It has been a little over one year since a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) caused an adit breach at the Gold King Mine, situated in the high mountains that spire above the historic mining town of Silverton, Colorado. The entire region, known for its prolific mountainside mining activity in the late 1800's, felt the impact of this monumental remediation mishap, spewing millions of gallons of contaminated mine tailings into waterways that spanned from Colorado to New Mexico, through Utah, traversing several tribal nations (including the Southern Utes and Navajo Nation) and finally settling in Lake Powell in Arizona.
For a very well researched and thorough investigation into what took place up to the date of the August 5, 2015 mine breach, take a look at Jonathan Thompson's article for the High Country News, which can be found here.
A series of reactions, both predictable and surprising, came about as a result of this environmental disaster. Finger pointing, oodles of apologies, costly and ongoing remediation to stem the flow of acid laden mine water, and the acknowledgment that something has to be done to collaboratively fix our Western history of thousands of contaminated mines were some of the more predictable results. The one unpredictable result? The collective realization that this storied region should be given the National Priority List (NPL) designation--in effect creating the country's newest Superfund site (named the Bonita Peak Mining District, for reasons articulated in the High Country News article linked to this post above). The EPA continues to map out a plan for this proposed NPL designation, and their dedicated webpage for the Bonita Peak Mining District can be found here.
As a collective NEPA, CERCLA, and RCRA junkie, the prospect of having this entire 48-mine region designated as a Superfund site is fascinating to some of us in the RSE Group, mainly because many residents of the surrounding area, and some mining entities, fought this designation for years. Some believe that commercially viable mining can still be conducted in these high mountains, hoping to bring the brittle bones of these old mines back to life. However, designating this mining district as a Superfund site precludes any mining activity from being conducted, leaving the area alone so environmental engineers and specialists can attempt to tame the acidic slurry that continues to belch from the peaks above Silverton, trickle into tributaries, and find its way into waterways across the Four Corners area.
Another action that cannot surprise anyone (especially those of us who are environmental lawyers) is the lawsuit that the state of New Mexico filed against, among others, the state of Colorado, the EPA, and various owners and prior owners of the mines that contributed to the disaster. Nobody here at the RS & E Group recommends that you read the initial lawsuit filing from cover to cover....but if you are that kind of person who likes your litigation peppered with some strong admonitions and a bit of a history lesson, then it is worth a read. The link to the filing (which weighs in at over 100 pages!!) can be found here.
At the end of the day, the tale of the Gold King Mine is one that has played out in this region in a number of small ways for decades. Mines that were worked by men who used donkeys to haul their take and who used pics and axes to carve out the belly of some of the country's highest mountain ranges are now dotting the mountains of Colorado. These same mines were poorly retired, with most never being properly remediated. It will take some time to see if the newly proposed Bonita Peak Mining District will accomplish its task of finally fixing the problems of these abandoned mines, but this whole process provides a stark reminder to all of us who live in the West that we inherited a landscape that can simultaneously be a blessing and a curse.
We'll be back with another Tale from the Dispatch as we segue into the Fall (our favorite time of year!!)
The RSE Group