Rivers have been the cradle of civilization since humans first began to congregate. They quickly became centers of industry as well, and remain so to this day. Be it the Rhine, Mississippi, Tigris, or Indus, rivers have been the highways and the dumping grounds of human society for centuries. While cleaning up our past transgressions has become more of a focus in the last few decades, industrial spills and discharges are still far too common. In many incidents of river pollution incidents, the culprit has, more often than not, been mining operations. Waste materials, from coal ash to copper, arsenic, zinc, and cadmium have been dumped into our rivers, and this is especially true in the western United States. Naturally, the responsible parties are usually the mining companies themselves, but the circumstances that lead to a spill into the Animas River last week differs in one very fundamental way; this one was caused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – The governmental body responsible for catching polluters and repairing damage. The Gold King Mine, located near Silverston, Colorado, opened in the 1880’s, and ran, with several temporary closures, right into the late 20th Century. $150,000,000 in gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc were removed from the mine complex over the years. Most of the precious and salable industrial metals mined here came from relatively low yield ore, which prompted the use of cyanidation as the primary extraction method; that process is an industry standard for removing gold, silver, copper, and zinc from bearing ore.
Ore is ground fine, then water is added to create a slurry. Sodium, potassium, or calcium cyanide is added, followed by lime or soda, used to discourage the formation of hydrogen cyanide. Further processing steps are then employed to remove the desired metals from the cyanide slurry. The waste water left behind by the process is highly toxic. In many places in the world, no remediation is undertaken to reduce that hazard, and even if it is, the waste water remains toxic to fish and humans. In addition to cyanide, the waste ponds from the Gold King held millions of gallons of waste, laced with high concentrations of lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and aluminum. That made the Gold King a SuperFund site, hence the EPA’s presence: Superfund is the EPA program established in the 1970’s to address severe environmental hazards at abandoned sites.
On August 5th, an EPA crew was investigating the spilling of various pollutants into a creek from those Gold King holding ponds. That creek feeds into the Animas River, which in turn flows into the San Juan River, and eventually into the Colorado itself. The holding ponds held millions of gallons of highly polluted waste water and sludge. The EPA crew was reportedly using heavy equipment to search for the leak when they “hit a spot” on the primary containment dam, which then catastrophically failed, dumping the contents of the holding ponds into the nearby creek and then the Animas River. The River immediately turned a sickly orange color, one that reflects that of cyanide waste water and leach fields.
The full scope of the danger to people and the environment remains unknown at this point. The EPA says they are testing the river and local wells for contamination, but they have yet to report exactly what those pollutants are, let alone the concentrations thereof. So far, all they’ve revealed is “elevated levels of dissolved metals” in the Animas, which is hardly revealing. Regional EPA Administrator Shaun McGrath noted, “I can assure you we are moving the lab analysis as quickly as we can.”
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this incident is the apparent cluelessness of the agency responsible. At a public meeting held to discuss and explain the spill, McGrath was asked, simply, what had happened. His response was as follows; “In doing our work up there, we hit a spot where water started coming out that we hadn’t expected. We come to find out there was quite a bit more mine waste water up there than we had expected, for sure. In fact the dam that had been holding that water back was just soils and loose materials instead of solid rocks.”
Frankly, that kind of ignorance of the facts, that lack of attention to the details when dealing with a Superfund site is more than alarming. To have brought in heavy equipment and started poking around to a degree sufficient to have caused this accident is almost unimaginable, except that it happened; that is, in fact, damn near criminal.