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The Message of the Colorado Mine Disaster

When contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally sprung a leak last August at an abandoned Colorado gold mine, the effect was eye-popping. In a single day, the mine released enough toxic wastewater into the Animas River to fill 60,000 bathtubs.

Animas River Spill, Wikimedia Commons


The river turned a bright orange color. Communities in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah all were affected. The news media rushed to capture the scene.


The spill, which occurred at the Gold King mine near Silverton, was an environmental disaster. But it has at least had the effect of focusing attention on what can be done to prevent future mine spills, even prompting committees in both houses of Congress to hold hearings. So far the shape of the public debate shouldn’t come as a surprise: how people are responding depends on who they blame for the spill.


Some people see what happened as mainly a failure by the EPA. The spill happened when an EPA contractor trying to remediate the mine accidentally dislodged a rock that was holding back water laden with toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Publicly-released documents show that the EPA knew about the risks of a blowout in 2014. The EPA has been criticized for causing the spill and for not notifying the public soon enough in the spill’s aftermath.


Environmentalists have tried to broaden the discussion. They note that the mine was already leaking toxic waste before the blowout—which is why the EPA was there in the first place. They also say that Congress hasn’t provided enough funding to clean up the toxic legacy left by the hard rock mining activities of the past. According to Earthworks, an environmental group, there are an estimated 500,000 abandoned and un-reclaimed mines in the U.S., many of which are slowly polluting waterways or at risk for a blowout. Earthworks wants Congress to reform mining laws and require currently operating mining companies to pay a fee to raise billions for remediation.


Earthworks is right. Congress does need to reform mining laws and ask the mining industry to pitch in with cleanup funding. But as the lessons of the spill get debated, it’s also important that a key point isn’t lost. The spill wasn’t just the result of an EPA mistake in August or poor budgeting by Congress. Another way to look at the disaster is as the product of poor decisions made more than a century ago, back when there was little understanding of the lasting environmental consequences of gold mining.


Although the disaster began in one dramatic moment, it was really a slowly unfolding catastrophe resulting from choices made in a distant era. Gold was first discovered at the site back in 1887, at a time when Grover Cleveland was president. The Gold King mine began operating in 1890. When the mine stopped operating in 1923, the environmental risks didn’t end. The mine posed a persistent danger for decades, as water came into contact with heavy metals in exposed underground rocks, drawing out the metals and creating more toxic waste. All of this led up to the events of August 5, 2015, when wastewater escaped from a mine tunnel dug in the 1890s.


There is no way to make abandoned mines disappear—they can only be remediated so that their harm is more contained. But we also have a choice to make, today, about the environmental problems that that we will leave to our descendants living in the 2100s and beyond. That is: we can choose to be cautious about opening new gold mines so that future generations in America and other countries don’t have to deal with our mess.


It is particularly important that we treat new gold mines skeptically since modern industrial gold mines could inflict an even worse environmental nightmare on our great-great grandchildren. For one, many of today’s mines are gigantic compared with the mines of the 1890s. Although some mining companies have become more sophisticated about environmental risks, a miscalculation could pose infinitely more dangers. Further, with easily accessible gold deposits becoming depleted, mining companies are increasingly deciding to mine in ecologically sensitive areas, or in populated regions, raising the stakes of a toxic waste spill. Gold mining companies are also rushing to open mines in developing countries, such as Guatemala, where governments may be less able to effectively regulate mines or monitor the lasting damage. As the Gold King mine disaster shows, it’s hard enough for the EPA, one of the best environmental regulators in the world, to avoid occasional mistakes.


So here’s a thought. If Congress really wants to prevent more Gold King mine disasters, it should take a hard look at the mines that U.S. mining companies are opening in the U.S. and, especially, around the world. And Congress should ask: are mining companies accurately accounting for the long-term risks?


