Photo of the polluted Animas River after the Gold King Mine incident, for the Rio Grande Sierra Club Chapter website

By Allyson Siwik, Gila Resources Information Project and Rio Grande Chapter Executive Committee & Rachel Conn, Amigos Bravos executive director

Published in Albuquerque Journal Aug. 24, 2015

We have watched in horror and sadness as images of an orange, heavy-metal-laden plume of mine wastewater flow down the Animas River from an accidental release at the inactive Gold King Mine in Colorado, impacting communities, farmers, wildlife and recreation along the way.

Our thoughts are with the people who have been adversely affected, as well as those who are working around the clock to clean up and restore the watersheds contaminated by the accident.

What is slowly emerging through the media frenzy and blame game is that the Environmental Protection Agency was attempting to clean up the inactive Gold King Mine to stop the ongoing release of contaminated water when a plug holding back rising groundwater burst. The Gold King Mine is just one of hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines in our country, mostly in the West, and 15,000 of them can be found here in New Mexico.

These abandoned mines are the legacy of the federal 1872 Mining Law that to this day still 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 environmental requirements for operations and cleanup.

Because of the lack of environmental safeguards, mining companies historically walked away from their operations, leaving a toxic mess behind. These abandoned mine lands continue to degrade surface- and ground-water quality, hurt wildlife and impact recreational opportunities.

The EPA estimates that 40 percent of the headwaters of Western watersheds have been polluted by mining, and it will take $50 billion to clean up these liabilities.

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.

What needs to be done to clean up these sites and prevent future impacts to our environment from mining activities?

Clearly the 143-year-old federal mining law needs to be reformed. We need to establish mining-specific environmental safeguards, clean up abandoned mines through creation of an “Abandoned Mine Land Fund,” charge royalties on minerals taken from public lands and require that companies put in place reclamation bonding with clear environmental standards to protect taxpayers from footing the bill for cleanup.

At the state level, we need strong environmental laws and enforcement of those laws to ensure that our water supplies and environment are protected from current mining operations.

Yet recent efforts here in New Mexico have focused on relaxing environmental protections, putting our groundwater and environment at risk. The Martinez administration’s promulgation of the “Copper Rule” allows copper mines to pollute groundwater at mine sites rather than prevent contamination. The Copper Rule is now under review by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Additionally, global mining giant Freeport-McMoRan attempted this last legislative session to weaken the New Mexico Mining Act, potentially relieving mining companies from cleanup at inactive mine sites on “standby status,” as well as creating numerous other rollbacks. That bill died in committee thanks to key legislators and community activists who were quick to respond to the 11th-hour attempt to gut this important piece of legislation.

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 and drinking water.

Featured image by MOR

Gold King Mine a reminder of importance of water protections