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Polluting the River. Polluting your Mind.

A week and a half ago, after several days camping in a spot where we had zero connection to the internet, the kids and I pulled into Durango, Colorado to stock up on food and gas before heading to Mesa Verde National Park. It was hard not to notice the Animas River.

The Gold King underground mine near Silverton – about 40 river miles north of Durango on a tributary of the Animas River – was slated to be plugged so that acid mine drainage would stop spilling into the river system. When crews began clearing debris and a temporary blockade to finish the work, they underestimated how much water had collected behind the inactive mine, and three million gallons of acidic, heavy metal-laden water came pouring out at once, turning the clear waters of the Animas deep orange for roughly 60 miles.  The river was closed to all recreation while scientists rushed off to sample waters that had increased two orders of magnitude in acidity within 48 hours.  Municipal water suppliers, farmers and ranchers shut off taps and valves to brace for the worst. 

polluting the river

In the local supermarket, everyone was talking about the spill. And first out of nearly everyone’s mouth was the cry that this spill was the fault of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Apparently, it was the EPA that allowed 3 million gallons of toxic sludge to spill into the river. Everywhere I turned, all I heard was how this was the perfect example of government ineptitude and how this was Obama’s fault. When we went down to the river to take a look, I pulled out my smart phone and looked for news on the spill. Every single headline eagerly blamed the EPA for the spill.


But wait….. I was born and raised in Colorado. Fourth generation. I spent a good chunk of my childhood exploring abandoned mining sites and old mining towns with my parents in our old International Harvester Scout. We own a small miner’s cabin in the ghost town of Victor, once a center of gold mining in the mountains of Colorado. My father even took my brother and I gold panning up in the back tributaries that drain the peaks of the Rockies. On all those explorations it never once occured to me that it was the Federal Environmental Protection Agency that had so disasteriously riddled Colorado’s mountains with mines.

Because it wasn’t. Nor was it the EPA who caused the spill two weeks ago. It was a private contractor. Not Federal workers. But even that is a distraction. Colorado has around 23,0000 abandoned mines. There are more than 200 in the Animas watershed alone. In total the United States has about 500,000 abandoned mines dotting the landscape. In Colorado the vast majority of these mines date from 1850-1920:

Lax regulations from the days of the mining boom in the state – dating back to the late 1850s – have allowed for contaminated waters to build up. The locations are primarily in historic mining districts, including 230 draining mines within the Colorado Mineral Belt. The belt runs from the mountains of Southwest Colorado to around the middle of the state, near Boulder.

There are 47 draining mines with active water treatment; 35 that are under investigation or being remediated; and 148 that likely impact water quality with no active water treatment.

For nearly 100 years, individual miners and later giant mining companies ravaged the landscape of Colorado in a mad race for wealth. They drove off the original inhabitants of the land and then pocketed the watersheds with toxic holes. They made hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars and then literally just walked away from the mess they created.

But the mess didn’t go away. In fact, the toxic legacy of the unregulated, runaway mining days impacts pretty much every corner of Colorado today. In the 1970’s Colorado began looking to the Federal government for help to deal with the mess left by the miner. The EPA stepped in, spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money to deal with the toxic legacy of mining:

From 2009 to 2014, the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety spent more than $12.3 million – from a variety of federal, state and private funding sources – on mining-related water-quality improvement projects.

But even that wasn’t easy. Because in places like Silverton where this spill originated, the citizens still didn’t want to really deal with the mess:

For decades, Silverton has been a bastion of anti-Superfund sentiment, spurning the Environmental Protection Agency’s repeated attempts to list its draining mines under the federal cleanup program.

Even in the last five years, as scientists warned the metal pollution gushing out of Gold King and Red & Bonita mines was doing increasing violence to the river’s ecosystem, the town rejected EPA intervention for fear that a Superfund listing would besmirch its reputation and deter mining companies from setting up shop. 

And politicians like Republican Congressman Scott Tipton, whose district borders the area of the spill have voted again and again to defund the EPA (34 times against programs and funding to keep water and air clean, 98 times to defund or weaken the EPA). And then there is Senator Cory Gardner who voted to nullify safeguards that prevent the dumping of dangerous mining waste into our waterways. The moves against the EPA and to stop mining reclamation are, sadly, endless. This article does a good job rounding that up if you’re interested. High Country News has done some excellent reporting on the spill.  Be sure to read “Nine Things You Need To Know About the Animas River Mine Waste Spill”.

Ironically, it is these same politicians and the people of Silverton who are blaming the EPA for the mess on the Animas last week. The hypocrisy on this is just jaw-dropping.

So. Let’s Review.

1. An unregulated mining company took tens of millions of dollars of gold from the ground and left the mess behind when they were done.

2. The local community, afraid that they would look bad by aggressively cleaning up the mess 70 years later fought against a designation and funding that would have helped mitigate the problem.

3. Politicians (Republicans in particular) and industry lobbyists fight aggressively to defund the agency working to clean up the problem and vote to actually weaken laws that help to contain the toxic waters left by the miners.

4. A private contractor, not Federal employees, cause the spill…..

Yet somehow this is the government’s fault? Please. New Mexican Carol Miller nailed it:

The real cause of this was the company or companies that mined and profited from the ore and walked away from the mess, not even attempting remediation,” she wrote. “The heavy metals sink to the bottom and the river and stream banks even as the contamination is diluted. Every time there are rains, snowmelt and/or high water the toxins will be re-suspended. This is a long-term disaster that isn’t over when the river again runs clear.”

The toxic waste mine spill in the Animas River of Colorado offers the perfect platform to watch how quickly your thinking can be exploited. Not only are there all the completely irresponsible media headlines ranging from Fox to Vox to the supposedly “left-wing” Denver Post and New York Times. But all over social media you can see a very aggressive push to blame this disaster on the government when it was the government trying to deal with the mess left behind by private industry. This whole thing is not out of the ordinary. It is called externalizing costs. Capitalism is all good until it’s not and then the costs get socialized and the rest of us have to pay for it one way or another. And it is not just a historic problem:

Because of the antiquated 1872 Mining Law, companies take federal (read: publicly owned, by you, the taxpayer) minerals with no royalty payments and are generally allowed to operate on any federal lands they select, regardless of public opposition.  Even more heinous, new mega-mines are allowed to be built even though it’s clearly understood that they will have to treat acidic, metal-laden runoff for thousands of years at extreme cost.  Not only are we allowing companies to take minerals for free, but we’re telling them it’s OK to create the same type of permanent water treatment liabilities that polluted the Animas. 

Blaming the EPA while forgetting how this all came about is a disgustingly obvious way to manipulate public thinking. Politicians speaking on behalf of the industries that fund them want you to forget that this tragedy is the result of A LACK of regulation. Next they will be calling for less regulation. And the results will be more of these types of messes that you and will have to pay for. And our kids will have to pay for. And our grandchildren. But let’s be clear. The only correct response to this mess is MORE regulation. Not less.

Watch this over the coming few months. This one is blatantly obvious. Keep your head on while you listen to the media and the politicians. Notice how they want to manipulate you’re thinking in order to exploit you.

polluting the river

The kids and I moved on to the mesas of the Ancestal Puebloans for a few days and by the time we came back to Durango the water in the Animas was the blue I’d been used to my whole life.  Blue, but not clean…it hasn’t been clean for 120 years. The river was re-opened a few days ago:

It is noteworthy that there has been virtually no coverage of the reopening of the Animas compared with the hysterical coverage of the initial event. 


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