Gold King Mine
Gold King Mine (GKM) is one of 400 abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains. It's located in the Upper Animas Watershed, just north of the town of Silverton along Cement Creek.
In August of 2015, a contractor with the EPA breached a bulkhead and 3 million gallons of wastewater spilled into Cement Creek, which flowed downstream and eventually turned the Animas River a bright yellow.
After the spill, the EPA designated the area as a Superfund Site. However, the water quality was terrible long before the spill. And 5 years after the spill, the water quality has yet to improve. Hear the full story in Episode 1.
The Upper Animas Watershed
The Animas River Stakeholder Group
The Animas River Stakeholder Group (ARSG) was created in 1994 to address the acid mine drainage problem in the Upper Animas Watershed. This collaborative included concerned citizens, industry representatives, government officials from the local, state, and federal agencies. They developed a remediation strategy that focused on "prevention through isolation." They used a variety of resources ranging from grants to the EPA, to state reclamation funds, to money from Sunnyside Mining Corp. They worked on projects that included removing tailings, capping mines with impermeable materials, bulkheading, and diverting water to minimize metal loading.
The ARSG was the "poster child" for watershed coalitions and the collaborative model. They were praised for their ability to work together despite conflicting interests.
However, after 25 years the ARSG was disbanded. The Gold King Mine spill and Superfund Site designation destroyed them. Or did they destroy themselves? Find out more in Episode 2.
The Problem with Acid Mine Drainage
According to the EPA:
"Acid mine drainage is the formation and movement of highly acidic water rich in heavy metals. This acidic water forms through the chemical reaction of surface water (rainwater, snowmelt, pond water) and shallow subsurface water with rocks that contain sulfur-bearing minerals, resulting in sulfuric acid.
Heavy metals can be leached from rocks that come in contact with the acid, a process that may be substantially enhanced by bacterial action. The resulting fluids may be highly toxic and, when mixed with groundwater, surface water and soil, may have harmful effects on humans, animals and plants."
Riverkeeper, Marcel Gaztambide
"Marcel was born and raised in Salt Lake City, UT where he earned a Bachelors of Science degree in Geoscience from the University of Utah and spent five years working as an Editorial Assistant for the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Before joining San Juan Citizens Alliance as the Animas Riverkeeper in 2017, he worked as a geologist for the United States Geological Survey in South Carolina and as a volunteer organizer for the Grand Canyon Trust. Having studied polluted water systems in South America and the American Southeast, he’s now a passionate advocate for river health and water security on home turf, in the American Southwest. Outside of his work on river issues, he loves paddling, backpacking, and rock climbing with his friends and family, working at his family’s horse ranch in Wyoming, and Basque dancing with the Utah’ko Triskalariak - a traveling dance group based out of Salt Lake City."
We got the chance to talk to Marcel about the spill, the aftermath, and how we can clean up the mess we're in (as well as prevent it from getting worse!) Listen to this insightful conversation.
it's time to make some changes...
With a recent push from the Trump Administration to revamp the mining industry in the United States, it is now more important than ever to update mining policy so that it reflects current issues and values of environmental protection, human health, and environmental justice.
The incoming Biden Administration has the opportunity to:
The President can directly intervene through Executive Orders and appropriating funds in the Federal Budget.
The President can also bring national and international attention to the issue by making it a priority in the executive agenda.
The 117th Congress as well as state legislatures can propose new updates to outdated mining laws:
General Mining Law of 1872 (150 years old!)- pass the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2019.
Take a page from the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977- while this is not a perfect law, this legislation has more effectively regulated reclamation of lands and waters affected by coal mining. Of note, the law established an Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund that coal mining operations pay into. Something like that fund for abandoned hard rock mining would be a welcome source of funding.
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA aka Superfund)- pass the Superfund Polluter Pays Restoration Act of 2020
Litigate the Clean Water Act- work to close existing loopholes and fight definitions that further limit polluters' responsibility to protect our waters.
Keep pushing for Hard Rock Mining Reform at the state level. Staes have a great deal of power when it comes to regulating hard rock mining. States can charge fees, impose severance taxes, establish strict reclamation standards, and ensure that operators have a plan (and the money!) to clean up the sites they mine.
Compensate the Navajo Nation and other communities disproportionately affected by these incidents and the ongoing pollution from mining. This is the hardest and most important part. And it's a matter of addressing the environmental injustices that have defined the development of the American West. Minoritized communities must be at the forefront of policy formulation and any solutions to the problems we face.