Coal Tattoo

Mining’s toxic legacy: The same old story

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill. A crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the area near the abandoned Gold King Mine. Tribal officials with the Navajo Nation declared an emergency on Monday, Aug. 10, as the massive plume of contaminated wastewater flowed down the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah, which supplies much of the water to the Southwest. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE) MANDATORY CREDIT

In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill.  (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE)

The photos just keep coming from the terrible gold-mine waste spill into the Animas River in Colorado, and as more information continues to come out, the story sounds worse and worse. The Denver Post reports:

The EPA on Monday expanded its response to the Animas River mining disaster, delivering bottled water in Colorado, New Mexico and Navajo Country and testing for contaminants as far as Lake Powell.

The acidic heavy metals that flooded into Cement Creek and the Animas in southwestern Colorado — including arsenic, lead, copper and cadmium — initially broke state water quality limits, based on data the Environmental Protection Agency has released.

Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster. New Mexico also declared a disaster. California officials have been calling the EPA about water supply implications. Residents along the Animas near Durango, with about 17,000 people, swamped La Plata County with requests for well tests.

As The Wall Street Journal reported:

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at a news conference on a recent Colorado mine spill after speaking at a Resources for the Future policy leadership forum, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy apologized Tuesday for a mine spill in Colorado that her agency caused last week and planned to travel to the area Wednesday, amid increasing criticism from lawmakers about the EPA’s response.

Ms. McCarthy said at a news conference in Washington that she was still learning about what happened, responding to a question about whether the EPA was reviewing changes in how it cleans up old mines. “I don’t have a complete understanding of anything that went on in there,” she said. “If there is something that went wrong, we want to make sure it never goes wrong again.”

One thing that’s troubling, of course, is the inability of public agencies like EPA to really give the public what it needs — sound information. From the Denver paper’s report:

… Five days after an EPA crew triggered the Gold King mine blowout, EPA regional chief Shaun McGrath still could not give an assessment of potential harm to people.

The spread of toxic heavy metals was such that authorities will block access to the Animas at least until Aug. 17 while the EPA develops “risk-screening criteria” and data show that water has returned to “pre-event conditions,” McGrath said.

While it appears EPA has provided some data on water sampling, here’s what the Post also reported:

EPA officials declined to discuss contamination levels. Colorado health and mining officials, who are supporting the EPA, declined to provide requested information or discuss the contamination.

Sound familiar to anyone who lived through the water crisis that followed the January chemical spill at Freedom Industries here in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley? See here, here and here if you’ve forgotten how hard it was to get straight answers.

A toxic sludge flows down the Animas River through Durango Colo, on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, after the Gold King Mine north of Silverton Colo., spilled heavy minerals into the river on Wednesday. Federal environmental officials say it's too early to know whether heavy metals that spilled into a river from a Colorado mine pose a health risk.  (Jerry McBride(/The Durango Herald via AP)

A toxic sludge flows down the Animas River through Durango Colo, on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, after the Gold King Mine north of Silverton Colo., spilled heavy minerals into the river on Wednesday. (Jerry McBride(/The Durango Herald via AP)

Of course, EPA’s political enemies are all over this. Here’s the statement put out yesterday by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe:

My committee is closely monitoring and conducting oversight of EPA’s toxic water spill into the Animas River. This has and will continue to lead to significant economic damage to local businesses, farmers, tribes, and residents. I will work within the Committee and with my colleagues in Congress to ensure the EPA is held accountable to this grave incident and that those impacted are provided the necessary support to move forward.

One wonders if Sen. Inhofe is going to start closely monitoring the real underlying issues here: The thousands of abandoned and unreclaimed hardrock mines all across the western United States and the lack of any real national program for cleaning them up. As the L.A. Times reported the other day:

The tragedy in Durango underscores the persistent menace of defunct hard-rock mines, lingering like cancers across the American landscape.

The danger posed by mines was laid out in a1993 report from the Mineral Policy Center, a Washington think tank dedicated to identifying threats to natural resources. The studysaid there were about 557,650 of these sites in 32 states and 50 billion tons of untreated waste covering public and private land. The waste included arsenic, asbestos, cadmium, cyanide and mercury.

“Mine effluents have already polluted 12,000 miles of the nation’s waterways and 180,000 acres of our lakes and reservoirs and are a growing threat to underground aquifers,” the report said.

About 40% of all Western headwater streams are polluted by old hard-rock mines, the EPA has said. Colorado has 22,000 such mines, ranking third behind Arizona and Nevada. Cleaning them up is difficult because the owners are often dead or unknown. Even if they are alive, many fear making matters worse by trying to remedy the situation, as the EPA just did.

Or, as High Country News explained:

Really, though, the EPA wasn’t the root cause of the emergency. It was, most likely, a disaster waiting to happen and the most visible manifestation of an emergency that’s been going on in the Upper Animas River Watershed for decades.

