A Yellow River Runs Through It: the Animas Disaster and the Great Web of Things

As all the world knows by now, one of the last remaining undammed* major rivers in the west, the Animas River, in southwestern Colorado, was damned with a 3 million gallon slug of toxic mine waste on August 5.

The devastation was so visually disturbing that pictures of the river’s flow, a diaper-mustard colored concoction laced with heavy metals, made the front page of the New York Times.  

The slug passed out of the state in a few days, and Colorado’s Governor, John Hickenlooper, (Hick, to his friends) quickly declared the emergency over by drinking water from the river in Durango, Colorado, one of the state’s tourist centers.  He’d taken the precaution of adding an iodine tablet, quipping after his act of derring-do,  “If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help.”

Hickenlooper made a similar symbolic gesture when he downed a dram of fracking fluid in testimony before a congressional committee several years back to show that the business of fracking is safe.  He failed to mention the fluid he was drinking had never been used in Colorado up to that time because of its high cost, cheaper more toxic brews were available and used.  More revealing, he has never volunteered to drink the liquid toxic waste coming back from fracking operations, even with the benefit of an iodine tablet.

Concerning the governor’s Animas caper, Patty Calhoun, editor of the local Westword Magazine, remarked on a Denver political TV program that Hick really knew how to use a photo op, drolly observing, “when he drinks ‘bong’ water, we’ll know the marijuana industry is here to stay.”

The Denver Post, local vigilantes, political Know-Nothings, and   several offices of state government were quick to voice varying levels of condemnation of EPA for the disaster.   Despite the nativist, antigovernment drumbeat, the federal EPA did not cause the problem, obviously.

Gold mining in the Animas drainage is the first cause.  Over 200 abandoned mines exist in the Animas headwaters.  Indeed, over 22,000 abandoned mines exist across the state, degrading the water quality and harming or eliminating fisheries in roughly 10,000 miles of rivers and streams.  Based on nationwide estimates, the cleanup of Colorado’s abandoned mines might cost the taxpayers over $3 billion, possibly much more.

Colorado has no cleanup plan and has, in fact, been raiding the state’s mine severance tax, the revenue source for mine cleanup, to cover other expenses and programs.

Secondarily, a local group from the Durango-Silverton area of Colorado, made up of mine owners and a wide variety of local business interests opposed to a Superfund designation and the accompanying federally supervised cleanup of the mining area, sought cheaper, incremental solutions to the problem–solutions that were minimally disruptive of local business interests, including mining interests.

Calling themselves the Animas River Stakeholders Group, ARSG, and funded with the help of grants from EPA and others, their culpability in the present disaster began almost immediately after their formation when they advanced support for state approval of a “least-cost” fix to stanch toxic drainage from a recently closed mine in the Animas headwaters above Silverton, Colorado.  The fix was to install a series of concrete plugs.  This fix was approved by Governor Roy Romer’s administration.  He will appear again in this narrative.

The mine to be plugged, called the Sunnyside Mine, was the largest and most productive gold mine in the Animas headwaters.  When still operating, the mine operators treated the mine’s acid discharge at an onsite water treatment plant.  But once the mine closed and the income stream supporting onsite treatment vanished, mine executives sought a cheaper solution, plugging was much cheaper.

The Sunnyside Mine is owned by the Kinross Gold Corporation, with $3.8 billion in revenues in 2013.  A Canadian corporation, several years back it received an A- in the Canadian weekly, McLeans, as a socially responsible corporation.  They have threatened EPA with a countersuit if it tries to designate the mining area for cleanup under CERCLA, Superfund.  The company received an environmental exemption from the state for any damage assessment that might be associated with plugging.

Coloradoans have ample experience with Canadian mining companies.  It was a Canadian company that caused the Summitville mine disaster in the Rio Grande River drainage in 1992.   Summitville eventually became a Superfund site and cost the American taxpayers $155 million to clean up.  Site maintenance will cost the American people another $1 million annually in perpetuity.

