Colorado has an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines, going back to the time of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1850. The history of mining in Colorado is written in the names of some towns: Anaconda named after a Copper mining company, Bonanza, Gold Hill, Silver Plume, Eureka, Telluride after a salt of the element Tellerium, Silverton, Leadville, and Placerville.
The majority of the abandoned mines present little problem but several hundred around Colorado are filled with water and a mix of various metals that are frequently found in association with more valuable precious metals. Some are not so serious such as Iron and Copper, but others are a danger to human health and the biosphere in general. They include Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, and Arsenic. These exist in the main as relatively insoluble salts. In bodies of water they are found in the silt at the bottom, slowly moving from there into the bodies of the benthic organisms and up the food chain. In rivers they can be mobilized during high flow events and moved down steam.
Given their numbers, it’s not surprising that there are occasional “spills” of these wastes. The most recent case is the 3 million gallon spill that occurred when a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a dike that held back waste and allowed it flow into the Animas River.
It is sad that a remediation effort results in a spill, but it is the price the tax payer must assume now for not acting sooner to prevent the abandonment of the mines. The problem dates back to an 1872 law governing mining on public land. It allows essentially unfettered access to mine for metals without any payment of royalties or environmental standards.
The government has the authority to require bonds to insure cleanup, but the rate is so low as to be ineffective. Currently the EPA spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to clean up the toxic wastes left behind from previous mining operations. The government accountability office estimates that upwards of 70 billion dollars would be required to clean up the abandoned mines in the western states.
Legislation has been proposed to address the issue over the last few years, most recently Representative Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. has introduced legislation which would modernize the mining law by requiring a 7 cent per ton fee on rock mined. The proceeds from this would be used in the reclamation of mined land. This proposal is called The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR963).
This and similar recent legislation has gone nowhere as the mining companies have lobbied long and hard to avoid any responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. Will the current attention to the pollution of the Animas, and downstream San Juan and Colorado rivers get the attention of the public? Just what will it take for us to recognize that we have look over the shoulders of industry and hold them accountable for their actions?
A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar. Mark Twain