Lessons from the Animas River: dig first, clean up later

 

The mustard-colored water flowing down the Animas River in southwestern Colorado is a painful reminder of the lengthy gestation time of environmental disasters.

The ugly surge was unleashed last week by an EPA contractor, which unwittingly breached a dike that allowed contaminated water from the Gold King Mine to flood into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. Images from the polluted river as it flowed downstream through the town of Durango were appalling, and the story became a media sensation.

But the disaster actually had its start almost 130 years ago. Located seven miles north of Silverton at an elevation of 11,400 feet, the Gold King was among several big mines and mills clustered around a company town called Gladstone. The Gold King had a brief but productive life. The mine was staked in 1886, and the vein that made it a bonanza was discovered in 1896. By the time the mine was shuttered in 1922, it had produced $8 million in ore, more than a tenth of all production in San Juan County, according to "The Rainbow Route," a railroad and mining history.

A bonanza to owners, the mine was deadly to workers. Six people died when carbon dioxide was drawn into it by a fire at the nearby boardinghouse. Another five died in an avalanche, reports Scott Fetchenhier, a local historian and San Juan County commissioner.

Mining can be hazardous to people living downstream, too. In the 1930s, farmers along Clear Creek, northwest of Denver, complained bitterly that gold mining upstream at Central City and Blackhawk was polluting their irrigation water and withering their crops.

Eventually, state and federal laws were enacted to curb pollution from mines, but we've continued to cut corners in our enforcement. After a century of mining ended there in 1979, continuing pollution from the Eagle Mine, located a few miles from Vail, Colorado, left people uncertain whether it was safe to eat fish caught in the Eagle River. The mining company and Colorado regulators reached a settlement and decided to seal the mine.

The experts assumed that this would prevent its tainted water from flowing into the rivers, but the experts were wrong. By early 1990, the Eagle River looked like yellow Kool-Aid, and the fish had vanished. Belatedly, the Environmental Protection Agency was called in, and $100 million and years of work later, the pollution was mostly cleaned up. "Mostly," because heavy metals must continue to be removed from that water before it gets into the river. In the 1990s, that effort cost $1 million a year. It's a job that will have to be done in perpetuity.

The continuing cost of the Eagle River cleanup is being borne privately, by a corporate conglomerate. Not so the $155 million cleanup at Summitville, an open-pit mine in southern Colorado, where cyanide was used to extract gold from low-grade ore. After the mess became public, Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy in 1992.

Since 1995, the nonprofit Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to address these so-called legacy problems. But the group has been thwarted by the absence of supportive federal legislation. Independent groups just can't afford to touch problems like the Gold King, because, if an accident happened, they would "own the damages," as Ken Neubecker of the nonprofit American Rivers puts it. He says environmentalists also worry that Good Samaritan legislation would just make it easier for big mining corporations to skip out on their responsibilities – which is exactly what happened at Summitville.

The larger lesson derived from the continuing pollution afflicting Silverton and Durango is that mining doesn't belong in headwaters areas, says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for American Rivers. He cites the danger of a copper-mining proposal for the Smith River in Montana.

"Eventually, inevitably, the (contaminated) water will make it back to the river, whether it's by catastrophic accident or a natural event," he warns.

Still, let's not blame the miners of 100 years ago. Some of us have friends whose parents and grandparents worked at the mines high in the mountains near Silverton and Vail. Their lives were hard, and we respect their memory.

But today we know better. Of course, we also know better than to pollute the atmosphere with reckless abandon, creating a bigger, denser greenhouse around the planet. Yet we keep doing it because people complain that it would cost too much to change the way we live. But who isn't wondering right now: What would have cost us more in the end, having to clean up mines in perpetuity, or preventing them from polluting in the first place?

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He lives in the Denver area where he produces an online magazine, mountaintownnews.net.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.