Tag Archives: Gold King Mine

The 2 Year Anniversary of the Gold King Mine Spill



The Gold King Mine Spill released heavy metals to the Animas River. Photo courtesy of the EPA

The Gold King Mine spill occurred two years ago on Aug. 5, 2015 in Silverton, Colorado. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was investigating the release of water from the mine and was hoping to remove material that had collapsed at the mine’s entrance. During removal, the loose material gave way, opening the mine tunnel and causing thousands of gallons of pressurized water to gush out of the tunnel and into Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River. This water had a low pH and was saturated with heavy metals which caused the Animas River to be slightly lower in pH as well. Luckily, the Animas watershed and abandoned mine lands had been studied extensively by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Colorado Department of Natural Resources. This provides a baseline for water quality standards in the watershed and can help to determine if the water is safe for human consumption, domestic usage and/or agricultural use, but also to understand when downstream water bodies will recover.

Millions of people rely on water data, and on the water managers and public health officials who collect and analyze that data, for a safe and dependable water supply. When emergencies happen, like the Gold King Mine spill, citizens and water managers track water data to see what has changed, how much it has changed, and whether or not the water is safe—in such situations, up-to-date and accurate water data is crucial.

Data has played an important role in informing the cleanup of streams that have been affected by acid mine drainage from abandon mines. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, there are over 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado and over 1,800 miles of stream that have suffered the negative impacts of acid mine drainage.

Since August 2015, USGS and other researchers have collected water samples from numerous sites downstream of the Gold King spill site and along the Animas River. After the spill, scientists from many different organizations and agencies including the Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), the Southern Ute Water Quality Program (WQP), the EPA and USGS, tested water samples from the Animas River. Drinking water samples were taken every 30 minutes to track pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature and conductivity for two weeks. Drinking water samples were also taken every day for two weeks after the spill to determine whether the water was safe.


A slew of heavy metals from the spill turned the water a orange yellow color. Photo courtesy of Riverhugger.

From August 6, 2015 to August 11, 2015 MSI sampled the river. The tests on that water showed a slight increase in heavy metals but the levels did not exceed toxic water-quality levels. MSI estimates that a person would have to ingest two liters of water a day, four days per week for 16 weeks to experience any adverse health effects from the water.  EPA Sediment samples taken on August 10th, August 12th, and August 13, 2015 from the Animas River showed that metal concentration levels were trending toward pre-event levels. This new data was then compared to the historic data from USGS and the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, where the tribe has been collecting water quality data since 1992 to create tribal water quality standards.

Today, the Animas River is healthy although, each spring, runoff from snowmelt turns the river a light shade of orange as the runoff stirs up old sediment. The WQP continues to take monthly water samples, semi-annual macro invertebrate samples, and annual fish tissue samples, while the state continues to monitor the fish population in the area.

USGS uses two different methods to collect data on the impacts of abandoned mine sites in Colorado and around the country—field studies and computer simulation models. Field studies collect water quality data to track the contaminants in the river and downstream of the release site, while computer models are used to quantify the transport of dissolved metals in streams. Data from both of these are then used in comparative analysis. In Cement Creek, scientists use the data to evaluate best management practices to meet and create standards for total maximum daily load. In Mineral Creek, scientists use the computer simulation models to accurately forecast post-cleanup water quality in the stream. Then, scientists compare pre-cleanup water quality data with post-cleanup water quality data to evaluate how accurate the model was.

Despite tests showing there was a minimal impact on the water quality of the Animas River, various parties such as the state of New Mexico and the state of Utah, are suing the EPA for damages to farms, tainted wells, and lost revenue from tourism. Among those parties is the Navajo Nation, suing for damages to crops and monitoring costs. According to the Denver Post, the president of Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, has shown concern for his people and how they have been treated by the EPA, ”we need to hold the US EPA to their word according to their testimony. We are still waiting for reimbursement.” The Navajo Nation is looking for $162 million from EPA, including $3.1 million for reimbursement costs and $159 million for water development projects and monitoring. So far EPA has reimbursed the Navajo Nation almost $700,000 but claims that the river returned to its pre-spill state in September 2015, discrediting the lawsuit put forth by Navajo Nation.

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Reducing abandoned mine water pollution in Colorado

By Skip Feeney, Water Quality Scientist, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division

Recently, I stayed at the Polar Star Inn, a hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Within an hour of arriving several children reported back that they had found a large hole in the ground that went really deep! It turned out to be a mine. Actually this hut got its name from an abandoned silver mine named the Polar Star Mine. It is not hard to stumble upon abandoned mines in Colorado. In fact there are an estimated 23,000 abandoned or inactive mines in Colorado alone.

Colorado and mining have a long history together. According to the History Colorado website, “The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush brought unprecedented numbers of people into the region…culminating in the admittance of Colorado to the Union in 1876.” Most Colorado hard rock mining activity predates the passing of current environmental regulations in the 1970s and 1980s. Before this time many mining companies did not restore the mined area,  leaving physical hazards and human and environmental impacts.


Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

One key environmental impact to water quality is acid mine drainage. This occurs when oxygen from the air and water react with sulfide minerals, increasing the acidity of the water. The acidic solution dissolves metals and flows into streams, lakes and groundwater. Acid mine drainage is exacerbated by mining practices when excavated materials leave voids in the moutain, increasing surface area for the acid mine drainage reaction to occur.  

High levels of metals harm fish and aquatic ecosystems. These contaminants also impact drinking water and agricultural water sources. This problem is significant with 1,800 miles of Colorado streams, not meeting water quality standards due to acid mine drainage related pollutants.

Unfortunately solving the water quality issues related to abandoned mines has its share of challenges. Abandoned mines are expensive to address—often in the millions of dollars with ongoing treatment costs. Many historic mining companies are no longer in business and therefore are not able to pay for restoration costs, and existing government funding sources are not sufficient to clean up all of the abandoned mines. Plus, liability concerns over treatment of mine drainage to Clean Water Act standards prevent many agencies and environmental groups from volunteering to clean up abandoned mines.

After the Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently caused a discharge at the Gold King mine, one year ago, a spotlight was shone on the statewide problem of abandoned mines. The Colorado Water Quality Control Division launched the Mine Impacted Streams Task Force to determine the extent and magnitude of abandoned mine impacts to water quality. The task force is made up of staff members from the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, the Water Quality Control Division and the Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of draining, abandoned mines.  


Credit: Ashley Bembenek, Coal Creek Watershed Coalition

The abandoned mine inventory project combines and presents the existing unique and separate federal and state abandoned mine data sets. The inventory aims to better understand the number of abandoned mines and their locations and make this information available to water users, restoration professionals and the public. While prioritization of mine restoration activities is defined within each agency, the inventory will provide tools to help agencies work together to restore abandoned mines. The inventory steering committee includes the above mentioned state agencies, Colorado Geologic Survey, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Environmental Protection Agency, National Parks Service, Department of Energy, U.S. Geologic Survey and other organizations.

The Draining Mines Water Quality Study is a Governor directed initiative that will survey and measure the water quality of roughly 150 draining mines within the state. This study has begun and a final report will be published in 2017. Of the mines being studied, all of them that are presumed to negatively impact water quality are abandoned and lack recent investigation. The study will provide a water quality snapshot from which risk assessment and restoration prioritization can begin. The Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety and the Water Quality Control Division are partnering to execute this study.

As mentioned above there are many challenges to addressing this problem. However, the abandoned mine inventory and draining mines water quality study will provide information for all agencies, watershed groups and mining companies to make more informed prioritization and restoration decisions. This will help to maximize the money invested in reducing pollution from abandoned mines.  

HalfMoonCreekSkip Feeney holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Health. He has worked in the water quality industry for 15 years. This includes private sector work in regulatory, program and data management consulting for municipal agencies and public sector work with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division as a water quality assessor. In his role with the Division he championed the development and implementation of a Measurable Results Program to evaluate the water quality impacts derived from pollution control projects funded through the Division. Projects within this program include wastewater treatment plant upgrades and abandoned mine restorations. He is currently taking a leading role with the Mine Impacted Waters Task Force. The task force supports two initiatives: 1) An abandoned mine inventory and 2) a water quality study of 150 draining, abandoned mines.


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Viewpoint: Leveraging EPA’s Orange River to Abate the Threat of Abandoned Mines

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

The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esmé Cadiente | http://www.terraprojectdiaries.com)

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.

ForLinkedIn_ForLinkedIn_Warnke_ MarkGibson20130821-6936

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.


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The Orange Animas

Last week, an estimated three million gallons of mine sludge poured from the dormant Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, Colorado, into Cement Creek, sending an orange plume of acid mine drainage down Cement Creek into the Animas River, through Durango, into New Mexico, where it met the San Juan River and flowed into Utah—the plume is still en route to the Colorado River. Officials estimate about three million gallons of wastewater were released after a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crew accidentally breached a dam while investigating how to stop existing leakage from the mine on August 5. From the EPA:

The intent of the investigation was to assess the on-going water releases from the mine and to treat mine water and to assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. The plan was to excavate the loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry back to the timbering. During the excavation, the loose material gave way, opening the adit (mine tunnel) and spilling the water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

Abandoned mine drainage is nothing new for old mining communities, or the Animas.  It occurs when surface water comes into contact with rocks and minerals that contain sulfur—in this case, pyrite—and oxygen, resulting in sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. This often happens in old abandoned mines—prior to the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act,  mine reclamation was unregulated. From a KUNC story:

For years, miners were not required to do anything with this water. In fact, most of them would dump it right into a creek, or put it in ponds with their tailings, where it became even more acidic.

“In the old days there was very little control and not much attention paid to control [of acidic water from mines],” said Cohen [Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines].

