Ken and I sometimes present 1913 Massacre as a film about “mining’s toxic legacy.” Over the past week or so, that phrase has started to take on new meaning.
On Wednesday, August 4th, an EPA crew working with heavy digging machinery to install a drain in the abandoned and flooded Gold King Mine breached a debris dam and triggered the release of over three million gallons of toxic orange sulfide mining sludge into Cement Creek, which joins the Animas River at Silverton, Colorado. The Animas flows for about a hundred miles, through the San Juan National Forest and the town of Durango, to meet the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River, in Farmington, New Mexico. Before the weekend, Farmington’s waters had turned orange. At the start of this week, the toxic plume of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium and aluminum had reached Utah.
The Gold King is still draining, at an alarming rate of well over 500 gallons per minute. EPA crews have been working to construct settling ponds where the mine wastewater can be treated before it flows into Cement Creek; but the agency has otherwise stumbled in its efforts to handle the crisis and keep the public fully informed. EPA Region 8 officials were slow to acknowledge the magnitude of the Animas River disaster and they’ve appeared reluctant to share water quality data and issue appropriate advisories. That has invited some well-deserved criticism as well as some political grandstanding, with politicians from Colorado to New Mexico and Arizona lambasting the agency, urging that EPA hold itself to the same level of accountability as it would hold any private entity responsible for such a spill, and demanding compensation for damages. Colorado State Senator Ellen Roberts dubbed the Animas “the EPA Love Canal.”
Of course, there is much more to the story. The abandoned mines around Silverton — the Gold King, the Red and Bonita, and the American Tunnel — have been releasing hundreds of gallons of toxic wastewater every minute, every day, for nearly a decade. The Sunnyside Gold Corporation stopped treating the water in Cement Creek in 2003. The EPA was trying to remedy the problem; but the EPA and legal provisions in the Clean Water Act also stymied earlier efforts of good samaritan groups like the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
In truth, the Gold King catastrophe looks less like the result of a sudden breach and more like a slow-motion disaster that has been unfolding for decades, in Silverton and throughout the American West. Towns that historically depended on mining for their livelihood, or still hope for mining’s return, as Silverton did as late as 2013, tend to forgive, or turn a blind eye, to what one 2013 Durango Herald article calls “gross environmental malfeasance.” The problem is much more widespread than most people could ever have imagined: according to the federal government, “40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.”
Like it or not, this is our industrial heritage. We have a responsibility to deal with the toxic legacy of mining’s past. At the same time we ought to remember that mining, and especially non-ferrous or sulfide mining, still poses a serious threat to American waters. Sure, mining and water treatment technologies have improved. But “treating water,” as the EPA’s Steve Way put it in 2014, “is a forever decision”; and neither industry nor government demonstrate unwavering commitment to that decision. So we have yet to clean up the mess left by mining companies that operated in the last century; and we continue to permit risky mining operations that will contaminate groundwaters and are likely to kill rivers, decimate wetlands, and pollute our waters.
As people in the Lake Superior region — where our film is set, and which in recent years has witnessed a new run of exploration, leasing and mining activity — watched the Animas disaster unfold, many expressed the same thought: “imagine this coming down the St. Louis River.” “We can’t let this happen to the Boundary Waters.” In the Upper Peninsula, where Lundin Mining is now making a bid to expand sulfide mining operations to the headwaters of the Yellow Dog River, people are worried that today’s mining will irreparably damage waterways that managed to escape, or have just begun to recover from, yesterday’s destruction.
The Animas River disaster serves as a stark reminder of how extensive the damage already is, and how much we still have to lose.