Ken Salazar, the state’s Attorney General at the time, and a humdrum politician of magisterial mediocracy, promised to take on the Canadians and get the state’s money back for cleanup costs.  He got nothing, but the new-sheriff-in-town posturing, a self-characterization of his own coinage, probably helped him win a seat in the Senate and to eventually become President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Interior. He was in command at Interior when fire and explosion killed 11 workers at the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf.  Raging uncontrolled for 3 months, Deepwater spewed an estimated 210 millions gallons of oil and toxins into the Gulf.  It is clearly the largest environmental disaster in the country’s deplorable environmental history with regard to extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

As with the plugging decision at the Sunnyside Mine on the Animas, Roy Romer, as governor, presided over the Summitville disaster on the Rio Grande.  Ken Salazar had been Romer’s chief of staff, before he appointed him AG.  Like Hick, a business governor, Romer had taken the mining company’s equipment at Summitville as bond in lieu of cash, claiming the state needed the jobs so concessions in the requirements of state law for bonding needed to be made.

The plugging of the Sunnnyside Mine was opposed from the get-go by the technical staff at EPA.  They warned correctly that plugging would cause the water trapped in the mine to rise like running water in a bathtub until it reached an overflow opening.  In this case, mines at higher elevation on the mountain, of which there are 3, were the overflows.  The Gold King mine is the one that blew August the 5th and discharged the 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas, but all three have experienced increased drainage problems.

Several days ago in Popular Science, Mark Williams, Professor of Geology at the University of Colorado, described the mine hydrology precipitating the blowout at Gold King in this way:

He (Williams) suggests thinking of the mountain occupied by Sunnyside and the three other mines as a multistory building, with Sunnyside on the first floor. As Williams describes it, rain and snow fall on the roof and trickle down to the first floor, and run out the door. When the door is plugged, the water has nowhere to go and it will continue to rise floor by floor, from Sunnyside to Red and Bonita, Gold King and Mogul.

While hazardous conditions in Red and Bonita (Mine) have prevented efforts to determine exactly how the water could rise from one mine to another, natural fractures and uncharted mine shafts are the likely culprits.

According to Williams, the EPA had warned state officials of this very potential before the Sunnyside work began.

That is not to say that mines should never be plugged. The lesson is that such work should be undertaken with a Plan B prepared in case of unintended consequences, namely, discharges from other potentially connected mines.

Evidently, ARSG had no Plan B. That left the EPA to play catchup.

The roll of ARSG and the state is more devious or duplicitous perhaps than Williams and Popular Science allow.  Indeed, it was EPA’s regional director, Bill Yellowtail, a political appointee, who agreed at the urging of the state and ARSG to not seek listing of the mining district in the Animas headwaters as a Superfund site.  This was in 1996.  As mentioned earlier, Roy Romer was governor, and without a consent letter from his office a Superfund designation could not stand. Obviously, such a letter was not forthcoming.

Yellowtail’s technical staff were flummoxed, their hands effectively tied, but this disastrous agreement has stood in the way ever since, with the United States Attorney General reminding EPA of the agreement whenever the subject of Superfund and the Animas drainage resurfaced.  As indeed it did as discharges from the web of mines influenced by the Sunnyside plugging increased their historic discharges exponentially. The Red and Bonita mine went from discharging 5 gallons per minute to 300 gallons per minute after the plugs were installed at Sunnyside.  In 2005 EPA reported that over 20 miles of stream below the mines were once again sterile from acid drainage.

Apparently incapable of learning from experience, the state and ARSG advocated adding concrete plugs at the Red and Bonita Mine this year to remediate the increasing mine drainage.  According to Williams, this was why EPA was at the Gold King mine.  EPA reasoned it could not safely monitor plugging impacts at the Red and Bonita Mine because of mine cave ins and other worker risks there.  So, monitoring was to be done at Gold King where a temporary earthen plug had been installed.

In attempting to gauge pressure and mine drainage buildup behind the earthen plug, EPA’s contractor unintentionally breached the plug sending the built up mine drainage down the river.  EPA had asked that release and pressure valves be installed in the temporary plug, but the state and ARSG didn’t comply, perhaps to save money.

Had the valves been installed it is very possible the rupture that allowed 3 million gallons of toxic waste to rush down the drainage–past Durango, whose recreation and tourism industry is river dependent, past Farmington, NM, through the Navajo Nation, and past all the irrigated farmland in between, to eventually reside in Lake Powell and the entire Colorado River system below–might not have occurred.

It’s unlikely all these downstream economic interests and the 40 million people who rely on the Colorado River system for their drinking water will be quite so sanguine about the Gold King spill as Hick.   In fact, the Navajo Nation, like others, has been quick to point the finger at EPA in the blame game.  It is threatening a lawsuit, and the Denver Post seems to be fanning the flames for litigation.  The rest of us, unfortunately, have no such option since we can’t sue the state for its disastrous piddling, nor can we sue the EPA for its fecklessness. They are us, and we will pay.