It is often difficult to imagine how the decisions we make today will affect the environment in a hundred years. The Gold King mine spill should be treated like the discovery of a time capsule from 1887, inside of which is a message scrawled in bright orange letters: don’t ignore the long-term consequences of gold mining.

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Comments (40)

Joe Kaiser Says:
December 27th, 2016 at 12:56 am

Do you really hink now that tRump is in office along with the reubikkkan congress that they will ever do anything to alleviate or even stop anymore mining in this whole country?????? No way Jose! They will do nothing! They haven’t done anything for the 8 years O’Bama was President and they will only make matters worse with tRumpthinskin in there.

Sergio Luis Lopez Says:
December 26th, 2016 at 8:15 am

A grand article, but like all environmental time-bombs no concrete action will ever be taken because Gringos are only interested in killing someone to solve a problem. Gringos are at their best when they can blame “terrorists” for their problems.

Michael Pearcey Says:
December 26th, 2016 at 7:46 am

EPA did more damage in a single day than VW has in it’s entire history. VW gave me a top performing Diesel power and mpg. Fire the EPA and put VW in charge.

jim Says:
December 25th, 2016 at 11:58 pm

It is true that there are some old mines that pose potential risk, but some folks seem to foster the idea that mines put toxic substances in the earth while they actually remove them. Mining in the US is currently heavily regulated. If agencies and companies are doing their jobs, there is no need for further regulation. Extracted toxins are safely dealt with. Current mines must submit and conform to strict guidelines. Our ground water naturally seeps through mineral deposits which can affect water quality, but nature, not miners placed it there. However, if a mine disrupts normal water movement, measures are taken, as a rule to mitigate potential hazards.

debbie bullard Says:
December 25th, 2016 at 11:31 pm

do ot ignore this!

Richard S Says:
December 25th, 2016 at 1:20 pm

This is an old story and the release did not contain the levels of toxics they first suspected. The water color was due to the iron in the water (it was rust) This is what is being called fake news paid for by your friendly neighborhood environment wackos

Terry Tubb Says:
December 25th, 2016 at 10:59 am

The EPA was not only Legally and Criminally Negligent, the EPA tried to cover up the Botched job. EPA should have been fined $50 Billion and made to clean UP all those 500 000 mines that is a Fabrication of Sierra Club and SPCA

Paul Hill Says:
December 24th, 2016 at 5:11 pm

Do you really think that the EPA under Trump and his minion is going to be more attentive to the problems of mine reclaimation, let alone any other environmental problem?

Robert Flowers Says:
December 24th, 2016 at 2:01 pm

Stricter Laws need to be passed that require Mine Operators to comply with the 1977 Promulgated Law. The Mine Safety And Health Administration need to hire more Miners as Inspectors and send them to the National Mine Academy for Training. I believe that any new Inspectors have to do 24 module but they only do 2 modules then sent out into the field to start conducting Mine Inspections. There are to few experienced Mine Inspectors to take these New Inspectors out and help Train them. The Mine Safety And Health Administration need Funding and Starting Pay to get additional Miners with Mining Experience to join MSHA. No one wants to starve to death on what MSHA starts the new Miners at. How can about 250 Inspectors do their jobs with no budget to travel to Mines to conduct the required Mine Inspections. 2 for surface and 4 for underground. Top Management in MSHA need to get out of their offices and go to Mines Unannounced as the Law requires Some one in MSHA needs to read the 1977 Promulgated Law New Miner Inspectors need to complete their Training before the are turned loose to start doing Mine Inspections. They need additional funding not a continued regulation of the same funds give them a budget that will let the Administration have the money they need to go out and do Inspections and Protect our Miners. One Mining Death is One to Many. Hold Top MSHA Management Accountable for not getting all active Mines Inspected not the Mine Inspector. If Top MSHA Management fails to abide by the 1977 Law Fire them and replace them with some one that will

December 22nd, 2016 at 9:11 am

did not read any of this–unless some one got fired and fined as the epa would do a private corp–then this is crap!!