A warning sign from the city is displayed in front of the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. About 1 million gallons of wastewater from Colorado's Gold King Mine began spilling into the Animas River on Wednesday when a cleanup crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a debris dam that had formed inside the mine. The mine has been inactive since 1923. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)

A warning sign from the city is displayed in front of the Animas River as orange sludge from a mine spill upstream flows past Berg Park in Farmington, N.M., Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. (Alexa Rogals/The Daily Times via AP)

Or, as Vox pointed out:

Ever since the 1980s, the agency has wanted to declare parts of the Silverton region a Superfund site, which would trigger federal funds for intensive cleanup efforts. But local residents have long resisted this move, out of concern that the bad publicity would drive away tourists.

It’s worth noting that President Obama, in his proposed budget for next year, wants to try to begin dealing more comprehensively with hardrock mining’s toxic legacy. The administration has proposed similar reforms time and again. As Earthworks Action explained:

… The President wants the hardrock mining industry to pay for toxic legacy left behind by hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines. Coal miners already pay a reclamation fee of 28 cents per ton of surfaced mined coal in to a fund to clean up Abandoned Mine Lands (AML). The FY ’16 budget asks to increase this fee to 35 cents, returning to the levels the coal industry paid back in 2006. While a small portion of this money is also used for hardrock mines, the magnitude of the clean up problem requires a specially dedicated independent funding stream. The 2016 budget creates this fee on toxic hardrock mine waste that promises to raise $180 million per year.

Oddly enough, dealing with some of the industry’s past problems is one area where our nation’s coal industry may be out ahead of other mining sectors. There’s been a coal production tax to fund abandoned mine cleanups — reclamation of operations mined before federal standards were enacted — since Congress passed the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all of the problems related to old coal mines are easily solved or without their own incredible messes.  Many readers remember the blowouts not so long ago on Muddy Creek:

In the spring of 1994, polluted water from an illegally-sealed major underground coal mine blew out the hillside and poured into Muddy Creek.  This massive release of mine water entered the main stem of the Cheat River just upstream of the Cheat Canyon, and turned the river orange for miles.  The resulting discharge impacted not only the Cheat Canyon, but also lowered the pH in Cheat Lake to 4.5, killing fish as far away as 16 miles downstream.  A second blowout in 1995 further accentuated the problem and caused American Rivers, Inc., a national river conservation organization, to name the Cheat as one of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers.  Following the mine blowouts, the Cheat’s whitewater industry suffered over a 50% drop in business, while whitewater participation increased nationally by 33% during the same time period.

And many people remain concerned about the buildup of polluted water in other West Virginia mine pools, like the North Branch and the Monongahela.  Recently, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining has warned about the huge potential costs of pollution treatment at such projects, given the coal industry’s increasingly dire financial condition.

There’s a lot of talk — and there should be a lot more talk — about the “legacy liabilities” of the mining industry. To folks who live here that means their pensions and their health-care benefits, and things like cleaning up the mess left behind in the local stream after mining is done and the profits hauled away.

In the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case, for example, the United Mine Workers union has warned about what would happen if Patriot is allowed to sell off its good assets, keeping only those with huge liabilities and little ability to pay for them:

The losers in this scheme would be the miners who generated profits over the years and the taxpayers of the state of West Virginia, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the United States, who ultimately pay for the reclamation of the environment and the income replacement for injured and breathless miners.

And this week, as we reported, lawyers for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection joined in warning about what could happen under Patriot’s bankruptcy proposal:

Kevin Barrett, a Bailey and Glasser lawyer representing the DEP in the case, said in the agency’s objection that the move would leave Patriot with “enormous environmental liabilities and obligations, and little to no ability … to reclaim the land and treat acid mine drainage and other water pollution problems left in the wake of its mining operations.”

Barrett said the plan “would leave the people of the state of West Virginia and other states in which the debtors operated exposed to imminent public health and safety risks.”

Patriot would be “denuded of its only valuable assets and the proceeds therefrom” and “will be left with no real assets with which to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars of legal obligations to reclaim the land and treat water.”

It’s worth remembering that it’s not like concerns about the DEP “special reclamation fund” having inadequate resources are anything especially new. Citizen groups and outside experts have been warning for years about exactly the sort of scenario that could be playing out now.

Some in West Virginia want to argue that the answer to all of this is, really, just more of the same. Fight EPA. Oppose regulations or anything else that would make the mining industry include the full costs of its impacts into its business model.  Others — like President Obama and like a growing number of coalfield residents (here, here, here and here)  — see other ways forward. At this point, the question for us all is whether we’re satisfied with more of the same.

As the Animas River begins to recede it reveals a sludge left behind just north of Durango Colo., on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, from the Gold King Mine spillage that happened on Wednesday north of Silverton Colo. Federal environmental officials say it's too early to know whether heavy metals that spilled into a river from a Colorado mine pose a health risk. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP)