Clean water: Let’s not miss an opportunity to protect water quality from future mining impacts

Wednesday, April 4, 2018 4:48 PM
A partial under water image shows the deeper colors of the Animas River north of Durango on Aug. 6, 2015 that is filled with toxic mine waste that flowed into the river from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton.

The Journal editorial board applauds state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, for her bill introduced last month to hold future mine operators responsible for water contamination caused by their operations, even in the case of a company abandoning its work or going bankrupt. The public should not be left footing the costs of clean up.

Co-sponsored by Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, House Bill 1301 has three basic provisions:

‰ It authorizes the state to include water quality protection in the bond amount when issuing permits for hard-rock mining. Bonds are the funds provided by mine operators to cover costs for protecting public health and the environment.

‰ It requires mine operators to have a plan for water quality treatment that includes an end date by when pollution is no longer a threat, to avoid creating chronically polluted mines.

‰ It prohibits self-bonding, aligning Colorado with the majority of other states and federal agencies. Self-bonding allows a mining permittee to submit an audited financial statement as proof that the operator currently has sufficient funds to meet its reclamation responsibilities, in lieu of a bond. It’s inadequate as a future guarantee.

McLachlan’s bill, which only applies to new mine permits and does not address past mining operations, is an important, and relatively small, first step in protecting a scarce resource. As Colorado grows, the demands on the water supply will increase; assuring that supply is protected from new mining operations is essential.

Then the state and the federal government need to tackle the huge problem of pollution emanating from past operations. Polluted water from old mines, including those in Rico and Silverton, has long posed a threat to water quality in rivers and reservoirs. Many of those mines are inactive or orphaned, with their owners and operators long gone from the picture.

For others, the regulations and bonding in place at the time of permitting were inadequate to mitigate long-term problems, and frankly, some owners always intended to take profits without taking responsibility. Colorado taxpayers fund millions of dollars in cleanup costs every year, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is also involved in expensive projects, like Superfund, to prevent mine runoff from reaching waterways.

Another important objective, we hope to see action on by this Congress, is Good Samaritan legislation that would allow organizations and individuals to improve conditions without incurring prohibitively expensive responsibility for an entire cleanup and liability for future pollution that they do not cause.

Coal mines are regulated differently than hard-rock mines, but they pose their own pollution risks. Last month, the president reversed Obama-era prohibitions against dumping coal-mining waste into rivers, emphasizing the need for state water protection regulation. Colorado also needs to keep a sharp eye on the risks of pollution and explosions that oil and gas wells can cause, including some in La Plata County, hundreds in-state and thousands West-wide that are orphaned (Journal, Jan. 17, Oct. 23).

HB 1301, which had its first hearing on Monday and passed out of committee for consideration by the full House, is not the solution to the enormous problem that already exists, and it should not be criticized for its narrow focus. It is a necessary limit on future problems.

For anyone who watched the Animas River run mustard-yellow from the Gold King mine spill, “Don’t let this happen again” is a very compelling rationale for change.