Animas River vistas evoke heartbreak, anger, frustration and helplessness since metal-laden water began pouring from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton on Wednesday morning.
The orange sludge that is painting the riverbed, depositing a cocktail of acidic metals into the river has been steeping behind a debris pile in the long-collapsed mine portal for years. Now, more than 1 million gallons of contaminated water have flowed through Durango, raising questions about water quality, accountability, remedy and remediation.
The imagery is stark and the concern is wholly legitimate, but the issue is hardly new.
The mining activity that largely defined the Silverton economy and culture from the 1800s to the late 20th century has left a legacy rich in history and steeped in pollution. A network of mines crisscross the mountains above the town, and contaminated water drainage has been a problem for decades.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in its attempts to carry out the mitigation and remediation protocol outlined by the Animas River Stakeholders Group to begin to deal with the water quality issues pouring from the mines – Red and Bonita, specifically, with stabilizing and monitoring the Gold King second on its list – triggered the massive spill, but the agency was largely left holding the hot potato. The region’s geography and mineralogy has long affected water quality, and the mining complex exacerbates the problem. That formula is compounded by a history of insufficient reclamation efforts, limited accountability and concern about the political and economic impacts of a massive cleanup effort, which is ultimately what the river needs – a fact made all too obvious by this week’s spill.
The EPA had begun the relatively small-scale cleanup earlier this summer – on its own dime – a project that included excavating the collapsed Gold King Mine portal so as to install a drainage pipe. From there, the EPA planned to monitor water quality and quantity, particularly in relation to the bulkheads under construction at the Red and Bonita mine. These were critical steps toward stemming the known flow of contaminants into the Animas River watershed; they were not without risk nor were they intended to be a comprehensive fix to the widespread problem owed to geology, industry and impasse. The EPA stepped in to take on this important step in mitigating the multifaceted problem, and in that attempt, unleashed a much larger one that has sharpened the focus on just how critical an issue Animas River water quality is.
The piecemeal cleanup effort was designed to avoid a federal Superfund designation, which would trigger massive EPA investment and presence. It was a compromise and gamble. It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.
The unpredictability of the mines’ drainage and the vastness and complexity of the contamination underscores the need for a comprehensive cleanup – including long-term water treatment for all that flows from the mine-rich region above Silverton and into the Animas River. That will require a significant investment and a corresponding trust that a major cleanup effort will be to the environmental and economic benefit of the entire region: from the fish to the farmlands and all the water users in between.
— The Durango Herald, Aug. 7