Colorado is home to tens of thousands of abandoned mines. On August 5, 2015, people across the continent watched in disbelief as one of those mines, the Gold King, released over 3 million gallons of a mustard-colored concoction of heavy metals into the Animas River.
Prior to the spill, the nearby Sunnyside Mine, owned by Canada-based Kinross, had wastewater discharge problems. In 1995, Colorado officials agreed to let Sunnyside install bulkhead plugs to try to control the acid draining from their mine. The agreement between Colorado officials and Sunnyside (Echo Bay, now fully owned by Kinross) also led to significant cleanup work along Cement Creek — until a water treatment plant closed in 2003. The agreement waived Colorado's legal ability to prosecute Sunnyside for bulkhead leakage. While this project was approved to reduce pollution, it may have had the opposite effect, pushing wastewater into other mines. Before Sunnyside’s “American” tunnel was plugged, the Gold King Mine discharged seven gallons of water per minute. After the project at the Sunnyside Mine, the discharge from the Gold King Mine grew to 250 gallons of water per minute. This dramatic rise in volume causes the Gold King mine owner to place responsibility on Kinross for the Animas River wastewater spill.
Kinross had threatened the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a countersuit if it tried to designate the mining area for cleanup under Superfund. The company received an environmental exemption from the state for any damage assessment that might be associated with plugging.
A year ago, the EPA decided to investigate Gold King to see where the increase in water was coming from. However, they ran out of time to complete the work, and elected to seal the mine. When they went back to see what kind of pressure was behind the dam, contractors inadvertently breached the dam, sending the contaminated plume into the Animas River. Blaming the EPA for the disaster is analogous to blaming a firefighter for kicking down the door to a burning house. The volume of wastewater that had built up in the mine was out of control, a problem that was not caused by the EPA, but rather was being investigated by the agency.
The Kinross Buckhorn Mine is scheduled to run out of gold ore soon. They currently treat 26 million gallons of contaminated groundwater annually, but the treated water still does not meet permit standards outside of where the farthest extent of contamination is allowed. The bond that Ecology holds is inadequate to ensure that the mine will be cleaned up to what it was before mining. Kinross strongly objects to using the background water quality as the cleanup standard (as the waste discharge permit requires), and has indicated that it would like to replace the current state-of-the-art treatment process with a less expensive facility.
An important lesson to be learned from the Colorado mine disaster is that the state should not let a multinational gold company domineer. Ecology can and should require a bond equal to the full cost of long-term cleanup. Kinross made hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at the Buckhorn Mine, and the state requirements for cleaning up the water to what it was before mining is the right thing to do.