2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill (before & after)
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The 2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill is a 2015 environmental disaster at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. On August 5, 2015, EPA personnel along with workers for Environmental Restoration LLC (a Fenton, Missouri, company under EPA contract to mitigate pollutants from the closed mine) caused the release of toxic wastewater when attempting to add a tap to the tailing pond for the mine. The maintenance was necessary because local jurisdictions had previously refused Superfund money to fully remediate the regions’ derelict mines due to a fear of lost tourism. After the spill, Silverton Board of Trustees and the San Juan County Commission approved a joint resolution seeking Superfund money.
Workers accidentally destroyed the plug holding water trapped inside the mine, overflowing the pond, spilling three million US gallons (11 ML) of mine waste water and tailings, including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and other toxic elements, such as arsenic, into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado. The EPA was criticized for not warning Colorado and New Mexico until the day after the waste water spilled, despite the fact the EPA employee “in charge of Gold King Mine knew of blowout risk.”
The EPA has taken responsibility for the incident, and the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper, declared the affected area a disaster zone. The spill affects waterways of municipalities in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah as well as the Navajo Nation. As of August 11, acidic water continued to spill at a rate of 500–700 US gal/min (1.9–2.6 m3/min) while remediation efforts were underway.
Gold mining in the hills around Gold King was the primary income and economy for the region until the last closure of a mine around Silverton in 1991. The Gold King Mine itself was abandoned in 1923. Prior to the spill, the Upper Animas water basin had become devoid of fish, because of the environmental impact of regional mines such as Gold King. Other plant and animal species were adversely affected in the watershed before the Gold King Mine breach, as well.
In the 1990s, sections of the Animas had been nominated by the EPA as a Superfund site for clean-up of pollutants from the Gold King Mine and other mining operations along the river, but lack of community support prevented its listing, thus only allowing the EPA to do minor work to abate environmental impacts of the mine. Locals had feared that the label of a Superfund site would reduce the tourism in the area, the largest remaining source of income left in the region after the closure of the metal mines. Officials have noted that the mine is only one of 22,000 abandoned mines in the state.
Many abandoned mines throughout Colorado are also known to have problems with acid mine drainage. At the time of the accident, the EPA was working at the Gold King Mine to stem the leaking mine water going into Cement Creek. They were building a concrete bulkhead to plug the leak, and planned to add pipes that would allow the slow release and treatment of the water. The crew’s machinery breached a wall that was holding back the waste water. The mustard-yellow color of the water is caused by the oxidation of the iron, according to Ron Cohen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. The chemical processes involved in acid mine drainage are common around the world where subsurface mining exposes metal sulfide minerals such as pyrite to water and air.
As of August 14, a question had arisen about whether the waste water released by the EPA operation had actually originally come from the neighboring Sunnyside Mine. Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis said before work had been done at Sunnyside to plug a section of the mine called the American Tunnel in the mid-1990s, Gold King was discharging waste water at a rate of seven gallons per minute. After the work, he said the discharge rate had increased to 250 gallons per minute. In 2014, the EPA began investigating to determine the source of the water discharging from Gold King, but the project ran out of time before it was completed. The mine was sealed with a plan to return in 2015. A representative for Sunnyside Mine said the two mines are not linked, was not the cause of the water build up at Gold King and that the owner of Gold King mine “…is trying to deflect responsibility from what has clearly been the location of the incident.”
EPA foreknowledge of risks
Through a FOIA request, Associated Press obtained EPA files indicating that U.S. government officials “knew of ‘blowout’ risk for tainted water at mine” which could result from the EPA’s intervention. The information was known to EPA authorities through a June 2014 work order that read “Conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which contain concentrated heavy metals” and through a May 2015 action plan for the mine that “also noted the potential for a blowout.” An EPA spokeswoman was not able to state what precautions the EPA took against the warnings.
On February 11, 2016, the Denver Post reported that Hays Griswold, the EPA employee in charge of the Gold King mine, wrote in an e-mail to other EPA officials “that he personally knew the blockage “could be holding back a lot of water and I believe the others in the group knew as well.”” The Post added: “Griswold’s e-mail appears directly to contradict those findings and statements he made to The Denver Post in the days after the disaster, when he claimed “nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high.“”
The EPA reported, August 10, 2015, that levels of six metals were above limits allowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for domestic water. The department requires municipalities to cease to use water when the levels in it exceed the limits. Some metals were found at hundreds of times their limits, e.g. lead 100 times the limit, iron 326 times the limit. The measurement was made 15 miles (24 km) upstream from Durango.
The Animas River was closed to recreation until August 14. During the closure county officials warned river visitors to stay out of the water. Residents with wells in floodplains were told to have their water tested before drinking it or bathing in it. People were told to avoid contact with the river, including by their pets, that farmed animals should not be allowed to drink the water and people should not catch fish in the river. The Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management issued a state of emergency declaration in response to the spill.[note 1]
People living along the Animas and San Juan rivers were advised to have their water tested before using it for cooking, drinking, or bathing. The spill also was expected to cause major problems for farmers and ranchers who rely on the rivers for their livelihoods.
The long-term impacts of the spill are unknown, but sedimentation is expected to dilute the pollutants as the spill cloud moves downstream. The acid mine drainage changed the color of the river to orange.
By August 7, the waste reached Aztec, New Mexico, then the next day, it reached the city of Farmington, the largest municipality affected by the disaster. By August 10, the waste had reached the San Juan River in New Mexico and Shiprock (part of the Navajo Nation), with no evidence to that date of human injury or wildlife die-off. The heavy metals appeared to be settling to the bottom of the river because largely, they are insoluble unless the entire river becomes very acidic. The waste was initially expected to reach Lake Powell by August 12, and arrived on August 14. It was expected to pass through the lake within two weeks. The Utah Division of Water Quality said the remaining contaminants will be diluted to a point where there will be no danger to users beyond that point. By August 11, pollutant levels at Durango returned to pre-incident levels. On August 12, the leading edge of the plume was no longer visible due to dilution and sediment levels in the river. The discharge rate of waste water at Gold King Mine was 610 gallons per minute as of August 12.
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