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One Year After A Toxic River Spill, No Clear Plan To Clean Up Western Mines

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Orange sediment laced with heavy metals is visible in the path of water coming out of the Natalie/Occidental Mine in southwestern Colorado. This mine is one of dozens on a proposed Superfund listing pending with the EPA. Several mines in the area have been leaching the tainted water for years — well before the Gold King Mine spill.

One year ago — on Aug. 5, 2015 — an EPA crew at the Gold King Mine in southwest Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of orange water filled with mercury and arsenic.

The toxic spill flowed into the Animas River, eventually running into New Mexico's San Juan River and into Lake Powell. So far, disaster response and water quality monitoring have cost the EPA about $29 million — and the problem isn't over yet.

Water laced with heavy metals continues to gush out of the mine, says Joyel Dhieux of the Environmental Protection Agency. That's why the EPA built a water treatment plant here last fall, at the cost of $1.5 million.

"Five hundred gallons a minute is what we're currently seeing coming from the Gold King Mine," Dhieux says. "It's a bit of an increase, as you might expect with all the spring melt in the area."

Five hundred gallons a minute is a lot. But Dhieux says this is only one of several abandoned mines in the area.

Some have been discharging the same kind of water for decades. And the water from those mines is not running through a treatment plant.

In fact, this problem is at the heart of why the EPA was at the Gold King Mine last summer. And it's what prompted the local government here to apply for a Superfund listing this spring.

"There was a lot of sleepless nights," says Willy Tookey, administrator for San Juan County.

For more than a decade, the government here shied away from Superfund status. The two biggest concerns? It would cause a drop in property values and a drop in tourism.

But Tookey says intense negotiations with the EPA over this past year led to new confidence and assurances.

"Because of the circumstances I think we were able to get these answers that we weren't able to before," he says.

Answers for EPA critics and Republican lawmakers have been more elusive. The agency accepted full responsibility for the August 2015 spill. And samples show water quality in Colorado and New Mexico has returned to pre-spill conditions.

But critics point out no one within the EPA has been punished. A criminal investigation is underway, however. The state of New Mexico has enough unresolved questions that it filed suit against both the EPA and Colorado.

Meanwhile, the country hasn't made much progress on fixing abandoned mines across the West.

"There are still tens of thousands of those throughout the country that still need attention," says Doug Young, a senior analyst at the Denver-based Keystone Center, which focuses on science and public policy.

He says two key obstacles are funding and legal accountability.

"My original hope was that after the Gold King spill, it might cause people to rethink how we might be able to come up with a solution," Young says.

Historically, he says, Congress has considered two fixes: Good Samaritan legislation to encourage volunteer cleanups, and a reclamation fee for hard-rock mining companies.

But several Good Samaritan bills in Congress seem to be going nowhere. And the proposed fee is even more of a nonstarter.

"What we've seen, I think, is a going back to and resurrecting some of these old concepts that haven't received wide support," Young says. "And as a result I think we're seeing it getting bogged down again in those same debates."

Young says that because of the stalemate, the Keystone Center is trying a new approach: using the Superfund program but not calling the cleanups Superfund sites, which can bring political and economic baggage.

In spite of the gridlock, Young says an answer will emerge. The leaking, tainted water from these mines will become more valuable with drought and climate change.

And when that reaches a crisis point, he says, lawmakers will really have something to talk about.

Copyright 2016 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit Colorado Public Radio.

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