Written by Haley Colgate
In the latest installment of the State of the Rockies speech series, Colorado College alumnus Dr. Rory Cowie ’04 delivered an exposition on the effects of Colorado’s mining legacy on outdoor recreation and aquatic habitats, as well as possible solutions, with a focus on last year’s Gold King Mine spill.
In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) miscalculated the water levels at one of the lower portals of the Gold King Mine. An attempt to reopen it led to 3 million gallons of acidic, metal-heavy water gushing into Cement Creek, which feeds into the Animas River. The river turned a bright orange, and, as Dr. Cowie put it, “when the river turns orange like that, it’s a media heyday.” The media seized on the event, turning public attention towards toxic runoff from mines.
Oxygen introduced to mountain interiors by mining reacts with water and metal sulfides, making water from mines highly acidic. The acidic water dissolves metal from the surrounding rocks, creating a potentially colored concoction that is toxic in high concentrations. This sludge is what poured from the Gold King Mine when the portal was breached.
According to Dr. Cowie, who majored in biology at CC before getting his PhD in hydrology from CU Boulder, the spill itself had few immediate repercussions on local wildlife, which is fantastic news. However, he went on to say that a large part of that is probably due to over 100 years of pollution from the thousands of mines located at the headwaters of the major rivers in the region. Had the waterways been clean to begin with, the results would have been more drastic.
To put things in perspective, Gold King Mine released as much water during the spill as it was previously releasing over the span of two weeks. And there are 47 other abandoned mines within a 30-mile radius of the spill. Add that to the fact that mining in the area started in the 1870s, and that’s a lot of heavy metal pollution already in the river. Adding some extra pollution in a short amount of time might turn the river orange, but it won’t affect the wildlife because it has been exposed to it for so long.
It does, however, affect the people using the river. The Animas River was shut down for eight days after the spill, and, according to the EPA, metals brought in by mine runoff pose severe risks to aquatic life downstream. Given that there are 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado according to the state government, there are potentially hundreds more possible shut downs as other mines age and experience failures. In addition, it suggests that if Colorado had not been so heavily mined, there would be greater diversity and density in local ecosystems.
However, there are options to help the land recover. If we can prevent or at least limit the pollution leaking from abandoned mines, outdoor recreation spaces could blossom even more, and those who utilize outdoor resources would face fewer health risks from contaminated water.
One possibility is treatment plants, where chemicals are added to raise the pH and separate a dense metal sludge from the water. This sludge would be dried out and moved to a repository—a time-consuming process that would require a constant influx of money.
Another option is to use biological processes to try to clean the water. This is not practical in Colorado because at such high elevations, wetlands and bioreactors don’t usually survive well.
The most promising proposal is to change where the water goes, and, if possible, to stop the flow of water from the mines. Using complex engineering, water flow can be backed up into the mining systems by using bulkheads with controlled release valves. As Dr. Cowie put it, “we made Swiss cheese but now we want provolone.” Bulkheads would refill sections of the mines with water, preventing its release and filling gaps in the rock. However, this is risky in that if the flow is underestimated, or fissures in the rock go unaccounted for, the water could surface from a different tunnel, creating a spill in a separate location.
Another issue is the extent to which legislation prevents activist groups from addressing the problems with the abandoned mines. For over a decade, amendments to existing laws and proposals for new bills have been presented to Congress that would allow for “good Samaritan” action, whereby qualified organizations could bypass laws that require permits and allow for citizen lawsuits to clean up the pollution created by the mines, yet they have had no success. Support for legislative changes could lead to large improvements in decreasing the levels of pollution our rivers face.
Over 100 years of mining followed by decades of abandonment led to a multitude of mines leaking pollutants into Colorado waterways. The Gold King Mine spill increased awareness of this problem and led to more available funding to address it. Supporting legal change and efforts to clean up mine waters could greatly improve efforts to clean up the water that we use for everything from drinking to kayaking, aiding the health of our outdoor community.