The Navajo government in seeking compensation might find a willing foil in Senator McCain who was recently run off the Navajo Nation’s land by grassroots Navajo incensed over his last-minute rider to the Defense Bill authorizing a copper mine on neighboring Apache land.   The grassroots group chanted stop destroying our land, our air, and poisoning our people.  McCain retreated into one of those spookily comedic black government SUVs with Darth Vader tinted windows and sped off, but he knows well the value of well-directed public money dedicated to resurrecting political standing.

Bags of public money pumped into a local economy to reinflate political reputation is not only a time worn remedy, but in this case, it affords Congress the continuing opportunity to bash federal environmental protection as unworkable and costly.

Many everyday citizens out west also bash the EPA.   For them, its acronym signifies not so much the Environmental Protection Agency, but more that Everybody’s Polluting Again.  This is not to say that the majority of people don’t want environmental protection, and this is of course true in the Durango/Silverton area as well, but that EPA is becoming increasingly toothless in protecting the nation’s air, land, and water against a corporate invasion girdled in governmental protections and shortsighted government/business arrangements, a marriage that some are starting to equate with classic fascism.

Since the Animas disaster, voices are already asking, both locally and around the state, that a permanent fix be found for the Animas River mining problem.  Some of the more experienced voices are asking that the Arkansas River model be examined for its applicability.  Leadville, a mining town at the headwaters of the Arkansas, was designated a Superfund site.  With cleanup, the Arkansas became one of the state’s best fishing and recreation destinations.  Salida, the major town in the headwaters, has become a Mecca for young people and artists.  The federally led cleanup of the Arkansas is a success by any reasonable yardstick.

What has not been heard, at least not yet, is a call for a ban on any kind of mining in the state’s headwaters that might destroy or substantially diminish the public’s rivers, streams, and groundwater.  With an inventory of 22,000 abandoned mines, can we afford more?  Should future generations be saddled economically and environmentally by our inaction and the complicity of an increasingly corrupt government?

Furthermore, should we be looking more broadly at the legacy we are leaving behind?  For example, the 3 million gallons of toxic waste dumped into the Animas is roughly equivalent to the toxic waste from one horizontally fracked well.  Yes, that’s right, just one well.   Most of that waste is being dumped into our deep groundwater, largely unexamined for its toxicity under the flimsy excuse that we will never need the groundwater reservoir, for in most cases the receiving groundwater is very mineralized, salty.

There are roughly 50,000 active wells in this state, most, if not all of them, producing various amounts of toxic liquid waste, much of it pumped under pressure into our groundwater.  Here EPA does bear substantial blame, for the dumping is being done under an EPA program that hasn’t been thoroughly reevaluated since its inception in 1982, decades before fracking became the standard for oil and gas production.  That the agency’s negligence has been shaped by political threats and industry pressure is also assured.  The agency’s scientists and engineers will have to stand and wait.

And for another real eye opener, the liquid toxic waste that is generated annually from oil and gas in Colorado, 16 billion gallons in 2013 according to state records, exceeds the 210 million gallons spewed from the Deepwater Horizon disaster by over 76 times, and it happens every year.  In allowing government to serve vested economic interests such as mining and oil, are we not silently but relentlessly making the entire state a toxic waste dump?

In light of the foregoing perhaps it is appropriate that Hick drank from the Animas River, for from the Spanish, it is also known as the River of Lost Souls.


*An offstream reservoir exists immediately downstream of Durango.   It is named Nighthorse Reservoir after former Senator Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell who left the senate under a cloud, reportedly for influence peddling.  Water from the Animas River is pumped 500 feet uphill to feed it.  It cost the American taxpayers over $600 million to build.  Hardly any of it will be repaid because those who wanted it didn’t want it enough to pay for it, so our government reasoned we must want to. Only a pittance of its water is used, though the state, with Hick as Governor, did pay $12 million for a dab of water a couple of years back that would have otherwise gone to the Ute Indians.  The state has no use for the water, but neither do the Utes.  Though filled since 2011, no recreation exists at the reservoir.  Tourism interests in Durango are trying to get the locals to ante up to build boat docks and beaches.  Governor Romer and AG/Senator Salazar along with the rest of our congressional delegation strongly supported building this monstrosity.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net