James Vee Says:
December 19th, 2016 at 5:23 am

See BHP’s cleanup of the San Manuel Mine and Smelter in S. Arizona. They did it right! Their efforts should be used as an example.

James Vee Says:
December 19th, 2016 at 5:20 am

The EPA should not escape accountability for Increasing the tragedy immensely with their own actions.

Thomas Says:
December 18th, 2016 at 2:53 pm

I have news for Ya’ll, that the Animas river ha been that “ORANGE” color for as long as I’ve been going to Silverton (over 25 years).

Tom Says:
December 18th, 2016 at 1:13 pm

If we make modern mines pay for mistakes made over a hundred years ago the cost of everything we use would triple or quadruple. The more it costs to get resources out of the ground the more everything made from them will cost all of us as well as future generations. We have to use the resources but it needs to be done responsibly. Current mines should be responsible for mining in an environmentally safe fashion and for cleaning up after themselves but they shouldn’t have to pay for mistakes made before by others.

Victor Says:
December 17th, 2016 at 6:48 pm

So here’s a thought. If Congress really wants to prevent more Gold King mine disasters, it should take a hard look at the mines that U.S. mining companies are opening in the U.S. and, especially, around the world. And Congress should ask: are mining companies accurately accounting for the long-term risks?
The answer is simple: No, and Hell no.
But what is in today’s waste? What can be reclaimed to make the reclamation profitable?
This really should be a money-making industry and industry continues to fail us.

Red Cervi Says:
December 17th, 2016 at 9:16 am

It’s nice to see people look at the whole picture, dating back to when the origiunal mine work was done, and not just look at the most recent string of events and criticize those people currently involved for causing the problem. I agree with many of the comments made here: responsibility to plan for remediation before the action (for instance, mining) is allowed, not saddling companies that weren’t responsible for the mess with cleanup of the mess (a tough problem to address though), and not regulating mining out of existence.

It seems that some people forget that the U.S. is the position to have among the most stringent environmental protections because we have been economically strong. We would not be so strong if we had required all of these companies to go through in the past what they have to go through now to mine (or log, or whatever). But degrading our environment to the extent done in the past (and continues to be done) is not a way to sustain the human or any other population. The balance must be struck between development and environmental conservation. It is absolutely one of the greatest challenges that humans face. Are we up for it? I am an optimist.
And to get perhaps further off topic, if anyone thinks this does not tie back ultimately to human population control, I think you are crazy,

mike mcshea Says:
December 16th, 2016 at 12:28 pm

good luck new congress & trump just start pouring the poison in rivers now

Michael P. Cohn DVM Says:
December 15th, 2016 at 10:33 am

All new mines should have a clean up fund before opening !!!

Robert Hinton Says:
December 14th, 2016 at 9:18 am

The conversations have been from far left and right. History is our best teacher, unfortunately, seldom taught. Mining has and will always be needed. Colorado and other mining states across America have benefited greatly. Todays safety and health requirements are quite stringent and closely followed.
Yesteryears mistakes and misjudgments can not all be repaired. America’s enormous natural wealth is what won WW II. The quick fixes based on emotion, such as asbestos, costs trillions, and were for the most part, not needed.
The leaked in this article had been monitored for decades. There was no economic fix. Nature, fortunately repairs most messes. This original site must to correct to the point for not contaminates being released, which is doable. So, the bottom line is, who pays? All the country benefited. The federal government, yes, you and me, will pick up most of the costs.

MSV Hogger Says:
December 14th, 2016 at 8:46 am

The EPA definitely stepped in it with the Gold King and their feet should be held to the fire over that one. I’ll agree that current U.S. mining operations should be held to our standards over their mining operations, but they should NOT be held accountable for past sins over which they had no control. Assessing “fees” (taxes) against current mining operations to clean up hundred year old mines they had nothing to do with is merely “punishing” an industry that provides good-paying jobs and a useful product. We do not throw someone in jail because their neighbor was a bank robber. Also, the notion that the U.S. should monitor the foreign operations of mining companies is ludicrous. Neither the U.S. Congress, nor the EPA, has any jurisdiction outside the borders of the United States. Foreign countries make their own laws and it is none of our business what they and their people decide to allow, regardless of how some environmental do-gooder thinks they ought to live their lives.

