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‹ The Weekly Green

Pandora’s Box

August 15, 2015

There has been quite some concern in recent years about possible attempts to poison our water supply. It is generally assumed that such attempts would be made by foreigners with an ax to grind with the U.S. But who needs foreigners? We can manage it quite well by ourselves!

imagesLast week, contractors for the EPA using improper equipment to open the abandoned Gold King mine in Colorado for inspection caused a major toxic waste spill. Three million gallons of mining sludge containing a wide variety of heavy metals such as lead, as well as arsenic, spilled into the Animas river and colored it bright yellow. The Animas river feeds into the San Juan River, which in turn is a major tributary of the Colorado River itself, so that’s where the muck is heading.

The EPA reckons that by the time the plume reaches the Colorado, it will be diluted to harmless concentrations; on another positive note, early tests show no effects on the fish. In the meantime the list of affected communities is extensive and is sure to grow even longer as the plume makes its way downstream.

Earthworks, a national nonprofit organization addressing the adverse impacts of mining, estimates that there are half a million such abandoned mines in the U.S., more than 24,000 of them in Arizona. Given those numbers, an accident like the Gold King disaster can be considered extremely rare, although that may not be much comfort for those in its wake.

Abandoned mines in Arizona. (Courtesy Earthworks)

But the same thing is happening at all of those mines, all be it much less rapidly. All over the nation, the toxic waste left after the ore was exhausted leaches into the ground and into the aquifers. According to Earthworks, 40% of the rivers feeding into the Western watersheds are polluted from mining.

The EPA estimates the cost of cleaning all that up at 50 billion dollars. But only a tiny fraction of that amount is currently available, because mining in the U.S. is stll governed by a 163-year old law signed by Ulysses S. Grant to promote development of the West. It basically gives away the right to extract minerals from public lands to domestic and foreign companies alike for free. There are no clean-up provisions and, unlike the coal mining industry,  no clean-up fee is imposed on the ore mining companies.

At long last, a bill to change this antiquated law was recently introduced by Raul Grijalva, D-AZ. It would generate a clean-up fund of $200 million a year from a reclamation fee charged to the mining industry. It would also create about 13,000 jobs. Yes, there’s a future in cleaning up!

More information on the Animas spill and the issue of abandoned mines in general can be found at the Earthworks website. The Arizona Geological Survey also has a lot of useful information. This issue of The Weekly Green is based in part on an article by Earthworks’ policy director Lauren Pagel.


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