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.
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.