Dealing with gifts of mines past: A mix of tools

The mountains of Southwest Colorado have a rich history of mining. One of the legacies of this mining past is water pollution. When some types of rock are exposed to air and water they oxidize, just like a shovel left wet will rust. Unfortunately, most of the rock in the mining-rich area in the region are of such a type. The result is a lot of acid mine drainage.

There is also lot of naturally exposed rock that bleeds acid and metals. However, when people dig tunnels, drain the water out of mountains and pull out tons of rock, this process is accelerated tremendously.

After more than a century of mining in the area, a lot of valuable metals have moved on and one of the legacies we are left with is polluted water. We now get to decide how to handle this legacy.

There are two good examples locally of the complexities of this issue, actually three.

I will start with the last: Summitville. The very name will start an argument. The mine, in the mountains above Pagosa Springs, was in an old mining area that reopened in the 1980s and became one of the poster children for the problems with mining regulation. It was poorly designed and managed, and the owners ran when disaster struck. The cyanide heap leak facility failed, the Alamosa River was poisoned and the site sucked untold millions of taxpayer dollars into a massive Superfund cleanup. From start to finish it is a lesson in what no one wants in any manner at all.

The two other examples are hopefully different.

The Rico Argentine mine, just outside Rico, is currently discharging illegal levels of metals into the Dolores River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety are both working with the owner of the site, Atlantic Richfield Co. (a subsidiary of BP yes, that BP). It is not Superfund there are good attempts at outreach to the community and work is progressing.

The third example is much more complex, in every which way. The area around Silverton had many mines, and only a few still have identifiable and wealthy enough owners to contribute significant resources. The Animas River is polluted with metals from the mines, as well as natural sources. For 18 years the Animas River Stakeholders Group has worked to find long-term and cost-effective options for dealing with the pollution.

The agencies EPA, Bureau of Land Management and Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety are fully involved, assisting and yet not leading. The companies that could be on the hook are also assisting. The path forward is complex and uncertain. What is clear is that we need to find a solution, and that the preferred model is one of cooperation and community engagement.

We must protect and restore our invaluable waterways we all depend on them. Those responsible for the pollution must be held accountable. And when we can do this together, it will likely be cheaper, more effective and less socially destructive than if we just sic the lawyers and engineers at each other. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.