By Mark Gibson
If you recall publicity on the Eagle Mine near Beaver Creek or the Yak Tunnel in Leadville, you could predict that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a manifest destiny to pollute a hundred miles of streams with toxic sludge—from Cement Creek to Lake Powell.
Before John Elway ever won a Super Bowl, the Denver Post spotlighted the Eagle Mine, reporting how regulators’ plans to plug old mine shafts ran afoul—percolating toxic pools overflowed in 1989, causing Beaver Creek’s snowmaking machines to spray “orange snow.” Four years earlier, miners on a maintenance mission during their annual “Yak tunnel walk”–by accident–dislodged muck in workings from the 1800s, releasing a plume in the Arkansas River sufficient to move EPA to create a 20-square-mile Superfund project surrounding Leadville that continues today.
Charles Curtis, renowned energy leader and former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is purported to often lament “everything leaks.” While Curtis’ context is the nuclear cycle, his leak axiom squares with the state of historic mines.
Depending on who counts, between 160,000 and 480,000 abandoned mines reside in the Rocky Mountains. They pollute 40 percent of the West’s watersheds. Their price tag: $35 billion. Mines sprouted when settlers dug on their way to California’s Gold Rush in 1848. After several mining booms, in 1942 Roosevelt granted $130 per ton to lead producers—twice Depression-era levels—so our allies could hurl bullets at Nazis.
The old miners dug vast reaches, exposing to weather what had been encapsulated by Mother Nature. When water mixes with exposed rock (particularly pyrite) its sulfides oxidize, reducing pH, increasing metals concentrations, and further increasing acidity, brewing acid mine drainage and lots of liabilities.
Consider the Curtis canon, the deluge of abandoned mines, rudimentary chemistry and the realities of environmental enforcement, and you enter a Yossarian modality.
Most mine Superfund sites identified in the 1980s are still not finished, while they subsidize white-collar welfare (science studies and lawyers) rather than on-the-ground fixes. Litigation risks stymie voluntary Good Samaritan efforts—whether by industry or environmentalist.
The rules encourage gold-plated, expensive remediation. Fundamentally, if water doesn’t touch mineralized rock the water isn’t contaminated. Yet this simple science is ignored and grossly engineered schemes like portal plugs result—that require reinforcement with more plugs, that create larger pollution pools, that migrate across labyrinths of old tunnels, that create more seeps, which at some point demand fancy water treatment systems, that fuel consultants and lawyers, who scare industry, who pay to mitigate more liabilities, increasing demand for more over-engineered solutions—a spiral of silliness.
Settling ponds used to precipitate iron oxide and other suspended materials at the Red and Bonita mine drainage near Gold King mine, shown Aug. 14, 2015. (Photo by Eric Vance/EPA)
While EPA’s approach may help water quality, over climatic cycles we see ticking time bombs
emerge like Gold King. (Again, from Curtis: everything leaks.)
This is why source-control methods were perfected at the Idarado mine remediation in the 1980s. At Idarado, industry and the local community and environmental groups all embraced what at the time was termed a “risky, unproven” strategy: reduce metals loadings 50 percent by minimizing contamination at the top of the watershed, thereby supporting aquatic life in the lower drainages. Within the past 20 years, zinc loadings reached the reduction goal on the Telluride side. But in the Ouray/Red Mountains adjacent to the Gold King district (a maze of abandonment), loads fell a disappointing 25 percent. Today, a hike from Telluride up to the Tom Boy ghost town validates all manner of source-control techniques… rock plumbing that prevents most—but not all—water infiltration. Since “dam and treat” projects (promoted by the regulators of the day) were blocked, a Gold King disaster was averted. You don’t hear much today about the Idarado success, and that’s the point: we should demand mine cleanups that last and that we don’t have to revisit.
Idarado’s lessons aren’t lost, but they’ve been downright difficult to replicate. The Animas River Stakeholders Group, the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership, Outward Bound and others perform yeoman’s work fixing the high country. The volunteer armies are hamstrung by lack of funding and broken regulators who won’t fend off the excesses of the Clean Water Act and the Superfund. Before political leaders begin to balk at the tar-baby dynamics in this controversy, EPA’s Gold King disaster should be leveraged as a wakeup call.
A bold state move will dull legal thorns like “federal preemption” and “joint and several liability;” a few precedents exist for locally driven remedies to overcome these hurdles without new law. A (small) state-sanctioned, locally controlled panel with procurement, financing, regulatory and property-leasing powers is compulsory. The panel can establish authority shielding it and its contractors from pesky environmental liabilities, and effect sound solutions without Superfund designation. After proving the model, the panel’s jurisdiction should expand.
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May/San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
Suggestions for the panel’s Top 10 priority actions:
▪Cease all ill-conceived EPA actions.
▪Consider reopening all Clean Water Act and CERCLA (Superfund) Agreements impacting the region, as necessary. (Admit the Sunnyside situation is a mistake.)
▪Draft and administer an immediate-term, low-cost, high-impact remediation plan. (Quit studying and start engineering and building. Dispense with remedies that address 10-6 risk and focus on what gets us to 70 percent improvement.)
▪Remove or remediate dams and plugs that foster water build-up and contamination.
▪Undertake water source-control techniques; minimize top-down infiltration.
▪Avoid and minimize the need for active treatment technologies.
▪Measure and publicize objectives and results. (Place real-time monitors near hazards and inside baseline indicator zones, and dispense with high-end laboratory techniques.)
▪ Fund remediation with off-budget, innovative finance methods, perhaps third-party minerals royalties, user fees, or even property leases.
▪Fund third-party remediation initiatives, like the Animas River Stakeholder Group, the Uncompahgre Watershed Partnership and their volunteers, including Outward Bound.
▪ Invoke innovative legal shields. (Don’t expect relief from Congress or the EPA.)
After 250 years of mining, it’s time to end the regulatory rigor mortis across the Rockies and get on to rational cleanups no longer obsessed with mitigating every single, theoretical, or Populaire à l’époque legal risk.
Mark Gibson consults for the environmental and water industries, focusing on government/regulatory affairs and business development. He was previously vice president at the Danaher/Hach Environmental Water Quality Group and Hays, Hays & Wilson. Gibson’s teams have played roles at more than two dozen Superfund sites and as many mine cleanups. He holds an M.S. in Mineral Economics from Colorado School of Mines and a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Maryland.