Guest Column | April 4, 2017

Practical Cures For Abandoned Mines Pollution

Practical Cures For Abandoned Mines Pollution

Part 2 of a four-part series, “From Fish To Flint: Four Fixes For EPA’s Water Programs” (Learn more about the series.)

By Mark Gibson

The Gold King Mine disaster foretells what’s in store for the mine sites tagged by Superfund during the 1980s — that still aren’t finished.  This is a plan for the U.S. EPA to stay out of this business and address this Western dilemma without federal funding or lawsuits.

When the EPA’s Gold King Mine reclamation burst into the Animas River and the national headlines, it showed the agency’s competence to run (or ruin) mine cleanups.  If EPA managers had simply read the front page of the Denver Post they could’ve learned how, years before John Elway ever won a Super Bowl, regulators’ schemes to plug Gulf & Western’s Eagle Mine ran afoul — percolating toxic pools overflowed, causing Beaver Creek ski resort to spray “orange snow.”  Instead, EPA ignored history and common sense and secured a manifest destiny to pollute a hundred miles of river from the Colorado Rockies to Lake Powell.  Now they see lawsuits, Congressional investigations, and budget-busting liabilities caused by their own.

Charles Curtis, renowned energy leader and former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is purported to often lament “everything leaks.”  While Curtis’ context is the nuclear cycle, his leak axiom squares with the state of historic mines.

Depending on whom counts, between 160,000 and 480,000 abandoned mines reside in the Rocky Mountains.  They pollute 40 percent of the West’s watersheds. Their cleanup price tag: $35 billion.1  The mines sprouted when settlers dug on their way to California’s Gold Rush in 1848.  After several mining booms, in 1942 Roosevelt granted $130/ton to lead producers — twice Depression-era levels — so our allies could hurl bullets at Nazis.2  Anyone who has skied at Western resorts  has slid across these mines.

The old miners dug vast reaches, exposing to weather what had been encapsulated by Mother Nature.  When water mixes with exposed rock (particularly pyrite), its sulfides oxidize, reducing pH, increasing metals concentrations, and further increasing acidity, brewing acid mine drainage and lots of liabilities.

Consider the Curtis canon, the deluge of abandoned mines, rudimentary chemistry, and the realities of environmental enforcement, and you enter a Yossarian modality.

Most mine Superfund sites listed in the 1980s are still not finished, preoccupied with subsidizing white-collar welfare (theoretical science and lawyers), rather than on-the-ground fixes.3,4  Litigation risks stymie voluntary Good Samaritan efforts — whether by industry or environmentalists.5  The rules encourage gold-plated, expensive remediation, called “permanent” solutions that are supposed to last through eternity.

Fundamentally, if water doesn’t touch mineralized rock, it isn’t contaminated.  Yet this simple science is ignored and grossly engineered schemes like the EPA’s Gold King Mine portal plug result in a spiral of silliness — reinforcement with more plugs, which create larger pollution pools that migrate across labyrinths of old tunnels and create more seeps, which at some point demand fancy water treatment systems that fuel consultants and lawyers who scare industry, which pays to mitigate more liabilities, increasing the demand for more over-engineered solutions that require more plugs.  All EPA-managed sites are doomed to this spiral, with the added layer of Superfund pseudoscience that attempts to contain one-in-a-million theoretical risks, forever.

The EPA’s Gold King Mine remediation resulted in the blowout of an EPA-engineered mine portal plug, polluting the Animas River in 2015.

This is why source-control methods were perfected at Newmont Mining’s Idarado mine remediation in the 1980s in Telluride, CO.  Here, metals loadings have been cut 50 percent by minimizing contamination at the top of the watershed, thereby supporting aquatic life in lower drainages.6,7  Source-control techniques … rock plumbing that prevents most — but not all — water infiltration have been validated, notwithstanding regulators’ predictions that the science wouldn’t work.  Since “dam and treat” projects (promoted by the regulators of the day) were blocked (by the local communities, together with local environmental groups), a Gold King disaster was averted.  As in the case of the Eagle Mine, Telluride’s lessons have been lost on the EPA.

While the EPA has no defensible expertise in remediating historic mines, state and local governments see the sites as political tar babies and often try to slough them off to Superfund.  There isn’t much choice, since under the Clean Water Act and CERCLA (Superfund) anyone or any entity that touches these mines risks extraordinary liability; it’s the ‘you touch it, you own it’ doctrine.  This is a terrible disincentive to well-meaning watershed groups and foundations — not to mention industry — keen on ponying up their own money and time for a fix.  While the Nature Conservancy does yeoman’s work to preserve and proliferate coral reefs, such organizations can’t support analogous work at abandoned mines because of the absurd legal consequences.

The ideal solution is for the EPA and the new Administration to support bipartisan legislation, like that drafted by Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), to establish clemency for organizations remediating these sites.  Ironically, environmental activists have so far blocked such legislation, apparently with the cause of ensuring that industry isn’t let off the hook — as if someone is on the hook for the half-million abandoned mines remaining across the Rockies.  Once again, enviros don’t help the environment.  In lieu of Congressional action and the enviros, there are other cures.

One bold option is for EPA to issue Clean Water Act permits to itself for a given remediation that a third party wishes to undertake.  The third party (local watershed group, industry, etc.) would be harbored by the EPA permit, under simple memorandum.  The EPA could then leave the third party alone while it sets about its difficult work.  (This stuff takes years.)  Spurious litigation and the like could be blocked by federal preemption.

Many organizations exist — like the Animas River Stakeholders Group — with the expertise and wherewithal to start making a dent in this sore point in water quality.  This approach to Good Samaritan shields was proposed before and during the Bush Administration, but it never got anywhere, thanks to EPA-think.

Another tactic is for the agency to work with public lands managers and issue similar harbored permits to consortiums dedicated to mine old claims and use the metals proceeds or land sales to pay for final site remediation.  But perhaps that’s expecting a bit much.


  1. Miller, 2104, “Minefields (Still) Ahead: EPA’s Improved Good Samaritan Policy for Abandoned Mines Doesn’t Pan Out”, American College of Environmental Lawyers.
  2. Eagle-Picher Industries Strategies, Knerr  1992
  3. EPA Region 8 CERCLA Status Report, 2014  
  4. Hearings before U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works, Subcommittee on Superfund, March 5, 1997.
  5. Your Colorado Water blog, “Animas River Stakeholders Group:  An Unlikely Alliance,”  Wright March 19, 2015.
  6. “Telluride 2013:  Remediation Has Been Successful”  Telluride Daily Planet
  7. State of the San Miguel Watershed, 2014, Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining & Safety; Project Summary 2014, Idarado Natural Resources Damage Remediation Project.

About the Author:
Mark Gibson is the principal at Kyklos Engineering, LLC, a public affairs and business development consulting firm.  He has three decades of experience in energy and environmental policy, and degrees in engineering and economics.

About “From Fish To Flint: Four Fixes For EPA’s Water Programs”:
While the new Administration sets about reform, we ought to consider how its new way of doing business can mend the serious flaws in the way the U.S. EPA adjudicates water. Cutting budgets and staff may feel good, but there’s much more to do. Whether you’re red- or blue-leaning, consider these basic, albeit contentious propositions to fix our most perplexing water challenges.

Read Part 1: Flint Failings And Our Crumbling Water Infrastructure

Next up in the series: Fixing The EPA's Clean Water Program

Images credit: "Polluted Animas River" Mor © 2015 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: