By Steve Fiscor
Imagine seeing footage on SkyTV or CNN of a massive discharge of fouled water from the wilderness. Locals suspect it’s from a mining operation working upstream and a day later their suspicions are confirmed. Meanwhile, the tainted water is moving downstream impacting irrigation systems and the drinking water for thousands along the waterways. The media tracks down the CEO and on live television she says, “Yes, I’m in charge, but I’m not sure what they were doing out there; we will investigate it and get back to you.” There would be outrage, especially from “environmental” groups. Government regulators would issue huge fines, likely driving the mining company into bankruptcy. And, that mining executive would likely face a prison sentence.
That’s what happened in Colorado during August (See U.S. & Canada, p. 8). The culprit, however, was not a mining company; it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—the agency created to enforce U.S. environmental statutes and regulations. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy took ownership for the spill; she had no choice. During a 15-minute press conference one week after the release, she was quoted as saying the Animas River “had returned to pre-event conditions.”
E&MJ talked with the Gold King mine owner and an environmental specialist familiar with remediating abandoned hard rock mining sites (See Gold King Spill, p. 66). The article pieces together what led up to the breach, notes that there is more work to be done and addresses the complications associated with Superfund status. When the EPA began work at the No. 7 Level portal in the summer of 2014, they were worried about a potential blowout and placed an earthen plug in the adit. If the possibility of a blowout existed, a containment structure should have been built.
To put the Gold King spill into perspective, at 3 million gallons, it is about 35 times greater than the size of the Summitville spill, which is forever seared into the brains of high-country folks in the American West. In 1992, Galactic Resources spilled 85,000 gallons of cyanide-laced water from a leach pad and killed the aquatic life in a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River. It infuriated environmental activists. Today, instead of calling for McCarthy’s resignation, environmental groups are providing her and the EPA shelter, saying they shouldn’t be blamed for trying to fix the problem.
Where’s the accountability? The EPA has to operate by the same standards as it enforces; it should also be held liable for the costs of cleanup. Unfortunately, the EPA has a poor track record when it comes to completing cleanup projects related to hard rock mining. Mining companies and environmental engineering firms have successfully reclaimed similar sites. Some of the brightest engineers in the business are based in Denver. Yet, they are reluctant to get involved because of the liability.
If the EPA gets a pass, then let’s afford the professionals who know what they are doing the same opportunity. Groups that put a legitimate plan forward for remediating these abandoned mines should be shielded from liability. The federal government should purchase the metals recovered from these operations through long-term offtake agreements. A mining company that accepts the challenge should be recognized and given preferential treatment when it comes to the bonding and permitting process. Working together, the mining community could erase the transgression of miners who worked these claims three and four generations ago, and at the same time, create a showcase for abandoned mine remediation.
Steve Fiscor, E&MJ Editor-in-Chief, firstname.lastname@example.org