By John Buchser, Chapter Water chair
An unplanned release of 3 million gallons of water from the Gold King Mine over its mine tailings in August 2015 caused a pulse of pollutants that turned the Animas River yellow.
After mining in the last of the 5,500 mines in the Silverton area ceased in 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency compiled a full-time team of scientists to evaluate the situation. A federal $3 million fund helped fund researchers from major universities in the area. In 2012, the Sierra Club used $8 million from a successful coal-ash lawsuit to reduce coal ash in the San Juan River and study pollution in the San Juan.
Last summer and again this summer, researchers presented their results at a two-day conference in Farmington, followed by a tour of the Animas River up to the headwaters.
The news was mostly good for downstream farmers: The only time the water is not safe to use (following the initial spring runoff) is when large storms wash sediments in the Animas River downstream into the San Juan River and subsequently into Lake Powell.
So by closing headgates on ditch systems when the water is extremely murky from storms, these pollutants (mainly lead exceeds safe levels, and not by much) can largely be avoided. That’s also good news for consumers: The produce from the region will not be contaminated.
The safety of the water is also heavily impacted by septic systems within the shallow aquifer along the Animas between Durango and Farmington.
Testing for E coli, an indicator of micro-organism pollution that will cause problems in humans, was in extreme excess on the Animas. The beginnings of the solution have started, with improved regulation of septic pumping companies by New Mexico’s San Juan County (only two of 18 were licensed). Tying regional houses into Farmington’s septic system is also underway. But no progress on the biggest e-coli contributor: cows. Big storms cause runoff from fields into the river. Each storm’s murkiness hides a huge health risk.
The pulse of water from the Gold King Mine had an upside. The EPA had not declared any of the mines in the Silverton area as Superfund sites, about the only opportunity to really address the problem. This was due mainly to concern from Silverton citizens, who had built an economy based on tourism after the mining bust. The EPA has in its preliminary evaluation 47 mines that qualify for Superfund attention.
It’s a huge problem without a solution: The EPA is spending $1 million a year to treat the water continuing to exit Level 7 of the 18-level Gold King Mine. The Gold King pulse represents just four days’ worth of polluted water coming year-round into the Animas River. So we, the public, pay for the profits reaped by the mining companies. Attempts over the years to reform the lack of royalty money by finally updating the 1872 Mining Act have failed.
In the meantime, it looks like the public will be spending on the order of $100 million a year forever — assuming it keeps raining and snowing on those beautiful mountains.
Animas River spill, August 2015, image from WikiMedia Commons.