By Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project and Rio Grande Chapter executive committee
We watched in horror and sadness as an orange plume of mine wastewater flowed down the Animas River from an accidental release at the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado in August, impacting communities, farmers, wildlife and recreation along the way.
Our thoughts are with the people who have been adversely affected, and those who have worked around the clock to restore the watersheds contaminated by the accident.
Environmental Protection Agency contractors were attempting to clean up the inactive Gold King Mine to stop its ongoing release of contaminated water when a plug holding back rising groundwater burst. Gold King is just one of hundreds of thousands of inactive or abandoned mines in our country, mostly in the West, 15,000 of which are here in New Mexico.
These abandoned and inactive mines are the legacy of the federal 1872 Mining Law that to this day allows hard-rock mining companies free reign to mine anywhere on our public lands without paying any royalties on the minerals extracted and without any federal environmental requirements for operations and cleanup.
Mining companies historically walked away from their operations, leaving a toxic mess behind. These abandoned mine lands continue to degrade surface- and groundwater quality, affect wildlife and impact recreational opportunities.
The federal Superfund program, created to clean up toxic waste sites, is significantly underfunded and insufficient to address the magnitude of this problem. Across the state of New Mexico, cleanup of abandoned mine sites has been hampered by lack of funding.
The situation with historical mine contamination at the Chino mine site in Southern New Mexico is similar to Gold King’s: The local community didn’t want a Superfund designation, but while the state and Freeport McMoRan said they would get it cleaned up in five years under an Administrative Order on Consent, studies are still ongoing and cleanup is far from complete nearly 20 years later.
The Gold King Mine is technically “inactive,” and has an owner who should be held accountable. The Gold King Mine and many associated mines in the Animas River Watershed are not simply abandoned — there are private and federal owners who should be as accountable as the EPA.
What needs to be done to prevent future disasters like Gold King?
Clearly the 143-year-old federal mining law needs to be reformed. U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have announced legislation that includes charging a fair royalty on public minerals that would fund a Hardrock Reclamation Fund to clean up abandoned mines, a comprehensive survey of abandoned mine lands and a plan to clean them up, as well as “Good Samaritan” legislation that would protect those involved in environmental cleanup from liability. The legislation is a good start at addressing the contamination that already happens to our water from these thousands of abandoned and inactive mines.
At the state level, we need strong laws and enforcement.
Yet recent efforts in New Mexico have focused on gutting environmental protections, putting our groundwater and environment at risk. The Martinez administration’s “Copper Rule” allows copper mines to pollute groundwater at mine sites rather than prevent contamination. The Copper Rule is under review by the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Additionally, mining giant Freeport-McMoRan attempted in the 2015 legislative session to weaken the New Mexico Mining Act, potentially relieving mining companies from cleanup at inactive mine sites and allowing other rollbacks that let mining companies off the hook for pollution prevention and cleanup. That bill died in committee thanks to key legislators and community activists who were quick to respond to the attempt to gut this important law that prevents situations like Gold King from happening in New Mexico.
“The Animas River toxic spill provides an opportunity for state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn and the state of New Mexico to re-evaluate their neglect of, and indifference to the need for strong environmental regulations in northwest New Mexico,” said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The Animas River spill, unfortunately, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental problems facing our rivers in New Mexico, including legacy hard-rock mining, coal mining and burning, and uranium/vanadium.”
Let the Gold King Mine accident be a reminder that there is much work to be done to ensure that all mines are cleaned up responsibly to protect our public health.