A spill at a mine that turned a Colorado river orange and sent toxic waste barreling downstream 100 miles has many people wondering if the mining site in their town could be next. The answer from experts: Yes.
Last week’s spill of three million gallons of acidic mining waste from the historic Gold King mine into the Animas River north of Durango “was an accident waiting to happen,” says Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, a Washington advocacy group that works on environmental issues associated with the mining industry.
“There are a lot of similar disasters waiting to happen, at thousands of abandoned mine sites around the U.S.,” says Krill.
For instance, a year ago at Mount Polley in British Columbia, five million cubic metres of tailings pond wastewater from a copper and gold mine spilled into Hazeltine Creek, rendering a community’s water supply unusable. Toxic mine waste also spilled into the Animas River at least two other times, in the 1970s, says Ronald R. Hewitt Cohen, an environmental engineer who studies mine waste treatment at the Colorado School of Mines.
In Colorado, an estimated 4,650 abandoned mine sites are currently leaking toxic waste, says Cohen. Much of that waste is contained in ponds that weren’t designed to last a long time, meaning “the longer we wait to clean them up the better they have to fail and cause big spills,” he says.
A Nationwide Problem
Across the Western U.S., more than 40 percent of watersheds is contaminated with pollutants from hardrock mines, says Krill. There are about 500,000 abandoned mines in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Cleaning them up would cost between $20 billion and $54 billion, not counting coal mines.
“Really what it comes down to is a commitment from the highest levels to put funds toward this very large problem,” says Cohen.
Thanks to the nation’s 1872 Mining Law, taxpayers, not the industry, are responsible for cleaning up past mines. A new bill, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, was introduced by a trio of Democratic Congressman to change that. It would collect 7 cents per ton from hardrock mining companies, in line with what is already charged U.S. coal companies.
As it stands, the primary tool to address abandoned mines is the Superfund law. But that doesn’t provide money to clean up sites. Instead, it directs the EPA to try to secure sites while the agency litigates in an effort to compel a responsible party to pay for the actual cleanup. (See how close you live to a Superfund site.)
With many abandoned mines “that’s problematic,” says Cohen. The Gold King mine closed in 1923, leaving no clearly responsible party.
As a result, taxpayers have been footing the bill for the EPA’s cleanup efforts at the mine. Lead, arsenic, and other metal contaminants were found at levels known to be toxic to aquatic life downstream of the spill, which occurred when an EPA-led cleanup went awry.
The mining industry has opposed changes to the 1872 law and often objects to efforts to charge existing companies for cleanup of past projects.
Abandoned mines “are incorrectly portrayed as being our dirty pictures, when they in fact represent historic practices typically 50 to 150 years old implemented by companies no longer in existence and/or persons no longer alive, and are reflective of societal values at that time,” Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, testified to Congress.
Here are other abandoned mines that also pose an environmental risk:
1. Navajo Uranium Mines
When you add radioactive material to the mix, the potential danger in a spill can rise significantly, says Krill. Numerous old uranium mines dot the West.
In 2007, the Superfund program completed an assessment of closed uranium mines on Navajo Nation land in the Four Corners area. It found 500 sites, where nearly four million tons of uranium were extracted, much of it for atomic weapons. Many nearby communities continue to see unusually high levels of radiation.
“Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water,” writes the EPA.
2. Oklahoma’s Tar Creek
This Superfund site in northeast Oklahoma was called “one of the most toxic areas” in the country by the EPA, thanks to high levels of lead and zinc leaking from former mining operations on Quapaw Nation land. Toxic waste has been contaminating the local river and lake for many years, while unsafe levels of lead have been reported among local children. A cleanup plan is in place, but threat of larger-scale spills remains.
3. Berkeley Pit, Montana
Surrounded by the city of Butte, the Berkeley Pit is sometimes called the “world’s most toxic lake.” It is home to new species of bacteria that have grown in the toxic soup, which resulted when a massive copper mine turned off its pumps in 1982. Now on the Superfund list, the pit fills with several million gallons of toxic water every day, raising the risk of spills into the surrounding area.
4. Iron Mountain, California
Northern California’s Iron Mountain site became a Superfund site in 1983, 20 years after the mine closed. Before cleanup efforts began, it leaked six tons of toxic sludge a day, killing fish in the Sacramento River system. Cleanup efforts continue at a price tag of $5 million a year, with no end in site.
5. Silverton Complex, Colorado
The Gold King mine may only be the tip of the iceberg for potential contamination in a region that includes several other mining sites.