The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esmé Cadiente |
The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esmé Cadiente |

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)
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)
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.

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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.


4 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Leveraging EPA’s Orange River to Abate the Threat of Abandoned Mines

  1. Thank you for this post. It was a good read. I have spent my whole career in mining and ARD geochem. While I am new to working in the US regulatory system, it does seem hard that site cleanup has a bit of an all or nothing approach. Perfection is the enemy of done and what you decribe is a version of analysis paralysis (enabled by the legal ramifications of not meeting able to meet all compliance requirements).

  2. There are many good points here. I think that most people in the field agree that EPA-led CERCLA projects have not been the answer (I’m being kind here). However, in some cases they have been the only source of the producing the piles of cash needed for some of the larger sites. Granted that the pile of cash has to be many times larger that it should be, and as noted, most of the money spent does nothing to help remediate the site. Just look at the difference in billing rates between engineers and lawyers.

    However, I do not agree that plugs are always a bad solution. You only hear about them when they don’t work. Often when they go wrong, you look back as say, wow with a little basic science you could have seen that coming. You have to understand what raising the mine pool will do and have reasonable expectations. A plug is likely only part of a holistic solutions and in a lot of cases, will not help. As a variation, flow-through bulkheads are a great way to regulate flow to active or passive treatment and control surges (e.g., the Yak Tunnel).

    Similarly, source controls are very rarely going to be the solution when dealing with mine discharges. It is foolish not to implement them if they are available, as they are typically low cost and if you can keep the water from being contaminated – enough said. In one situation I am considering now, it may be possible to divert an inflow to a mine, but because of the mine hydrology, this inflow is likely just a source of dilution and would not likely change the net loading of the discharge. Worth doing? The net effect downstream is not likely significant. Reducing oxygen flow into a mine also needs to be considered as part of the source control solution.

    Bottom line, you need to consider the whole tool box to be successful.

    If you want to see an example of a successful approach to district-wide mine remediation in the San Juans, you just need to go to the other side of the caldera complex, to the northeast, to the Bonanza district. You don’t hear much about it, because it worked and is not an example of failure. A large amount of remediation was completed in the late 1990’s through a voluntary cooperative agreement between private parties (including ASARCO) and the regulatory agencies (primarily CDPHE, USFS and EPA). During this period, the main stem Kerber Creek went from orange and dead, to supporting fish. Tailings and waste rock facilities were consolidated and closed, and stream-side tailings deposits remediated. However, the single most effective action in allowing Kerber Creek to recover was a plug. That’s right. The Rawley Mine was consistently hammering Kerber Creek with 150 gpm of ARD during low-flow periods in the streams. Fifteen + years later, there is no evidence of disaster. In fact, based on my review of the site last week, it appears that the performance of the plug has exceeded expectations. Trout Unlimited, the USFS, and others have continued the comparative approach in the district and are addressing some the remaining issues.

    The problems associated with abandoned mines are complex and the solutions need to be thought out and customized. Going into a site with a mind set that only X and Y are the answer is most likely not going to have a good result. Unfortunately, sometimes the messes are so complex that nuclear option has to be applied – active water treatment – if water quality goals are to be met. That’s unfortunate but the way it is until someone comes up with something really new. Discharge permitting for passive/semi-passive water treatment needs to be addressed. If you are relying on nature to help with your treatment in an outdoor setting you will have upsets and exceedances. Don’t think that you won’t get sued under the Clean Water Act because you are doing good cleaning up an AML site. You just have to look at Sheep Mountain Alliance vs. PacifiCorp near Telluride, That’s an example of why you proceed at your on peril without Good Samaritan protection.

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