On August 5, 2015, a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency ended with over three million gallons of toxic water spilling out of Colorado’s Gold King Mine and into the local water supply. The Animas river has taken the brunt of the spill, which consists of yellow-orange water contaminated with heavy metals, acid, and other poisonous remnants of mining. Like most business-related chemical spills, there’s a lot more to this story than what you might have heard. Speculation on the accidental nature of the spill and accusations against the EPA and the mine’s owner are only part of the upheaval caused by this massive spill.
Currently, there are nearly 50,000 abandoned mines in the United States. Of these, only about one in five is considered to be safe enough to not need any more attention from the EPA. The rest? Not so much. So-called abandoned mines are often still in use, just not by the people who own them. Many of these leak acid and other chemicals, ultimately leaving heavy metals and potent sulfuric acid on mountainsides in local lakes and rivers, and even reservoirs people depend on for the water they drink. So why hasn’t the EPA fixed this already?
The EPA is, as most people know, underfunded and understaffed. The Gold King Mine has been tagged for cleanup for over a decade. However, this most recent visit was only to assess the leakage and damage in order to propose a plan to enact cleanup efforts. Not surprisingly, Todd Hennis, the owner of Gold King Mine, swears his mine was not full of toxic chemicals. He’s certain those chemicals leached into his mine from the nearby Sunnyside mine. In fact, he said he foresaw this tragedy long before it occurred — though no one is sure why he didn’t do anything about it, or why he purposely kept the EPA from investigating even when he was repeatedly fined for doing so.
Regardless of who is actually to blame, poisonous sludge slowly worked its way toward Lake Powell, a popular tourist destination and a major reservoir. Aside from the obvious issues regarding drinking water, it’s believed the chemical spill will also inhibit the repopulation of native species in the area. This includes threatened fish species like the razorback sucker, which are pretty cool looking.
So what actually happened here? While surveying the damage already inherent to the Gold King Mine, which had been closed since the 1920’s, EPA surveyers accidentally ruptured a dam in what’s called a “tailing pond,” used to temporarily hold hazardous waste chemicals until they can be properly disposed of. After the rupture, the EPA did not notify anyone of the spill for nearly 24 hours. Obviously, that’s bad. However, the temporary tailing pond had been in place for decades, which isn’t really temporary.
Aside from holding the EPA responsible for the spill, there are some who believe it was done intentionally. One citizen claims that because the EPA wanted to declare Gold King Mine a “superfund site” (one in desperate need of cleanup and therefore additional funds) for over 2 decades, they caused the spill intentionally to illustrate the need. Even some geologists agree. Holding the EPA accountable for a spill of leaching chemicals they were there to investigate seems counterproductive and a little silly.
As to the damage caused by the spill, a full week later it was reported water would be collected from the Anamas river, which was turned completely yellow by this spill, to be treated and dispersed to locals in need of water. Natural waterways and reservoirs are still being impacted in parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation. The EPA said one week after the spill the runoff was finally cleaner than before the spill. Many area residents are skeptical of this claim. Who can blame them?