DENVER - A coalition of tribes, local governments and environmental groups Tuesday petitioned the federal government to change mining rules to prevent future contamination of drinking and recreational water supplies.
In a letter to the heads of the Interior and Agriculture departments, the groups point to the recent Gold King Mine spill, in which an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted team accidentally dumped an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater into the Animas River on Aug. 5. Durango utilities officials were forced to stop pulling water from the river, and the La Plata County Sheriff's Office shut the river to recreational use.
Initial tests showed spikes in heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and copper. The river has since been reopened after state, local and federal health officials showed the water and sediment tested does not appear to be toxic to humans.
The EPA team was focused on reclamation at the abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton in San Juan County. But after breaching a retaining wall, dirty water rushed into the Animas, turning the river a surreal mustard-yellow color. Federal authorities are investigating the cause of the spill. In the meantime, concerns grow over thousands of other mines across the West that could end in disaster because of lingering mining sludge.
The group's 74-page petition asks the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service to change mining rules to limit the lifetime of a mine permit, impose reclamation deadlines and monitoring requirements, require consistent monitoring and limit the time a mine can remain inactive.
"We know that BLM and the Forest Service have too few resources for too many tasks," the petition states. "That is why, under our proposal, the burdens to apply for permit renewals and to provide better and more timely information regarding temporary closures and re-openings would fall primarily on operators."
Groups from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, such as San Miguel County commissioners, are involved in the petition effort.
A focus of the petition is on uranium mining. Environmental reviews for those mines date back more than three decades. Other abandoned mines operated under laws dating back to the 1870s, with few mandates on reclamation.