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Our View: Gold King spill

Settlement is a welcome step forward
Kayakers Dan Steaves, Eric Parker and David Farkas on Aug. 6, 2015, float in the Animas River after the Gold King Mine spill turned the water orange. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Southwest Colorado should celebrate the $90 million settlement between the federal government, the state of Colorado and Sunnyside Mine. What is important is to clean up the mess that resulted from the 2015 Gold King spill. This settlement is a welcome step in that direction.

This is a case study in the complexity of mineral extraction and a cautionary example for going forward. That care should apply to mining – and to gas and oil production as well.

The Gold King mine began in the 1880s. It has been abandoned now for almost a century. Sunnyside Gold Corp., which is owned by Kinross Gold Corp., a Canadian company, operated a mine next to the Gold King.

Sunnyside’s mine closed in 1991. After the Gold King spill, the Environmental Protection Agency found that bulkheads Sunnyside erected to seal off its closed mine had caused water to build up and flood the Gold King mine. In 2015, a contractor working for the EPA accidentally breached a debris pile that was holding back the water in the Gold King. About 3 million gallons of water containing 540 tons of miscellaneous metals spilled into the rivers of Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners. That led to the creation of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

That was necessary and correct, but it was also part of a complex and sometimes confusing situation. Obviously, an environmental disaster – the Animas River ran orange – it also became a legal and regulatory muddle. Not only did the EPA and Sunnyside go at each other, but an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies and departments got involved. The final settlement was signed off by the EPA, the Justice Department, the Department of the Interior, the Agriculture Department and the state of Colorado as well as Sunnyside and its Canadian parent company. No wonder this took years.

But for all that, this ended up being something of a test case for how such things can work. And when the cleanup is complete, it should also be an impetus for further examination of how mineral extraction should be conducted.

The American West is littered with abandoned mines and wells, so much so that it seems as if the industry is structured to enable its practitioners to walk away from their failures. That cannot be allowed to continue, but contemplating reform raises more questions.

How should extractive industries – mining and drilling – be structured to ensure accountability? What size bonds can be required before jobs and production are threatened? How do we clean up 19th-century leftovers?

Answers to those and other pertinent questions will not come easily. But the time to ask them is now – before we have another Gold King spill.