Gold mining in the late 1800’s was a business without controls. You dug in the ground at your own peril, and if you found gold or metal you dug it out, washed it out, sluiced it out or scratched it out. There were no laws governing how you operated, safety conditions or environmental considerations – nothing to keep you from doing anything you needed to get the gold out.
Here in California, some of the earliest 1849 gold rush prospectors could literally pick gold nuggets up off the ground. This didn’t last long, however, and more sophisticated methods of mining were quickly developed.
Hydraulic mining focused high-pressure jets of water on the gold fields, washing away the dirt and exposing the gold. Unfortunately, the wastewater drained into rivers, which silted up, restricting the water flow down stream, where the water was needed for farming. This conflict between miners and farmers led to some of the first riparian laws in the state and some of the first laws governing mining operations.
You have probably seen the current television and newspaper pictures of the terrible yellow sludge moving slowly down the once beautiful Animus River in Colorado, threatening the water supply of the western United States. This is a result of freewheeling mining laws of the past.
This environmental disaster began in the Gold King mine, long abandoned since the 1920’s, in Silverton Colorado, one of an estimated 22,000 abandoned mines in that State.
Here’s the problem: When gold plays out and a mine is abandoned, nature doesn’t close down and come to a stop. The humans may have left, but nature continues. The ground has been opened, exposing all the chemical elements underground to the air. There is underground water that continues its flow, eventually mixing with the air and iron sulfide in the dirt. This combination turns into sulfuric acid. This acidic water flows through the abandoned mine, dissolving other metals, including copper and lead.
No one can see this happening, because no one is there. The mine is abandoned, possibly boarded up. When the mines were active and miners were working their claims, they would take this chemically polluted water and dump it into a nearby creek and make it somebody else’s problem. But when the gold played out and when the miners abandoned the mine, no one was there to see anything or do anything. For years, the water has been accumulating in the bottom of the mine and leaching out into nearby water supplies.
For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency has considered using Federal Superfund monies to correct the problem. But this has been a surprisingly hard sell.
For example, San Juan County Commissioner Ernest Kuhlman was quoted in the Durango Colorado Herald last February, saying, ” Superfund designation could have irreversible affects for any community, especially a mining community. We’re not going to get any companies to invest or pursue mining in our area with a Superfund designation hanging over our heads.” As it turned out, he was right to worry.
Unfortunately, the EPA contractor using a back hoe to investigate pollutants at the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, accidentally released an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater into the beautiful Animus River.
As David Ostrander of the EPA commented: “This is just an unanticipated situation that didn’t come out as planned.” No kidding.
It took the EPA bureaucrats 24 hours to notify the nearby communities of the disaster it created. By then, the yellow sludge of polluted mine water was moving south on the Animus river, ready to spill into the next river, the San Juan, in New Mexico.
The San Juan flows into the mighty Colorado River and into Lake Powell, now containing such nice flavoring agents as lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum.
As a reminder, Lake Powell water flows into the water supply for Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles and most of the Southwest. It is named for John Wesley Powell, who was the first to explore the Colorado River in 1869.
As part of our Listen To Read American Adventure Library, I published an audiobook of John Wesley Powell’s “Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.” Listening to his enthusiastic description of the beauty of the area, one can only imagine how shocked and saddened he would be to hear that mankind is destroying the wonderful creation of nature. (You can hear parts of his narrative and see pictures at: https://listen2read.com/the-exploration-of-the-canyons-of-colorado/)
Gold King mine in Silverton, Colorado has had a history of toxic problems. On June 7, 1908, a fire in the engine room of the ventilator shut down the system, with men still underground in the mineshaft. The air in the mine was so toxic that five men died breathing the unventilated air. The 1908 disaster made newspaper headlines. 107 years later, the mine is making headlines again.
Sean McGrath, the EPA administrator, told Newsweek magazine: “We come to find out there was more mine waste water up there than we had expected, for sure. In fact, the dam that had been holding that water back was just soils and loose materials instead of solid rocks.” The wastewater broke through and drained out.
It is a sad situation, because the EPA, the agency that is supposed to protect the environment, has, instead, inadvertently damaged it.
So far, there is a lot of finger pointing and testing and analyzing and pontificating. No one really seems to know what to do. There are not a lot of ideas coming from the EPA or anyone else. The idea gaining traction is to release water from another dam to dilute the contaminated flow. This would not eliminate the chemicals, just deliver them in smaller amounts.
At this writing, the water of the Animus River is clearing up visually, as the colored water moves south. We should all be anxious to see how the government handles the clean-up…and also how it handles the other 21,999 mines that have been abandoned.
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