Now that the alarmingly orange-yellow plume of metal-laden water that erupted from the Gold King Mine has largely dispersed and mineral levels have returned to normal for the Animas River, the community that relies on the river for drinking water, irrigation, recreation and livestock is left to assess the fallout and craft a remedy for the situation that led to the 3 million gallon spill.
Given the complexity of that situation – a combination of immutable geology, a long mining history and politics that have hamstrung large-scale cleanup efforts for generations – it should come as no surprise that the fix is multi-pronged. The largest and most effective of these answers is a water-treatment facility that would pull heavy metals out of the mines’ drainages. Now is the time to explore that option.
The stark visual aspect of the Gold King Mine blowout, triggered by the Environmental Protection Agency as it tried to explore the partially collapsed mine to assess the water level and its source, has spurred a range of emotional reactions from residents and visitors and official responses from local, state, regional and federal officials. That is appropriate given the implications of such a spill to the entire Animas drainage. Accordingly, all involved exercised caution in their actions: Water samples were thoroughly tested and evaluated for their affects on human health, livestock and agriculture and only after exhaustive study was the river reopened.
The potential public and environmental health implications for releasing high concentrations of metals in the mines above Silverton is not new; the risk has existed for decades, and worse spills have occurred. Nor is the solution altogether elusive. The Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working since 1994 to identify the scope of the problem compromising water quality in Mineral and Cement creeks and the Animas River and implement a series of fixes. It has made much progress on Mineral Creek; Cement Creek and the mines that drain into it remain unaddressed – largely because of cost and politics.
A water-treatment facility along Cement Creek would do much to address the primary threats to the Animas. Though there are more than 200 mines that could potentially affect that water quality, four deposit the vast majority of heavy metals into Cement Creek: Gold King, Red and Bonita, American Tunnel and Mogul, atop Red Mountain Pass. Using high-alkaline limestone from Monarch Pass to leach out the heavy metals, the treatment facility would make a substantial difference in the metal load – episodic and ongoing, which is the larger problem.
But such a facility, though effective, is neither cheap nor efficient. In addition to $12 million estimated for construction, it would require at least $1 million each year in operating costs and pose a disposal challenge for the metal-laden sludge it would produce. Assigning liability – financial and otherwise – is challenging, and resistance to a Superfund designation has further slowed cleanup efforts. The high per-gallon cost of long-term treatment has been intimidating.
The Gold King Mine blowout makes obvious how critical such a solution is for the short- and long-term health of the Animas River and all the communities around it. While a water-treatment facility would not be able to accommodate a 3 million gallon blowout, it could prevent future such episodes by treating water instead of trapping it to simmer – and substantially reduce the impact of draining mines on the Animas River. That is a worthwhile investment, to be shared by the EPA, mine owners and a partnership of federal and state dollars to ensure health for the Animas River system and those who depend on it.