The Gold King Mine spill that so abruptly and dramatically captured national attention last August had significant local and regional implications – for water quality and wildlife health, for agriculture and recreation and their corresponding economies, and for politics in communities near and far. The 3 million gallons of metal-laden water formerly trapped behind a bulkhead above Silverton that surged through the Animas River valley triggered a region-wide effort to meaningfully address the leaking mines that compromise water quality in Silverton-area waterways – affecting communities downstream. That spirit of cooperation has cultivated local, state and federal support for a permanent water treatment facility to counter the effects of leaking mines above Silverton, via the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund listing. That cooperation and the solution it produced should be harnessed and expanded to address the hundreds of thousands of similarly problematic mines throughout the West.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said as much on Sunday at a meeting of the Western Governors Association, and he is right to seek convergence on an issue that affects environmental and human health far and wide in the West. An estimated 500,000 inactive and leaking mines are wreaking various levels of havoc on waterways, wildlife and critical related resources. That is a staggering figure, brought about by the intersection of high cost, low accountability and congressional intransigence on the matter of reforming the laws that hamstring large-scale cleanup of this widespread and long-simmering problem.
By banding together to study, advocate for and implement multi-level means of addressing the region’s leaking mines, western states can leverage their history of cooperation and positive results – improving habitat throughout the West for the greater sage grouse is one impressive example – achieved by working with the federal government and local communities toward a common goal. Cleaning wastewater from a half-million leaking mines surely qualifies as worthy of the effort.
The Gold King spill has been instructive on many levels: It highlights the complexity of the problem – and the correspondingly multivariate solutions, in terms of legislation, funding and inter-agency cooperation needed to tackle the issue comprehensively. It also demonstrates just how critical local participation is to finding and implementing solutions. Trust was instrumental to the successful effort to find a path forward for cleaning up the mines above Silverton: between local residents, cities, counties, the state, the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado’s congressional delegation. Similar relationship-building will be essential in any West-wide effort to address the dark side of our mining legacy.
The Gold King example can provide many lessons for broader application, and the Western governors are an appropriate group through which to channel that instruction. While the timeline might not be as expeditious as that which followed the Gold King spill, Hickenlooper is correct to say that “the time is now,” as he told his colleagues on Sunday.