Log In

Reset Password
News Education Local News Nation & World New Mexico

Five years after Gold King Mine spill, water quality remains a concern

For a few days in August 2015, invisible mining pollutants could be seen by the world


Five years ago today, a breach at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton sent a deluge of water loaded with heavy metals into the Animas River, turning the waterway an electric-orange hue that caught the nation’s attention.

But five years later, and four years into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program, there has yet to be meaningful improvements to water quality and aquatic life.

Dan Wall, with the EPA’s Superfund program, said most of the focus since the Bonita Peaking Mining District Superfund site was declared in fall 2016 has been on studying the watershed and the multitude of mines impacting water quality.

The EPA is still in that effort, Wall said, and there’s no time frame for when the agency will present its final work plan for a comprehensive cleanup in the Animas River basin.

The EPA has spent more than $75 million on the site to date.

“It may be slower than what people want,” Wall said. “But we want to make sure our remedy selection is based on science ... so the money won’t be wasted and we can be confident to see improvements based on the work we take.”

Mining’s legacy

The towering San Juan Mountains that surround Silverton are pocked with an untold number of mines, left over from the legacy of mining that first brought Western settlers to the region in the late 1800s.

Many of these mines, now inactive or abandoned, discharge water that dumps heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, iron and aluminum into the many streams and creeks that ultimately run into the Animas River.

Water quality, as a result, has been greatly impacted.

The stretch of the Animas River between Silverton and Bakers Bridge, about 15 miles north of Durango, is virtually devoid of aquatic life. Fish populations in the river through Durango are unable to reproduce, in part because of heavy metal contamination. And, years ago, the city of Durango switched its main source of water to the Florida River because of quality issues in the Animas.

The Animas River Stakeholders Group formed in 1994 and brought together a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested people, who sought to improve the health of the river amid heavy metal loading from legacy mines.

Despite the many Stakeholders Group successes, water quality in the Animas River in recent years has diminished, mainly from the mines leaching into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek.

In 2014, the EPA decided pollution had gotten so bad that it stepped in with a $1.5 million cleanup project of its own.

Five years later, the Gold King Mine has been stabilized. The mine was the site of a massive blowout in August 2015 triggered by Environmental Protection Agency crews.
The Gold King Mine exposed adit, which is about 10 feet wide and 15 feet high. This photo was taken Aug. 5, 2015, the day of the blowout.
The spill

The plan, originally, was to place a bulkhead – essentially a plug – on the Red & Bonita mine, which at the time, was pouring out 500 gallons of acidic mine drainage per minute, accounting for about 18% of the heavy metals in the Animas River.

In late July 2015, crews began exploring the Level 7 adit of the adjacent Gold King Mine, which was well-documented for the potential of a blowout. Steve Way, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, aware of this risk, postponed further work on the mine pending more preparation and study.

But while Way was on vacation, his replacement, Hays Griswold, ordered crews to clear the dirt blocking the tunnel of the Gold King Mine to install a pipe to divert the contaminated water.

The contractors, St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration LLC, dug too far, causing the massive blowout on Aug. 5, 2015, that sent an estimated 3 million gallons of water laced with heavy metals down the Animas River into the San Juan River and eventually into Lake Powell.

After Environmental Protection Agency crews triggered the Gold King Mine spill in August 2015, images of the Animas River’s unnatural electric-orange hue spread throughout the world.
The impact

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, chaos ensued as the general public, mostly unaware of historic contamination from mines around Silverton, saw the Animas River turn into an unnatural orange hue.

Emergency responses were set off in three states – Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – as well as in two Native American tribes.

In Durango, the Animas River shut down for eight days and caused rafting companies and other outdoor outfitters to take a financial hit. The town and irrigators were forced to close water intakes. And fears were incited about the river’s health and potential long-term impacts to tourism.

Despite millions of dollars in claims, no one was reimbursed for their losses after the EPA claimed governmental immunity. A lawsuit still lingers in the federal courts from those seeking to recoup costs.

But ultimately, the Animas River did not appear to be too adversely impacted – the spill did not cause a die-off of fish, and long-term studies have shown little to no effect on aquatic life or the waterway.

About a year after the Gold King Mine spill, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the “Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund” site, consisting of 48-mining related sites around Silverton slated for a cleanup project.

