Animas River disaster: what you need to know

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

POLS UPDATE: AP reports on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s visit to Durango today:

Colorado’s governor thinks a mine spill accidentally triggered by an EPA crew will move the state and federal government to more aggressively tackle the “legacy of pollution” left by mining in the West.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday that much of the wastewater has been plugged up, but the state and the Environmental Protection Agency need to speed up work to identify the most dangerous areas and clean them up.

The former geologist says that if there’s a “silver lining” to the disaster, it will be a new relationship between the state and the EPA to solve the problem.

During a visit to the Animas River in Durango, downstream from the spill, Hickenlooper said tremendous progress has already been made. He hopes the river will be open for recreation in the next few days.


Last week, a crew working for the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce pollution from abandoned mines near Silverton accidentally released a torrent of mine wastewater into a tributary of the Animas River. This polluted water flowed through the city of Durango, turning the Animas bright yellow and forcing water users along the river to shut off irrigation and drinking water. Rafting and other tourism-related businesses in the area have been devastated by the sudden loss of income at the height of the tourist season.

It’s a very difficult situation, and unfortunately, some are trying to make it even worse by playing politics and misleading the public about the true cause of the disaster. Here are a few important points to help understand what happened and what it means for the future in southwest Colorado. Please share this information with your friends and neighbors.

Q. Did the EPA “cause” the Animas River mine water spill?

Yes and no. Abandoned hard-rock mines in the mountains above Silverton have been a source of water pollution for many years. The EPA was investigating ongoing water pollution from these mines. A large quantity of wastewater had built up behind loose debris and rushed out suddenly after the entrance to the mine was cleared. In short, the EPA did cause the spill, but not the pollution itself. The EPA was working to clean up the pollution.

Q. If these mines have been polluting for decades, why isn’t the cleanup operation a Superfund site?

Unfortunately, the designation of abandoned mines near Silverton as an EPA Superfund cleanup site, which would allow far more resources to be deployed to clean up mine water pollution, has been opposed by the local government of San Juan County and mining interests. Some say the designation would hurt tourism revenue, but more importantly, mining interests fear restrictions on future operations if the Superfund were used to clean up existing pollution. Mining companies have consistently failed to take responsibility for the longstanding pollution problems near Silverton and thousands of other mine sites across Colorado and the West.

Q. What happens next?

As water conditions in the Animas River slowly return to their pre-spill state, the state and federal governments are working together to assess the extent of the damage and restore the river to health and economic prosperity. It’s critical that local businesses and water users get help and compensation to minimize their losses. But above all, it’s time for mining interests and local politicians who support them to get out of the way of properly cleaning up Silverton’s polluted abandoned mines. Without the full resources of the federal government to treat mine wastewater and prevent catastrophic build-ups, downstream communities along the Animas will continue to be threatened by disaster.

Please take a moment to share this important information with your friends and neighbors–especially in the areas affected by the spill. Traditional opponents of the EPA like oil and coal companies are misusing this incident to unfairly attack good people who are working to leave our state better than they found it. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to clean up the mess caused by the mining industry in the past. And when the news cameras are gone and the politicians are done talking, the EPA will still have an important job to do in southwest Colorado.

Thanks very much for helping us set the record straight.

30 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. Moderatus says:

    The left is the government's PR agency. How unsurprising and pathetic.

    • Progressicat says:

      Moddy, why was there 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste water waiting to be released by the EPA operation?  Which was already leaking out, by the way.  Who is responsible for that, and, more important, what are you willing to require of existing extraction operations to prevent such buildups in the future?

    • So tell me how this is supposed to work in Conservative-land, Moddy…

      Mine company abandons mine without any environmental protections in place. It leaks poisons into the local water supply. Mine company suggests it will pay the government a fraction of the full cost of remediation, which the government rejects as bad business. Mine company and local government oppose a full-scale cleanup. EPA comes along to figure out if they can minimize the spillage already happening, unleashing a torrent of backed-up pollution still in the mine.

      Are you suggesting that EPA is responsible for the pollution? That this is a government problem?

    • Bokonon says:

      I guess Moderatus thinks that "the left" is an organized force reading off a set of talking points handed down from on high, and spreading propaganda for a relentless partisan purpose.  


