Documents obtained by Denver’s KUSA News, released today, indicate that the EPA knew of the possibility of a toxic spill at the Gold King Mine near Silverton before it happened. Did the EPA take adequate measures to avoid the August 5th spill that polluted the Animas River threatening the health of tens of thousands in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona?
Denver’s KUSA TV requested documents from the EPA under the Freedom of Information Act. These documents show that the EPA knew the possibility the mine could have had a “blow-out of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediments from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals.”
According to the documents, in May the EPA had a work plan in place to improve accessibility to the mine. It had also planned to dig into the blockage at the entrance to Gold King Mine from the top down, and drain any water trapped behind as they worked downward. The EPA knew the mine could have backed-up water, and the water could contain chemicals that would present a problem to public health.
The EPA considered the cleanup to be a time critical removal. As it turns out, the mine discharge was a “significant contributor of manganese, copper, zinc and cadmium into the Cement creek drainage of the Animas River watershed.”
The orange colored water has cleared up and the river is now open to rafters, but the EPA warns the fish is still unsafe to eat. Beneath the surface, danger still lurks. The heavy metals have settled to the river bottom where they can be stirred up by a person or animal wading, a storm or heavy runoff. The Denver Post reported that those remaining metals on the river bottom still could affect aquatic life, agriculture and other aspects of life along the water in ways that are difficult to predict.
“The long-term effects are the concern that every time we have some sort of a high-water event, whether a good rain in the mountains or spring runoff next year, that’s going to stir up sediments and remobilize those contaminants that are sitting at the bottom of the river right now,” said Ty Churchwell, Colorado backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited.
Dan Olson, executive director of the environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance told The Denver Post “People on the ground understand that what we don’t know is what we’re worried about. And that’s the sediment issue.”
Members of the Navajo tribe, which spans 27,600 square miles across three states, anxiously waited and watched as yellow-orange sludge streamed into their sacred San Juan River four days after the spill. The calamity has sent a wide swath of the tribe, already suffering from serious economic depression, into further disarray. The Navajos, whose land has been suffering from a long drought, fear the Gold King Mine disaster will have impacts for decades.
The San Juan River remains closed in the Navajo Nation, and officials have warned farmers and ranchers against using its waters for crops or livestock. Irrigation wells are bone dry, and much of the tribal yield is either dying off or already dead.
Roy Etcitty of Shiprock, N.M. explained how the disaster is another example of why “us (sic) Indians don’t trust the government.” He hasn’t watered his fields since officials closed the San Juan, and his horses have been blocked from drinking its waters. He said the calamity is just another in a long line of American Indian oppression.
The EPA is developing a plan to remove the toxic metals from the river. How soon that will happen and whether Republicans in Congress will fund it remain to be seen. Meanwhile, there are thousands of abandoned mines in Colorado and other Western states. No one has the responsibility to inspect these non-operating abandoned mines or force the owners to protect the public from calamities like the Gold King disaster. Is the Gold King a canary in the mine?