The Cost of Complex Clean Up

In a complex interplay between state regulatory structure, legal doctrine, and private industry, the Gold King Mine spill serves as a shining example of government breakdown. On August 5, 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) in dealing with the Gold King Mine, an abandoned mine site in southwest Colorado, triggered the release of three million gallons of toxic waste, containing a mixture of heavy metals that included lead, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, and mercury, that affected Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation. The actual spill climaxed an ongoing environmental nightmare, lurking in the San Juan Mountains, leaching silently into the watershed. The shadows of disaster extend far back into Colorado history when, decades ago, mining companies began altering the flow of water through interconnect tunnels in the extensively mined Upper Animas River watershed. The potential for a major blowout loomed inevitable as millions of gallons of pressurized water had been bottling up inside the Gold King mine.

But, the extent of environmental disaster soars much worse than one isolated incident. Metallic, acidic wastewater escaping from abandoned mines affects agriculture, ranching, aquatic life, human and wild life, and aquifers. The Gold King Mine and three other nearby sites were discharging 330 million gallons of toxic waste each year. Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator who handles cleanup activities, mildly described the issue as “ongoing adverse water quality impacts,” which the EPA has tried unsuccessfully to address. The EPA estimates that total discharges from regional abandoned mines leach the equivalent of one Gold King mine disaster every two days, resulting in the failure of 1,645 miles of rivers and streams to meet Clean Water Act standards.

In 2005, a previous water treatment system near Gold King Mine cleaned water flowing into Cement Creek, a headwater of the Animas River. However, the plant closed when funding failed. Since the closing, contaminated water has flown without treatment. Now, the EPA is considering opening a similar water treatment facility after struggling to clean the now severely contaminated water following the Gold King Mine spill. However, such a facility is expensive, costing up to $20 million to construct.

While public pressure to build a water-treatment plant mounts, government officials debate whether the effective results offset high construction and maintenance costs. The EPA currently employs several settling ponds, which will not function in freezing weather. Settling ponds, which rely on water to accomplish their tasks, freeze in cold temperatures.

Officials have long fretted over providing for and regulating water. Over 100 years ago, in the nineteenth century, after Denver secured a reliable quantity of water, citizens began worrying about the quality of their water supply when they noticed a “foul appearance, taste, and odor.” Company officials from Denver City Water Company blamed the water’s dirty appearance on sediment and assured concerned citizens nothing was wrong. However, citizens continued to sicken, contracting typhoid, an illness spread through sewage-contaminated water. Eventually, in response to continued water quality issues, companies began trying to solve the problem in creative ways. Like the officials tasked with cleaning the Animas, they began searching for solutions. Private companies built wood shelters over reservoirs, and Denver passed laws banning hogs within the city. Citizens continued to contract typhoid, inciting pubic outcry. In response, companies considered a scientific remedy for contamination, filtration. In 1884, Denver installed its first filtration system.

Like government assurances that sewage-filled municipal water was fine, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper drank water from the Animas River to comfort citizens that the river had returned to pre-contamination conditions. State officials stated with confidence that the river does not pose a toxic threat to humans. Governor Hickenlooper was happy to show that “we’re back to normal,” but what is normal? Normal in the context of the Animas River spill is slow, but steady contamination.

The situation only stands to get worse. The recent economic crisis increases water access issues by decreasing investment in water infrastructure and bolstering private investment in water. The privatization of water utilities “has little to do with equality or equity.” The commodification of water spurs decisions centering on commercial, not environmental or social justice concerns. The cost to ship supplies adds into the cleanup calculus for remote locations. The mountain land increases difficulty and expense, since facilities are more than a short drive from the Home Depot. Yet, as the Animas contamination demonstrates, water remains a precious resource. Investment in water infrastructure pays off. For instance, the Argo Tunnel facility in Colorado, though expensive, has allowed fish to return and recreational industries to be possible on the Clear Creek. The state-run facility supports both the natural wildlife and human enjoyment of the stream.

In a world of discrete property rights and bundles, water complicates the picture. As government agencies attempt river clean up, citizens confront questions of water quantity, quality, and price. The cost of environmental exploitation, such as the Animas River spill, sometimes gets passed down the line. Miners who profited from the Gold King mine are long gone, and the current generation is funding clean up. The discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountain West fueled civilization, but settlement has a cost. Colorado’s polluted streams remind us of the environmental costs and benefits in the calculus, even those that take a century to materialize.

This featured photo is of the Animas River between Silverton and Durango, Colorado.  The photo was taken August 2015 by Riverhugger, who has licensed this photo under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


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