      But gee … I wonder where Moderatus gets that operational model from?  Could it maybe come from looking in the mirror, and projecting his own services for the GOP?

      • BlueCat says:

        It's why he has no idea there's any such thing as independent thought. Thus, no point in engaging. Just drop the point and move on. He figures that's what everybody does. You do notice he never reads and responds to any of our responses to his inanities?

    • Gilpin Guy says:

      How is it that this buffoon always gets the first post and then never comes back and then 'the left' gets all twisted undies about this joker?  He's a nothingburger who just 'happens' to be around for the first post but never seems to return again to engage in healthy dialogue about his delusional 'facts'.  Why even bother posting a reply to someone who deliberately avoids any back and forth?

  2. Diogenesdemar says:

    How long before Hickenlooper drinks some?

  3. And of course Sunnyside Gold Corp. (a subsidiary of Echo Bay Mines) suggests that it's willing to pay $6.5 million to wash its hands of all liability. I wonder how much this single disaster will cost – and will EPA bill them the extra cost of the disaster for leaving the site unremediated?

  4. Conserv. Head Banger says:

    I'll say upfront that I'm not opposed to hard rock mining and no one else should be either. We all use products of mining every day. The biggest problem is the 1872 mining act that is long overdue for reform; among other problems, the taxpayers get few if any royalties from products mined from their public lands.  

    Companies that want to do hard rock mining should still be approved for such activity where it's appropriate and if they're using best available technology. Reclamation should be required; no different from reclamation requirements for coal and oil/gas producers. Bonding requirements need to be much higher than current.

    Final thought:  Stuart Sanderson, head of the Colorado Mining Congress, seems to be laying low during the Animas incident (at least I haven't seen anything in the Post). He's usually out in front opposing any reasonable restrictions on mining. Maybe it's time for Mr. Sanderson to realize that environmental protections when doing hard rock mining is good for business.    C.H.B.

    • MichaelBowman says:

      So far it's been 'good great for business'. For his members.  They're like a bad line from the Jerry Reed hit, "She (Sunnyside) got the gold mine, I (we) (John Q. Public) got the shaft"   

      I have my doubts that CMA will have any change of heart. Like the REA/coal cabal, they're just holding their breath hoping they can replace the black squatter in their White House with an environmentally-tone-deaf business-friendly R in 2016.  Then the good times will roll once again. 

    • Gilpin Guy says:

      Good points C.H.B.  I live in Gilpin County which has a rich history of mining and the contributions that miners have made to our mountain communities along with thousands of abandoned mines.  Since we are so close to Denver, there are mines where bodies have been disposed.  Mine remediation is not a simple one size fits all task but there are thousands of mines that carry huge risks of environmental pollution if they are not dealt with soon.  I think it would be beneficial to review the Serverance Tax rates to see if there needs to be an adjustment to handle this problem of abandoned mines.

      The Good Samaritan shield is also an idea that might be needed for our times.  If people are going to be sued out of existence for trying to fix mines with unknown problems then maybe the government can provide the liability coverage so that someone will step up and do the job.  You are going to have to use contractors or have an explosion of growth in the public sector and they need to be covered for damage liability.


    • ajb says:

      Maybe it's time for Mr. Sanderson to realize that environmental protections when doing hard rock mining is good for business.

      Not when you're a Canadian company that operates the mine through a subsidiary that can declare bankruptcy and walk away. 

    • MADCO says:

      Hmm, reasonable and facty. Are you sure this is the best messaging?

    • Duke Cox says:

      Mr. Sanderson has powerful allies in fighting tooth and nail any effort to amend the "1872". It is, as I understand it,  the basis for the privilege afforded the petroleum industry in the balance of power between the estates (surface and mineral).

      Sacrosanct, it is, to the multi-gazillion dollar corporations that own our government and perpetuate the dinosaur poop economy…..

  5. mamajama55 says:

    Excellent update from Kos' Thinking Fella. My takeaways: The sludge is being washed downstream, as it has since talings spills were first reported in 1899, the fish are surviving, and the Navajo Nation is screwed. As usual.

  6. MADCO says:

    Clearly, God is punishing the downstream populations for something. I don't see why the mine owners  should be responsible for a problem someone else noticed.

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