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Mine spill should be warning of danger to groundwater

By January 16, 2016September 29th, 2022Climate & Energy, Water Quality & Land Restoration

As published in the Las Cruces Sun-News
There has been a barrage of harsh, even nasty, criticism directed at the EPA recently over the August 5 spill of 3 million gallons of polluted water from the Gold King Mine into the Animas and San Juan rivers. Members of Gov. Martinez’s administration have been among the most vocal critics. Sadly, the governor has chosen to focus on only one responsible party in this sad event, the EPA, rather than focusing on all the players whose misdeeds contributed to the spill. This myopic approach makes it less likely that appropriate governmental action will be taken to prevent future spills.
Clearly EPA made a serious and lamentable mistake in releasing the tainted water. The release had a destructive effect on the Animas River, and on many individuals and businesses that rely on the river for recreation, irrigation, and drinking. Yet amid all the EPA bashing, there are several important facts to consider.
First, the source of the pollution was not EPA, but the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado. Abandoned in 1922, the mine has left behind a legacy of pulverized waste rock laden with toxic metals, and a continuous production of acid mine drainage. The polluted water, known as “acid mine drainage,” contained sulfates, sulfuric acid, and elevated levels of dissolved toxic metals.
Second, the mine has been leaking acid mine drainage for decades. Prior to the August release, the mine and other nearby abandoned mines were releasing approximately 330 million gallons of contaminated mine water each year into tributaries of the Animas. Moreover, it is likely that the release, given time, would have happened anyway, as water accumulating in an old mine adit (horizontal tunnel) built up pressure on an earthen dam.
Third, EPA had attempted comprehensive cleanup of the site in 2008, but retreated in response to local opposition. EPA investigated the site for possible listing on the Superfund priority list, which would have provided substantial sums of cleanup money. But EPA halted the listing process in deference to business and community leaders around Durango who feared that Superfund listing would diminish property values and discourage tourism.
The governor’s posturing as an environmental watchdog rings particularly hollow given the administrative assault she has launched on New Mexico’s environment. Consider the recent Copper Mine Rule. The rule was drafted, proposed, and promoted by Martinez appointees at the Environment Department (with some ghost writing by the mining industry), over the objections of career department staff. It was adopted with little debate by Martinez appointees on the Water Quality Control Commission. And it has been defended – with the taxpayers paying the bill – by a private law firm the Martinez administration hired for the task.
Copper mines generate large quantities of acid mine drainage, precisely the sort of pollution released into the Animas River. At the Tyrone Mine in Grant County, for example, copper mining has polluted what was once high-quality groundwater. At some locations, levels of certain metals have exceeded state groundwater quality standards by as much as 1,000 times.
The Copper Mine Rule legalizes contamination of New Mexico’s precious groundwater with acid mine drainage. It allows copper mines to pollute groundwater within a “drainage area” around a mine – in effect a groundwater sacrifice zone. Within this area, no pollution control system, no monitoring or reporting of groundwater quality, and no cleanup of groundwater contamination is required. At the Tyrone mine, the area covers nine square miles.
This absence of any requirements to protect or clean up groundwater is a stark and striking departure from past regulatory practice dating back decades. It also contravenes the New Mexico Water Quality Act. That law strictly limits the discharge of contaminants into any groundwater that has a present or potential future use. If a discharge would cause groundwater pollution level to rise above the legal threshold, that discharge is unlawful.
To his credit, Attorney General Balderas has challenged the Copper Mine Rule in the courts. The New Mexico Supreme Court will hear the case; briefing was to be completed in December. Hopefully the high court – mindful of the calamitous Animas River spill – will recognize the danger in allowing similar mine pollution to foul the state’s invaluable groundwater resources.
Ben Shelton is the political and legislative director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. A longer, more detailed version of this column appears on the CVNM website at