This week, a river running through Colorado turned orange after Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally broke through a dam at an abandoned mine site, spilling 3 million gallons of lead and arsenic-laden mine waste into the Animas River.
The spill was a major disaster — it caused lead levels in the river to spike to nearly 12,000 times higher than the EPA-accepted safe mark, and arsenic levels to rise to 26 times higher than the EPA recommends. The spill prompted New Mexico’s governor to issue a state of emergency, and the Navajo Nation, which depends heavily on the river, is considering suing the EPA.
The EPA has taken full responsibility for the spill, but some groups are hoping the spill brings attention to an over-a-century-old law that has helped contribute to the large number of abandoned mines that still need cleaning up today. As Al Jazeera reports, there are about 2,700 abandoned hard rock mines in the United States that still need cleaning up.
New laws have mandated that new mines get cleaned up, but these old mines are regulated under the General Mining Law of 1872, which allows mining companies to avoid paying royalties for the minerals they mine and doesn’t contain provisions for environmental protections. These abandoned mines have polluted water before — both through drainage of contaminants and through major spills like the one that affected the Animas River.
“This is a problem everyone has known about and we all predicted there would be a catastrophic failure at some point,” Mark Williams, a fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, told CBS News.
Some environmental groups say that it’s this law that needs addressing if another spill like this one is to be avoided.
“While EPA triggered the disaster, the true culprit is lax federal laws that allow mining companies to pollute public waterways with impunity. The antiquated 1872 mining law must be reformed to protect surface and groundwater quality,” New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance said in an emailed statement. “It is long past due for Congress to update the 1872 Mining Law so that our water resources are better protected, mining companies are held accountable, and we don’t have more toxic tragedies like the one that is flowing down the Animas River today.”
Claire Moser, research and advocacy associate with the public lands team at the Center for American Progress, agreed.
“Under this outdated law, mining companies are able to extract billions of dollars of minerals on America’s public lands essentially for free, often with no liability for environmental cleanup,” she said in an email. “The Animas spill disaster highlights the broader need for reform of this 143-year-old law to ensure that taxpayers receive a fair share of publicly-owned resources and that mining companies are responsible for cleanup.”
Legislation aimed at updating the law has been introduced — as environmental group Earthworks wrote in an op-ed, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced a bill that would generate $200 million in mining industry fees that would go towards abandoned mine restoration.
Meanwhile, the EPA and other groups are working to quantify the damage caused to the river by the spill. Agency testing Wednesday showed that the water in the river had returned to pre-spill quality — meaning those levels of contaminants had come down — and there have been no reports of fish or insect die-offs in the river.
“We’re seeing survival of major species of insects including some very sensitive species so that’s good news,” said Aaron Kimple, program director at Mountain Studies Institute in Colorado, which conducted tests of the river before the plume came through and is continuing to test the river now.
Kimple said he was waiting on the results of the water tests to see what the levels of contaminants looked like. But he said his bigger concern, since he hadn’t seen any fish or insect die-off, was whether the contaminants could settle into the bottom of the river. If that happens, major rain or snow runoff could stir the contaminants back up.
Kimple said he’s not panicked about the spill — he notes that several abandoned mines in the area have been slowly leaching contaminants into surrounding bodies of water for years, but that leakage hasn’t caused the river to fail water quality tests. But he did say the disaster pointed to the need for more monitoring, both of the river and of these other abandoned mines.
“This could happen again in mines upriver, and we need to be thinking into the future about how we approach our remediation efforts,” he said.