One Year After A Toxic River Spill, No Clear Plan To Clean Up Western Mines

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Orange sediment laced with heavy metals is visible in the path of water coming out of the Natalie/Occidental Mine in southwestern Colorado. This mine is one of dozens on a proposed Superfund listing pending with the EPA. Several mines in the area have been leaching the tainted water for years — well before the Gold King Mine spill.
Grace Hood/Colorado Public Radio

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One year ago — on Aug. 5, 2015 — an EPA crew at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of orange water filled with mercury and arsenic.

The toxic spill flowed into the Animas River, eventually running into New Mexico’s San Juan River and into Lake Powell. So far, disaster response and water quality monitoring have cost the EPA about $29 million — and the problem isn’t over yet.

Water laced with heavy metals continues to gush out of the mine, says Joyel Dhieux of the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s why the EPA built a water treatment plant here last fall, at the cost of $1.5 million.

Contaminated wastewater is seen at the entrance to the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, Colo., in this picture released by the Environmental Protection Agency. The photo was taken Wednesday; the plume of contaminated water has continued to work its way downstream.

“Five hundred gallons a minute is what we’re currently seeing coming from the Gold King Mine,” Dhieux says. “It’s a bit of an increase, as you might expect with all the spring melt in the area.”

Five hundred gallons a minute is a lot. But Dhieux says this is only one of several abandoned mines in the area.

Some have been discharging the same kind of water for decades. And the water from those mines is not running through a treatment plant.

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Joyel Dhieux, EPA on-scene coordinator, looks at an old water treatment plant that stopped operating near the base of the Gold King Mine in the early 2000s. The EPA built its own temporary plant in October 2015 after the Gold King Mine spill.
Grace Hood/Colorado Public Radio

In fact, this problem is at the heart of why the EPA was at the Gold King Mine last summer. And it’s what prompted the local government here to apply for a Superfund listing this spring.

“There was a lot of sleepless nights,” says Willy Tookey, administrator for San Juan County.

For more than a decade, the government here shied away from Superfund status. The two biggest concerns? It would cause a drop in property values and a drop in tourism.

But Tookey says intense negotiations with the EPA over this past year led to new confidence and assurances.

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