Situated nearly 11,400 feet above sea level deep in the San Juan National Forest, the long-abandoned Gold King Mine is now surrounded by a flurry of activity from various state and federal agencies working to contain and treat wastewater leaking as a result of a catastrophic spill earlier this month just outside the small mountain town of Silverton.
Below the mine’s opening, the 3 million gallons of contaminated water that broke through a natural barrier has left the mountainside ravaged with downed trees, mass erosion and an orange tinge that has become the signature image of the spill. The spill came Aug. 5 when a crew contracted to work with the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a barrier.
Even today, Cement Creek – a tributary flowing to the Animas River – rushes with the tainted sludge that contains a number of heavy metals.
On Wednesday, attorneys general Cynthia Coffman of Colorado and Sean Reyes of Utah visited the mine for the first time since the incident, searching for a better understanding of events that led to the spill and to see firsthand the EPA’s plan for the cleanup.
“It helps to understand the complexity of the situation that we’re dealing with,” Coffman said. “This is not simple, and I think people need to understand there is not a quick fix with this. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Allen Sorenson, a geoengineer with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the EPA has three primary goals it seeks to accomplish before winter:
Fix the narrow and rocky county road that leads to the mine for easier access.
Stabilize the mine’s opening.
Set up a viable water-treatment system that includes retention ponds that will last until next spring.
When The Durango Herald visited the contamination site Wednesday, La Plata County construction crews were working to improve County Road 10, which was severely damaged when the flood of wastewater cascaded down the valley two weeks ago. In that time, the EPA has installed five retention ponds, though Sorenson said those holding tanks are only temporary.
The ponds allow water-treatment chemicals the time the agents need to drop out the contaminants absorbed in the mine, and environment officials hope that will increase the pH levels in the stream and drop heavy metals from effluent. Although water levels have been deemed nonthreatening to human health, far more uncertainty exists about the orange sediment settled on the river floor.
Most of the tour was dedicated to explaining to the attorneys general and their staffs, as well as select media, the sometimes confusing and opaque details of the spill.
The heavily mined region contains two major mining systems: One near Gold King Mine includes several other sites, and a much larger network, Sunnyside Mine, farther off into the San Juan National Forest.
The mining network of shafts and tunnels creates easy flow paths for ground water, which pick up toxic materials such as lead, arsenic and cadmium. The water eventually makes its way to the Animas River, causing health concerns.
Previous mine owners in the region responded to contaminated runoff by installing a plug in an existing drainage way called the American Tunnel, effectively returning outflows at the Sunnyside Mine to pre-mining levels.
However, over the years, the shafts within Sunnyside filled, and water shifted through the ground toward the network that includes Gold King Mine, which Sorenson said was relatively dry at that time.
That’s when the EPA stepped in to treat the leakage, Sorenson said, adding that recent work was not concentrated on Gold King Mine. Rather, most of the remediation was occurring at the nearby Red and Bonita site.
“The EPA’s project this year is plugging the Red and Bonita, which is one of the biggest (contaminates) of Cement Creek and, subsequently, the upper Animas,” Sorenson said. “It’s a step-by-step process, and that is this year’s primary step.”
On Aug. 5, a crew of about five or six EPA workers and hired contractors went up to Gold King Mine in an attempt to install a pipe that would have diverted leakage there to treatment ponds located at Red and Bonita. That’s when whatever was holding the water back – Sorenson couldn’t say exactly what – collapsed and a wall of water began moving through unconsolidated soil and debris.
“It didn’t come out in a complete rush. They had time to see that something was developing that was problematic, and they had sufficient time to clear the immediate area,” said Sorenson, who wasn’t at the scene but talked to the workers afterward. “That was a very large amount of water that came out in a very short period of time.”
In 24 years of working with mines in the region, Sorenson said the situation surrounding Cement Creek is one of the most difficult he’s seen, even before the spill further complicated matters. The EPA will continue to stabilize Gold King Mine while it concentrates on remediation at Red and Bonita.
But as for the long-term solution: “That’s still being analyzed,” he said.
Coffman said the tour was helpful – providing a picture of where events actually took place. The day gave her a chance to ask questions of the EPA and people with knowledge of the mine.
She remained noncommittal on whether her office would file a lawsuit against the EPA, reiterating she would rather avoid litigation if possible.
“Gold King is not an isolated situation. We know there’s a cobweb of these mines. This has been on a prioritization list ... so there are plans for many of these mines that people have not heard about,” she said.
“But there’s no question that this spill has focused attention on this spot and the area around Silverton. ... I think we’re still talking about some weeks before we put together all the pieces of the puzzle.”