What the spill did accomplish was to highlight the legacy of mines chronically contaminating the Animas River: The amount of metals released from the Gold King Mine spill is equal to that released every 300 days from all the mines around Silverton.

After years of the possibility of the EPA’s Superfund program stepping in, it became official in fall 2016, with the agency singling out 48 mining-related sites set for some degree of cleanup.

Scott Fetchenhier, a San Juan County commissioner and a former miner and business owner in Silverton, said the town was generally opposed to Superfund, fearing a stigma associated with the cleanup program.

“Ninety-nine percent of people (who visit) don’t even know we have a Superfund here; it’s invisible,” he said. “And for the people in town, we know the EPA is here and going to be for a long time. It’s just part of our community now.”

The scars are still visible from the August 2015 blowout at the Gold King Mine, which released an estimated 3 million gallons of water laced with heavy metals into the Animas River, then the San Juan River and eventually, Lake Powell.
The cleanup

Immediately after the Gold King Mine spill, the EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant that takes in discharges from the mine and removes metals, which costs about $2.4 million to $3.3 million a year to operate.

But other than some minor projects around the basin, the EPA has focused on studies to better understand the complex mining district, and evaluate what long-term options would be best for cleanup.

The EPA is set, remedial project manager Robert Parker said, to make stronger headway on a quick action plan to address about 23 mining sites over the next few years while longer-term solutions are being examined.

“This is a big site for EPA in terms of being able to understand what’s happening,” Parker said. “And we’re at a point where we can start to focus on certain areas ... remediate them.”

Mine owner has a say

But not everyone is happy with the proposed cleanup.

Todd Hennis started buying inactive mines around Silverton in the late 1990s with the hopes of revamping mining in the region. He purchased the Gold King in 2005 but has yet to restart an industry that ended in 1991.

Hennis said there’s still 400,000 ounces of gold to be mined in the Gold King, and even more deposits of tellurium, a rare and expensive metal. He is adamantly against installing a bulkhead, which has been discussed as a possibility.

“If (EPA) bulkheads the Gold King, they’re going to have an immense legal claim against them,” he said.

Hennis has maintained for years the main culprit of contamination in the watershed is the massive amount of waterbacked up behind the American Tunnel in the Sunnyside mine pool.

Five years later, the Gold King Mine is still discharging about 300 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage. The water is diverted into a temporary treatment plant where metals are removed.
What’s the goal?

The main and lingering question surrounding the Bonita Peak Superfund is what is the end goal, and how long will it take to get there.

“There’s a fair amount of frustration ... because there’s not a good picture of where this is all going,” said Peter Butler, a founder of the ARSG and now chairman of the Bonita Peak Mining District Community Advisory Group.

Butler said Superfunds are inherently long programs, mostly because of the need for intensive studies that must hold up in court should a lawsuit be filed against the EPA.

“But we thought this wouldn’t take too long, just because there was already a lot we know about (mine contamination in the basin),” he said. “Are (EPA) just planning to be here for the next 30 years?”

In 2017, the Bonita Peak Superfund was included on the EPA’s high-priority “emphasis list.” Butler said the CAG is concerned it could be taken off the list this fall, before any substantial work has been completed.

Katherine Jenkins, EPA spokeswoman, said “no official decision has been made when that might occur.”

Fetchenhier, who also serves on the San Juan County advisory team to the Superfund, said he is generally supportive of EPA’s efforts, but not the slow, drawn-out process.

For him, the ultimate success would be to have fish population reestablished in select creeks and streams where possible, and to see fish rebound in the Animas River Canyon downstream of Silverton.

“It’s unbelievable to me five years have gone by,” he said. “But if the end result is in 20 years, we have a cleaner river, then I think it’ll be all worth it.”


Jan 10, 2021
EPA orders access to water treatment plant north of Silverton
Sep 25, 2020
Silverton Superfund site to remain on high-priority list, EPA says
Aug 2, 2020
EPA proposes permanent mine waste dump site north of Silverton
Jul 7, 2020
EPA will temporarily plug ‘bad boy’ mine near Silverton
Mar 2, 2020
New Mexico to address lingering concerns of Gold King Mine spill
Jan 24, 2020
Owner of Gold King Mine not happy with proposed cleanup solution

Reader Comments