Colorado mine leaks endanger water for Southwest Utah

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The EPA uses ponds to precipitate iron oxide and other materials. Photo courtesy Eric Vance/EPA

The EPA uses ponds to precipitate iron oxide and other materials. Photo courtesy Eric Vance/EPA

Garret Stirland | Staff Writer


On August 5, 2015, the Gold King Mine broke open, releasing a flood of chemicals into the Animas River, turning the waterways mustard yellow. As a result of the spill, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have declared states of emergency.

The yellow plume contained 10 to 40 times the standard level of cadmium, copper and zinc for life supporting water systems. The chemical spill has not only affected wildlife in the area, but has impacted the economy of local residents downstream. Small businesses including real estate, fishing, photography and rafting have been impacted by this spill.

Colorado has a long history of mining; the 1890s are remembered as a time of exploration, both above and below ground. The Gold King Mine, a mining organization based in San Juan County, used to be one of the largest gold collectors in the state. Since it’s existence, the Gold King Mine has collected roughly 350,000 ounces of quality gold, providing rare minerals to jewelry boxes nationwide.

230 other mines in Colorado have been identified as releasing heavy metals into river systems throughout the state. Colorado official records show that the total amount of chemicals released into rivers every two days by these 230 mines is equal to the Gold King leak.

“These are inactive sites that do not have a permit,” said Bruce Stover, director of abandoned mine lands reclamation, in a press conference. “There are no inspections on them whatsoever. They are just out there in the woods.”

Aside from EPA inspections and cleanups, Colorado says the best way to deal with these leaks is by tackling one mine at a time.

“We’re not OK with any of this. We’re not OK with contaminated water running into waterways,” said Ginny Brannon, director of reclamation, mining and safety for Colorado, in a written statement. “It is beyond our control. We inherited what we inherited. We took that, all those sites, and every year we steadily move forward with the goal of cleaning it up. We do as much as we can every year. We would love to do more, if we had the money.”

The Animas River Stakeholders group is calling upon the state government to approve a project to build a water treatment facility near one of the River’s most impacted tributaries. The building cost would range between $5 million and $20 million with an annual running cost of $1.2 million a year.

Bill Dvorak of the National Wildlife Federation says the real issues lies in changing legislation.

“The ultimate goal should be to change the 1872 mining law,” said Dvorak to the Denver Post. “It should be changed to say those who caused the problem should have to deal with it and not walk away from it and leave it to the taxpayer.”

Meanwhile, Colorado officials agreed that greater EPA involvement will be necessary to manage the remaining 230 leaking mines.