Dubhghall Macdubhh Says:
December 14th, 2016 at 7:29 am

We cannot go halfway here.

If any of you have gold or silver jewelry, filling, or gilded dishware, please, PLEASE, donate them to the EPA in order to fund the cleanup efforts resulting in their “mistake”.

terry washow Says:
December 12th, 2016 at 9:38 am

your completely full of crap regarding mining

Bonnie Beaulieu Says:
December 11th, 2016 at 10:27 am

I think ALL mining needs to be aware of what it can do for the future environment of our country!

chris johnson Says:
December 10th, 2016 at 10:01 am

no surprises here!

Gerald Hosford Says:
December 10th, 2016 at 9:18 am

I agree that more needs to be done on clean up but I also agree that regulations need to be relaxed so as the cost of cleanup is not so high. It is better for a mine to operate and do the clean up as it is running then to regulate it out of business then expect it to fund the cleanup . They are normally out of funds at that time due to the loss of investors. I think environmental groups need to work on working within the box instead of outside of it. Work together we can make it happen.

sharon travis Says:
December 9th, 2016 at 12:38 pm

I’m with the Native Americans who don’t believe that the Dakota Access Pipeline WON’T leak despite all the lavish and eloquent “promises” of pipeline workers and government officials. The US government has screwed them over for hundreds of years, why should they believe ANYTHING we tell them about this?

December 9th, 2016 at 4:37 am

I whole heartedly agree, WE must end pollution to our environment.

Patrick Says:
December 8th, 2016 at 7:33 am

Ducan, the idea of a performance bond is a great idea. So much so, that bonds have been required at mining operations for decades now.

The article makes it sound like modern mines are just opened up without any regard or consideration for environmental issues. That is simply not true. Any new mine that goes into production today is the result of years of study and analysis by the mining companies themselves, regulators, and the financial institutions that commonly help fund their construction. These feasibility studies encompass many different areas of risk that a project could affect like water quality (short term as well as long term), sensitive animal and plant species, air quality, ground stability, etc. All of these aspects must be addressed in a reclamation plan that is approved by State and Federal regulators. There are usually public comment periods at various points throughout the process where concerns and questions are raised and must be addressed in the final plan.

Bottom line is, while incidents like the Gold King are awful, modern operations have analyzed and engineered ways to address these problems and either prevent them in the first place, or provide for their future treatment requirements. If that was a new operation, they would have probably had to operate a water treatment plant in perpetuity and have a bond sufficient to cover that cost if the company ever went out of business.

David Weaver Says:
December 8th, 2016 at 6:48 am

Several points:
First, I agree with Ducan that a performance bond is necessary and should be mandatory.

Second, I have to disagree with Carl. This is not Orwell. And it is not your freedom, nor the freedom of some mining company, to make a toxic mess that will last centuries and which the rest of us will have to pay to either monitor or clean up. You do not think it is insane that coal companies, or gold companies (whatever the goal) get rich, leave a nightmare behind, and disappear?

Lastly, regarding Scott’s comments: yes, we have some of the toughest regulations, but there are deliberately created loopholes. As noted, there are approximately 500,000 abandoned mines and no one but we taxpayers are shouldering the cost or suffering the pollution. I do not agree with the sentiment that current operators should be billed for crimes (yes, crimes) committed by long-defunct operators. That is not fair. But we can make sure the cycle is over instead of having folks in 2100 writing articles about what was permitted to happen in teh early 21st century.

