation and the operation stumbled on through poor economic times until early in 1985.

      Worked 1985 until recently by Sunnyside Gold Corp., subsidiary of Echo Bay Mines, Ltd. Workings include the Terry shaft and the famous American Tunnel, often attributed to being its own mine. Produced over $150,000,000 in all metals mined.

      Past owners include: R.J. McNutt; M.M. Engleman& L.C. Thompson; L.C. Thompson & Frank Thompson; Judge John H. Terry (1900-1910); 2 sons & daughter of Judge Terry (1910-1917); United States Smelting & Refining Co. (1917- ); Standard Uranium (which formed Standard Metals Corp.)(lessee)(1959-1985).

      Finally closed in 1991.

      And by the way, Joe… Would you please describe or link to some of the ways mining (pollution removing or preventing) “technology has improved” since 1923, and maybe provide a link or two to examples of where that technology is being used effectively in copper-nickel mines around the world. I’m not sure, but I think the improvements in technology you’re thinking of have a lot more to do with those that have given mining companies the ability to dig thousands more tons of rock per day/year than they could in 1923 than they do with preventing or eliminating the toxic by-products.

      And when you say, “when Polymet meets the requirements,” what are you thinking of as “the requirements”? For example, do you think one of those requirements is, or should be, explaining and proving how they’re going to ensure they will be responsible for making sure (and put up the money to prove it) the waste they produce won’t pollute the waters of NE MN for the 500 years that they themselves said would be required in their environmental impact statement?

      And, if they can’t do that, should they still be allowed to go ahead and start pulling minerals out of the ground anyway, or should they be denied the permits? And if they did, and if anything went wrong after they were done mining, are you saying Minnesota taxpayers should pay for (trying) to clean up the kind of mess Colorado has on its hands now and that you would be in favor of tax increases to cover that?

      • Submitted by joe smith on 08/12/2015 - 04:54 pm.

        There is a permitting process and when Polymet meets the requirements to get the permits they are good to go. Not that difficult to understand. Yes, there are requirements in place by EPA, DNR and State to mine copper, when you meet those you get permitted. Even a dumb Ranger can understand that.
        Part of the process is an emergency fund to clean up. I just hope those pesky EPA experts don’t come poking around and cause another disaster up here like they did in Colorado.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/13/2015 - 09:22 am.

          Good to Go

          No permitting process is going to prevent human error of the kind we saw here. It wasn’t a failure of obsolete technology, it wasn’t meddlesome bureaucrats, it was a mistake by an equipment operator.

          I would say that even a “dumb Ranger” could understand the omnipresent threat of a mistake, but I don’t know any dumb Rangers. I appreciate your efforts to keep us apprised of their opinions.

        • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 08/13/2015 - 10:19 am.

          Is there enough money in the mine to cover the cleanup?

          I’m not sure I’d sell out the boundary waters for the $150M quoted in mineral resources pulled from the Colorado mine.

        • Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/13/2015 - 11:34 am.

          Thanks for clearing that up, Joe

          But you seem to have left out the part about those new and improved technologies and examples of where they’re being used in other copper mining operations.

          And when it comes to that “emergency fund,” one of the things I keep wondering about that you may be able to clear up for me too is, how is Polymet going to put money into that fund (and meet that requirement) when they don’t have any money?

          “PolyMet Mining seems an unlikely candidate to launch North America’s next mineral boom. In its 33 years of existence, it hasn’t mined a single ounce of marketable ore. The company has posted zero revenue in those three decades, while piling up almost $100 million in losses. And its main physical asset is an abandoned factory filled with idled rock-crushing equipment on a desolate ridge in northeastern Minnesota.”

          33 years in the mining business, haven’t made a nickel but have managed to lose a hundred million? But they’re gonna make it this time? No way they could go bankrupt? You think doing business with them by handing over some of Minnesota’s prime assets is a good bet, a good idea?

          And besides the money for that “emergency fund” (that some say could be in excess of $400 million), how much does the equipment they’d need to buy or lease before they can start to “pull minerals out of the ground” cost? And retooling that plant… And that new and improved technology for keeping the waste water clean (for 500 years)… And all those jobs… How they gonna pay for all that?

          Or doesn’t that matter either?

          • Submitted by joe smith on 08/13/2015 - 04:04 pm.

            If Polymet had been permitted all the times they went before the EPA, DNR and State regulators they would have turned millions upon millions in profits by now. The goal posts have been moved so any times they have a whole new playing field. This has been going on for decades. Once they start mining they will be profitable. They have not been allowed to work in 33 yrs, kinda hard to be profitable, unless of course you are a Govt job.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 08/12/2015 - 01:09 pm.

      Well, I’m inspired by it

      of course, I enjoy breathing clean air and drinking clean water. Your mileage may vary.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 08/12/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    Pump your brakes a bit “Greenies”, I just heard the Governor of Colorado and a EPA official say the river will be open in a few days and the 108 fish they had trapped to see how the spill affected them are doing fine. EPA official was down playing the damage to the river and in full damage control himself. A bit different tone than when the BP spill happened.
    To summarize, mine closed in 1923 and didn’t spill until EPA officials punched a hole in it, EPA says damage to river minimal, Governor says river will re-open in a few days and the state of Colorado at this time is not considering suing EPA. Looks like crisis averted according to EPA…… Thank goodness!!!

  8. Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/12/2015 - 01:38 pm.

    Local Knows Better (again)

    Highly recommend Steve Timmer’s article about the IRRRB (Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board) as it relates to “Separation of Powers” and the (possible) unconstitutionality of its member’s involvement.

    His general mining articles are all worth reading too. They’re a great compliment to Ron’s work:

    Rod Loper’s, “Hell hath no fury like the rangers,” comment back in May (the Rebecca Otto knee-capping story – really jumped out at me and has had me paying much closer attention to “what’s goin’ on up there?” since.

    They could use a (deep) audit, to be sure. The Legislative Auditor is giving them one now (or is done?, but it may be they need an even more thorough one by, say, the State Auditor (or the Attorney General)?

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 08/13/2015 - 07:44 am.

    Is anybody else concerned that the Obama administration hasn’t had a word to say about this environmental disaster? Obama said he wanted to “kick ass” immediately after BP spill and claimed he wouldn’t let guilty parties off the hook. The EPA has admitted they caused the spill, yet crickets from White House!

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 08/13/2015 - 11:01 am.


      your post above said “tragedy averted” so which is it. The demon President, or the equally demonic EPA – can’t have it both ways no matter how hard you try.
      Oh, and though the two examples you stated may seem equivalent, they most certainly are not.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/13/2015 - 03:37 pm.

      Not to Split Hairs, But . . .

      The EPA, as you point out “admitted they caused the spill.” BP denied responsibility.

      The BP spill was also caused by cost-cutting measures and poor safety systems that were systemic in the industry. In Colorado, an equipment operator working for an EPA contractor made a mistake with huge consequences.

      Is anybody else concerned that the two situations are in no way analogous?

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