Fast forward to 2015, and the state of Colorado is dotted with abandoned mines — 22,000, according to the state’s Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety — filling up with water that runs into its streams. And the mines outside of Silverton? They’re some of the worst.

The resulting sulfuric acid can release naturally occurring heavy metals contained in rocks such as manganese, lead, cadmium, copper and zinc, leaching those metals into the water and resulting in a toxic fluid. That contaminated water then flows out of the mine adits, but many have been blocked off or reclaimed (and some, though blocked, are leaking, as the Gold King Mine was).

What did this release of three million gallons of acid mine drainage do to the river? Find the EPA’s initial report of water samples collected after the breach here.  It shows elevated levels of iron, manganese, zinc and copper below the mine breach. By the time the plume reached Durango, the levels of those metals were lower, but still elevated. The Mountain Studies Institute has also been collecting samples, which are still being processed. From a High Country News article: 

A test by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in which trout in cages were placed in the river prior to the plume’s arrival, has so far shown no acute effects: Only one of 108 fish had died during the first 24 hours in contaminated water. Meanwhile, the Mountain Studies Institute has been monitoring macro-invertebrates, and their results have been similarly positive.

The flowing mine water is being treated in a series of settling ponds near the mine portal by raising the pH through the addition of lime and sodium hydroxide and adding flocculant to increase sedimentation, this is effective, according to the EPA. Long-term impacts on the river, economy, agriculture and other affected sectors are still unknown.

In the Animas River’s drainage, the Animas River Stakeholders Group, which formed in 1994,  just after the last mine in the area had closed, works to improve water quality in the basin. The group, a collaboration between concerned citizens and representatives from industry and agencies, formed to fend off  Superfund designation. Although Superfund comes with the cash and assistance to remediate  such environmental problems, locals feared that such designation would destroy tourism. The group began with a lot of work to do, from a recent blog post on the Animas River Stakeholders Group:

In its first years of operation, the group sampled some 200 abandoned mine sites, then prioritized 33 in need of the most work. The group directly sponsored close to 20 mine remediation projects in the upper Animas River watershed and was indirectly involved in 40 more, considerably improving the water quality in several tributaries to the Animas River, including Mineral and Cement creeks. They also developed recommendations for a number of site-specific water quality standards that were ultimately adopted by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission.

Because of the liability stemming from the Clean Water Act that is associated with directly treating polluted mine drainage, most of the Animas Stakeholders’ remediation projects have focused on prevention through isolation of reactive mineralized material from water, either by removing tailings and waste rock from a drainage (and in a few cases reprocessing it at a local mill), capping it with an impermeable material, or diverting water that previously fed into old mine workings and tailings piles to minimize metal-loading.

An unplugged tunnel at the Gold King mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage

A turning point in the Animas River Stakeholder Group’s mission came after the last mining company to operate in Silverton, Sunnyside Gold Corp., built three massive bulkheads inside the vast underground workings of the Sunnyside Mine in the upper Cement Creek drainage starting in 1996 as part of an agreement with the State of Colorado that released the mine company from environmental liability.

The bulkheads were intended to act as corks, simply preventing water from draining out of the mine. The first one worked well, but when two more were added downstream in the tunnel six years later, the bulkheads collectively ended up functioning more as a bathtub plug, causing the water table inside the mountain to rise and eventually gush out of other mine adits—horizontal passages leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage—higher in the upper Cement Creek drainage.

As of March, mine drainage water poured out of a group of adits on the same slope—the American Tunnel, the Red and Bonita, the Mogul…and the Gold King—in an amount equal to the contributions of the 33 most-polluting mines the Animas Stakeholders group identified during its initial study 15 years ago. From that same blog post:

Collectively, these leaky adits have created one of the largest untreated mine drainages in Colorado, a festering sore oozing a toxic cocktail of heavy metals including zinc, cadmium, copper, manganese, iron, aluminum and lead.

But of course, as of last week, contaminated waters poured from the Gold King. As reported by KUNC, when the spill occurred, the Gold King was not the object of the EPA’s cleanup:

The agency had planned to plug a mine just below it, the Red and Bonita Mine, with the goal of reducing acid runoff from that mine.

Since mines are interconnected, however, and a plug in one can lead to more water flowing out the other, the agency planned to “remove the blockage and reconstruct the portal at the Gold King Mine in order to best observe possible changes in discharge caused by the installation of Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead.”

That project began July 2015. The Gold King Mine released its toxic load at 10:30 a.m. August 4, 2015.


Today, emotions of anger, fear and frustration and running strong, as reported by the New York Times. The U.S. EPA has published information about its claims process for compensating citizens who have suffered injury or property damage caused by the U.S. government’s actions.

While others have refocused that frustration, from an editorial in Parting the Waters: 

All development of the natural environment carries risk to our water resources. I suppose it’s human nature to ignore that fact and instead focus on the bright orange river staring you in the face.


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