George Says:
December 7th, 2016 at 9:52 am

It is about time that we hold mining companies accountable for the long term damage that they have routinely walked away from. and to Carl: no one is suggesting that we stop mining– but what is wrong with the mining companies being made to clean up their mess? They make scads of money off these mines– why should you and I be made to pay for getting rid of their poisons? there are some areas where mining cannot be done safely, and those should be off limits, but the old mentality of “I’ll dig it up, but y’all can come in and pay to clean it up” has to go.

JMC Says:
December 5th, 2016 at 8:20 am

Thanks you for this balanced report. So many media outlets today only would have focused on the disaster and laying blame on modern entities, when the fault lies in an earlier time, almost in a different universe, when you think about how much has changed since then. Mistakes were made that were known to be mistakes at the time. Now we’re left with the cleanup. It’s an important message about the responsibility we have to our descendants…without blowing the incident itself out of proportion. Thank you for a rare modern example of TRUE journalism.

Scott Besler Says:
November 20th, 2016 at 8:16 am

I agree with the sentiments of Ducan Hagemeyer to a degree. We already have the toughest regulations in the world when it comes to mining as well as drilling. We only need to enforce them with a level of common sense attached. As for the past mistakes, yes learn from them, but don’t attach those mistakes to new ventures as it would unduly punish them for mistakes they didn’t commit. We also need to keep in mind that in reference to our national resources we need to continue the multiple use doctrine we have over the history of our nation. Those natural resources need to be utilized and not closed off from commercial development; be it mining, ranching, drilling or logging. We have the technology to safely develop them and safeguard the environment at the same time. Let’s use it and not just fence it off.

debbie bullard Says:
November 13th, 2016 at 2:10 am

How could you allow this to happen?

Carl Birdsell Says:
September 6th, 2016 at 8:10 am

welcome to the Orwellian state Y’all. All they want to do is put restriction after restriction on freedom, what they really want is no mining at all, pretty soon it will be, no using federal lands for recreation, soon after that it’ll be no traveling on federal lands period. I don’t like this fascistic direction things are going. To our great grandchildren, “look at what a nice clean prison world we left you”

Ducan Hagemeyer Says:
September 5th, 2016 at 8:05 am

One simple and fair solution is for the states and the Federal Government to align their regulation on impact fees prior to any new mines. It should be required that any new mine carry a performance bond that is consistent with the development of the project. As a project grows in size the size of the bond should grow to a level that experts in the field believe would be the cost to close the mine and restore the site. Miners get into the mining because of money. axpayers should never have to fund a dollar to fix a mess created by a business. It is pretty simple mine at “your risk”, not mine. My guess we would have fewer and fewer miners and regulators, and the cost to the public would go way down. Let me add it is unfair that a new mine company should have to pay for past mistakes. Mistakes done way back when nobody knew. This should be funded by taxpayers. It should be time to wipe the slate clean and create a new plan.

Joanne Gura Says:
September 3rd, 2016 at 10:27 am

I agree, I am sharing this, and encouraging folks to share it with their polticians…Thank you so much.

fran harland Says:
September 2nd, 2016 at 6:54 am

save our planet

fran harland Says:
September 2nd, 2016 at 6:52 am

Please save our planet

Virginia Ellis Says:
August 27th, 2016 at 10:33 am

I had a great uncle who worked the gold and silver mines in Colorado during the 1880’s. His mining was near Kokomo, Climax, Leadville, CO. He was buried in Kokomo and later body was moved to Breckenridge because the Climax moledium (sp) mine tailings were to be spread over the creek bed between the mountains and the entire town and cemetery were moved. My family and I have hiked all over this area in the 1970’s and located one or two of the small mines my uncle worked in. It is a beautiful area but I have seen for myself that environmentalists were slow the recognize the mineral problems left by the mining industry.

Ray Fox Says:
July 31st, 2016 at 8:35 am

I agree with the comments above. Get with it congress.

The Message of the Colorado Mine Disaster - Brilliant Earth Blog