As the snowpack melts, much of Colorados water rushes across rocks and still-frozen ground, collecting in streams that pour from the high country. On the way, it picks up evidence of everything it passes. As the weather warms, some of that water doesnt run off; it begins to percolate down down down into crevasses and into the soil to run along layers of impermeable rock until it either bubbles to the surface again or joins the groundwater below.
In Colorado, a lot of that water trickles into abandoned mines and washes across the tailings piles found in the upper end of nearly every drainage in the state. According to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, there are at least 7,300 abandoned mines in the state and 450 are known to be leaking measurable toxins including arsenic, cadmium, copper and zinc into the states watersheds. (The DNR has inadequate staff to monitor all mines; its logical to believe that many more are pollution hazards.)
According to the Associated Press and the Denver Post, state environmental officials have listed critical 32 sites along the Animas River. The Dolores, the Mancos, the La Plata, the San Miguel all the rivers in the southwest corner of the state bear evidence of the regions mining heritage. The drainage below the Summitville gold mine in Rio Grande County was the site of a major Superfund cleanup.
Stretches of some of those rivers no longer support aquatic life, yet the water aggregates in rivers used for irrigation and drinking water. Theres not much extra water in the West; its all allocated to someone, for some important use.
Although the snowpack in the San Juan drainage is only a third above normal, in other parts of the state its two to three times the long-term average, and the sudden hot weather means it will come down fast. That means a lot of water will be sweeping across contaminated mine sites.
Yet according to the Post, the fear of liability has deterred anyone companies wanting to renew mining, water utilities, environmental groups and even governmental entities from tackling the cleanup. If they accidentally make matters worse, they could face federal prosecution under the Clean Water Act for polluting waterways without a permit. Although President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar want to reduce that liability, legislative gridlock has stalled the effort.
Thats wrong. Highly-qualified contractors who submit mitigation plans that include detailed documentation about the potential for unexpected releases of contaminated material and plans for stringent monitoring should be held responsible only for conditions they can actually control. By all means, hold them to extremely strict standards; just dont hold them to impossible ones.
The EPA is willing to partially shield cleanup efforts from liability, but the Clean Water Act, ironically, will require legislative change to help clean up watersheds.
One flash flood in the wrong place can kill a river and dry up the towns and farmland around it. It can carry pollutants all the way to the ocean and then disperse them far beyond. Congress should help reduce that risk. Water is the lifeblood of the West; its too valuable to use as a weapon in political brinksmanship.