Six months after the release of 3 million gallons of wastewater from the Gold King Mine into a tributary of the Animas River, vested interest groups are working to determine the best plan for moving forward.
“It’s been six months since the spill and it’s important to pause and take a snapshot of what’s been done,” said Jimbo Buickerood, manager of the lands and forest protection program with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. “There have been a lot of different efforts going on and we really need to look at them to figure out where we go next.”
In early February, the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in Durango, joined by Earthworks, hosted about 100 people with various backgrounds in an open discussion regarding the response to the spill and what could be expected on the long road ahead.
“I’m really glad that they pulled this meeting together with the community,” said Gwen Lachelt, La Plata County commissioner. “I’m happy to see progress moving toward Superfund status. It’s going to be a slow process and the community should definitely see the cleanup efforts that have already happened as big progress.”
Dan Olson, executive director of SJCA and host of the event, said that Silverton and San Juan County are in the process of requesting Superfund designation, while the City of Durango has put in its request for the status and La Plata County is in the process.
“This is the start of a lengthy process,” he said.
Recently, the Silverton Board of Trustees and the San Juan County Commission voted unanimously to support Superfund status for the mining network north of town.
The proposed Superfund, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) is a United States federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. The Superfund authorizes federal natural resource agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to recover the natural resource damages.
According to the EPAs website, the Superfund is designed “to protect public health and the environment [and] focuses on making a visible and lasting difference in communities, ensuring that people can live and work in healthy, vibrant places.
Bill Simon, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said he is confident Superfund designation will be achieved, but the definition of “community” involved in the process needs to be clarified and expanded to encompass both upstream and downstream communities.
“We will reach an agreement to have an active Superfund in the area,” he said. “This really needs to be more clearly defined, but while there are a number of things still up in the air, I have full confidence that it will be obtained. Downstream users need to be aware of it as well as San Juan County residents.”
Simon said this will not be a fast and easy process once the designation is obtained.
“This will go on for 20, 30, 40, 50 years and will cost around $150 million,” he said. “It took 125 years to get to where we are today— it’s going to take a few more to get to where we’re trying to go.”
Commissioner Lachelt said she sees the Superfund being the best, if only, viable option for a long-term solution.
“The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been doing a lot of great work and there’s been a lot of successful mine cleanup projects there, but we need to start addressing more of the mines in a bigger way and the only way we’ll do that is by achieving Superfund status,” she said.
Collaboration with different voices in the involved communities will continue to be an important part of reaching a solution, many at the meeting agreed.
“There’s been a lot of really good news surrounding the cleanup effort and the community has been working together on reaching a solution,” said Buickerood. “The alliance’s position is that you don’t really get effective and long-term solutions if you don’t have everyone at the table. That doesn’t always work and there’s a lot of give-and take-with people who don’t always agree, but it’s the only way to reach a solution.”
Buickerood also said that different voices are needed because many people are involved with the watershed for different reasons.
“The watershed has so many uses and we need everyone there,” he said. “We’re all in the same watershed and there are so many different needs and challenges. We have to have everyone at the table.”
Olson also said that collaboration is key to remediation.
“We want to give all watershed residents a political voice in the cleanup discussions and educate, organize and amplify those voices,” Olson said. “As an organization, we can notify people when they can get involved and show the support process and application so we can help jumpstart this process.”
One of the partners in remediation of the Gold King Mine is Earthworks, a nonprofit focused on protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development. Their representatives helped lead the discussion on legislative and regulatory reform, including reform of the 1872 Mining Law.
The infamous law, which has not been changed since it was passed under President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, governs the mining of hard-rock minerals on federal land.
“The law was passed and designed to encourage settlers to come out and strike it rich, mine gold and bring men,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks policy director. “It was pick-and-shovel mining then. Right now, pick-and-shovel mining is not what we see; we have large-scale mining and this law doesn’t work any more. It’s old and outdated”
Other issues with the law, environmentalists contend, include its lack of environmental standards for reclamation; lack of a reclamation fee for abandoned mines (there are more than 500,000 abandoned mines in the United States); no requirement for royalties to be charged on taxpayer-owned resources; privatization of public lands; and an absence of consistent national standards.
“Mining-reform legislation must abolish patenting, charge a royalty, expand public-land protections, balance mining with other land uses, and create an abandoned- mine cleanup program funded by a reclamation fee,” said Aaron Mintzes, Earthworks policy advocate.
Pagel said legislation to that effect is being reviewed by the 114th Congress in the form of HR 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015. The latest action was taken last March, when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, according to the congress.gov website.
The proposed reforms include, but are not limited to, a royalty of 8 percent of gross income on locatable minerals; and a requirement that each operator of a hard-rock mining operation provide a deposit of 7 cents per ton of displaced material as a reclamation fee. Pagel and Mintzes said the Gold King Mine spill has shed a spotlight on acid-mine drainage, which will be helpful in creating change because more people are paying attention to the problem.
“The Gold King Mine spill really changed the discussion in mining reform in Washington, D.C., and the media took an issue that not many folks understood and made acid-mine drainage a household term,” Pagel said. “Seeing the river a few days after the spill and the fact that the law governing it is 100 years old has created interest we haven’t seen in a long time.”
“We’re hoping the next administration will make the changes that we can’t make through legislation,” Pagel said. “We want to make sure water is protected, that there is a requirement of using the best available control technology, that there’s an increase in public participation so the public can be aware of all parts of the issues, that a system of fees will exist to cover the costs of inspections, and that there will be detailed performance standards.”
Pagel and Mintzes also discussed the proposed “Good Samaritan Policy,” legislation that seeks to amend the Clean Water Act to allow environmental groups and local governments more involvement in clean-up efforts without risk of liability.
“We hope to take the tragedy of the Gold King Mine and ensure there are not future incidents,” Mintzes said. “It shouldn’t be about mining and making a profit — it should be about the cleanup. What happens if things go wrong? We want to make sure that the right plans are in place and if something goes wrong, someone is held accountable. How do we mobilize all of these communities and all of these concerns? For a long time, a lot of discussion was focused only on the headwaters. The Gold King spill made everyone realize that we’re all at risk so we should all have a say.”
Meanwhile, communities in the Animas and San Juan watersheds are getting ready for the re-disturbance of toxic heavy metals in their primary water sources as warming triggers snowmelt in the Colorado mountains.
The estimated 440 tons of metals released last summer during the spill first raced through the Animas River in Colorado where the river had faster flows, then moved more slowly into New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, Utah, and finally into Lake Powell.
The depositing of metals in the riverbed is greater in the slower-flowing portion of the river, according to a release from the New Mexico Environment Department.
New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Nation, and La Plata County, Colo., are working on synchronized monitoring and response protocols for the rivers while the large El Niño snowpack melts.