Taking a meandering and relaxed “Anti-Strava” bike ride Sunday it was great to appreciate the deep blue sky, the late-summer yellow wildflowers popping out along the single track, the green still rising on the flanks of the mountains. There’s not much white left, with little snow still covering the surrounding peaks, but based on a morning walk with the dog, it won’t be too long before we see some new high mountain white.
And it’s not just here. Denver Broncos orange is blazing across the state as football season approaches. Colorado Rockies purple was bright as the team actually won a few games last week. Throw in the weird yellow of the Animas River flowing through Durango and you have a Crayola box popping across the Centennial State.
While most of the colors bring joy to one’s heart, the thought of the Slate or the Gunnison Rivers turning yellow strikes more fear in one’s heart than joy. Before I got here in the ’80s, Coal Creek apparently ran orange for basically the same reason the Animas is now running yellow. Mine tailings leaking into the watershed is not benign.
Reading about reaction to this Gold King Mine/Animas River catastrophe, I learned that experts estimate there are 55,000 abandoned mines from Colorado to California and federal and state authorities have struggled to clean them for decades. The feds say 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff when abandoned mines fill up with groundwater and snowmelt that becomes tainted with acids and heavy metals from mining veins that can trickle into the region’s waterways.
The Environmental Protection Agency admitted that its mistake let loose three million gallons of toxic water into the watershed near Silverton. That’s one gargantuan oops. That nightmare is now creeping toward Lake Powell.
The EPA is currently working on a similar but not exact mine cleanup situation just a few miles west of Crested Butte at the old Standard Mine. The EPA managers are confident we won’t see a repeat here of last week’s accident in Durango. But as we can obviously see, accidents do happen.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that regulations started coming on line to deal with abandoned mines in Colorado. After all, mining is what made Colorado valuable as a state and for many years it was the driving economic force in the region. Just read Artifactually Speaking, Brian Levine’s history column running in the News, about what mining did for places like Irwin. But it is the remnants of that colorful time in history that could impact us now.
The reason Coal Creek is a refreshing crystal clear color (as opposed to pumpkin orange or mustard yellow) as it flows by the Totem Pole at Third and Maroon is that there is a water treatment plant filtering the water on Mt. Emmons. The owner of the molybdenum deposit, U.S. Energy, is legally required to run that plant, which costs the company about $1.8 million every year. If that plant goes down or U.S. Energy is not able to pay for its operation, Coal Creek will look like a haunted Halloween story.
And that is why it is imperative that the town, the county, groups like HCCA and the Red Lady Coalition should continue to insist that the state and the feds demand a fail-safe surety plan that will guarantee the plant continues to clean up our water. At the very least, that would mean a real bond with real money to insure that U.S. Energy cannot just walk away from the aging plant without leaving funds to make sure it continues to work.
There has been talk about our community institutions joining forces to make the state and the feds aware that if something does happen, the town and county do not have the means to operate the treatment plant. So that would likely mean a state agency responsible for water quality or a federal agency responsible for the plant sitting on its land will have to step in. Therefore it makes common sense that they tag the responsible entity now for an insurance policy. Our representatives are working on the issue.
One reason it might be a little more imperative now than a couple years ago is that U.S. Energy isn’t exactly rolling in the green. The company released its “Second Quarter 2015 Highlights and Selected Financial Results” this week. With the low oil and gas prices, the company is not making money right now. While getting a bounce this week from rising oil prices, the stock price is well below $1 at about 60 cents. Last month it was 40 cents. Last year it was $4.25. Can you say shaky?
With the Gold King Mine catastrophe poisoning the river through Durango and sliming toward the Grand Canyon, it is now easy and clear to see the hidden legacy of old unregulated mining. It lurks in just about every mountain range in Colorado, including ours. Like so much in life, it is important we look at the risks honestly and address them appropriately. At the very least, that means getting some real insurance that Coal Creek and the Slate River doesn’t accidently or purposely bring a new poisoned orange hue to the valley.