2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill
2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill was an environmental
disaster that began at the Gold King Mine near
Silverton, Colorado ,
when EPA personnel, along with workers for Environmental Restoration
LLC (a Missouri company under EPA contract to mitigate pollutants from
the closed mine), caused the release of toxic waste water into the
Animas River watershed. They caused the accident while attempting to
drain ponded water near the entrance of the mine on August 5. After
the spill, the Silverton Board of Trustees and the San Juan County
Commission approved a joint resolution seeking
Contractors accidentally destroyed the plug holding water trapped
inside the mine, which caused an overflow of the pond, spilling three
million US gallons (11 ML) of mine waste water and tailings ,
including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead , and other toxic
elements, such as arsenic , beryllium , zinc , iron and copper
into Cement Creek, a tributary of the
Animas River in
Colorado . The
EPA was criticized for not warning
New Mexico about the
operation until the day after the waste water spilled, despite the
fact the EPA employee "in charge of Gold King Mine knew of blowout
The EPA has taken responsibility for the incident, but refused to pay
for any damages claims filed after the accident on grounds of
sovereign immunity , pending special authorization from Congress or
re-filing of lawsuits in federal court. Governor of
Hickenlooper declared the affected area a disaster zone. The spill
affects waterways of municipalities in the states of Colorado, New
Mexico , and
Utah , as well as the
Navajo Nation . As of August 11,
2015, acidic water continued to spill at a rate of 500–700 US
gal/min (1.9–2.6 m3/min) while remediation efforts were underway.
* 1 Background
* 1.1 Prior reclamation
* 1.2 The blowout
* 1.3 EPA risk awareness
* 2 Environmental impact
* 2.1 Heavy metals
* 3 Government response
* 4 Impact on the
* 5 See also
* 6 Notes
* 7 References
* 8 External links
Gold mining in the hills around Gold King was the primary income and
economy for the region until 1991, when the last mine closed near
Silverton. The Gold King Mine was abandoned in 1923. Prior to the
spill, the Upper Animas water basin had already become devoid of fish,
because of the adverse environmental impacts of regional mines such as
Gold King, when contaminants entered the water system. Other plant
and animal species were also adversely affected in the watershed
before the Gold King Mine breach. Entrance to Gold King Mine
from EPA site management web site. This is the adit known as Gold King
Many abandoned mines throughout
Colorado are known to have problems
with acid mine drainage . The chemical processes involved in acid
mine drainage are common around the world: where subsurface mining
exposes metal sulfide minerals such as pyrite to water and air, this
water must be carefully managed to prevent harm to riparian ecology.
At the time of the accident, the EPA was working at the Gold King Mine
to stem the leaking mine water going into Cement Creek. Water was
accumulating behind a plug at the mine's entrance. They planned to add
pipes that would allow the slow release and treatment of that water
before it backed up enough to blow out. Unknown to the crew, the mine
tunnel behind the plug was already full of pressurized water. It burst
through the plug soon after excavation began.
In the 1990s, sections of the Animas had been nominated by the EPA as
Superfund site for clean-up of pollutants from the Gold King Mine
and other mining operations along the river. Lack of community support
prevented its listing. Under the law, the EPA had authority to do only
minor work to abate environmental impacts of the mine. Locals had
feared that classifying this as a
Superfund site would reduce tourism
in the area, which was the largest remaining source of income for the
region since the closure of the metal mines.
The Gold King's adits were dry for most of the mine's recent history,
as the area was being drained from below by the Sunnyside Mine's
American Tunnel. Sunnyside Mine closed in 1991. As part of a
reclamation plan, the American Tunnel was sealed up in 1996. In the
absence of drainage, by 2002 a new discharge of particularly
contaminated water had begun to flow from the Gold King Level 7 adit.
Flow there increased again after the nearby Mogul Mine was sealed by
its owners in 2003.
In 2006, a spot measurement of flow from this adit showed a peak of
314 gallons per minute. The significance of this figure is unclear
since flow was not being logged continuously. :17-22 By this time, the
Gold King was considered one of the worst acid mine drainage sites in
Colorado. In 2009, the
Colorado Department of Natural Resources
Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS) plugged all four
Gold King Mine portals by stuffing them with old mine backfill;
drainage pipes were installed to prevent water from ponding behind the
entrance. This work was complicated by partial collapse of the mine
tunnel near the entrance. It was noted that the drainage system might
not be sufficient to prevent a future blowout. :35
Colorado DRMS asked the EPA to reopen and stabilize the Gold
King 7 adit. :35 Reportedly no maintenance on the existing drainage
system had been performed since it was installed in 2009. It was noted
that flow from the drains had decreased from 112 gpm to 12.6 gpm
between August 25, 2014, and September 11, 2014. The cause of this
decrease was unknown but attributed to seasonal variation. :35 While
excavating the opening, workers saw seepage at six feet above the
bottom of the tunnel; they believed that meant that there was six feet
of water backed up in the tunnel. Excavation at the entrance was
postponed until 2015, so that a pond large enough to treat that volume
of water could be constructed. :36
The EPA team returned in July 2015 to continue the work. They found
that a landslide had covered the drainage pipes. :42 When the slide
was cleared, seepage was again observed at a level about 6 feet above
the bottom of the mine entrance, which they thought was the level of
pooled water behind the plug. :46 They planned to excavate the
entrance beginning from the level of the top of the mine tunnel down
to what they took to be the top of the water, insert a pipe through
that clearance, and drain the pooled water. :47-52 DRMS and the EPA
discussed the plan and came to an agreement. However, they had
misjudged the level of the water in the tunnel.
At around 10:51 AM on August 5, the backhoe operator saw a spurt of
clear water spray about 2 ft out of a fracture in the wall of the
plug, indicating that the mine tunnel was full of pressurized water.
Failure of the plug produced uncontrolled release within minutes.
:52-59 Rushing to Cement Creek, the torrent of water washed out the
access road to the site. :60
The EPA had considered drilling into the mine from above in order to
measure the water level directly before beginning excavation at the
entrance, as was done at nearby mines in 2011. Had they done so, they
would have discovered the true water level, and changed their plan;
the disaster would not have occurred. :2 Operating mines have been
required to perform such measurement of water level since a fatal mine
flood in 1911. :A-4
EPA RISK AWARENESS
Through a FOIA request,
Associated Press obtained EPA files
indicating that U.S. government officials "knew of ‘blowout’ risk
for tainted water at mine," which could result from the EPA's
intervention. EPA authorities had learned of this risk through a June
2014 work order that read "Conditions may exist that could result in a
blowout of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of
contaminated mine waters and sediment from inside the mine, which
contain concentrated heavy metals." In addition, a May 2015 action
plan for the mine "also noted the potential for a blowout." An EPA
spokeswoman was not able to state what precautions the EPA took.
On February 11, 2016, the
Denver Post reported that Hays Griswold,
the EPA employee in charge of the Gold King mine, wrote in an e-mail
to other EPA officials "that he personally knew the blockage "could be
holding back a lot of water and I believe the others in the group knew
as well."" The Post added: "Griswold's e-mail appears directly to
contradict those findings and statements he made to The
Denver Post in
the days after the disaster, when he claimed "nobody expected (the
acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high." "
A map of the San Juan River watershed, which drains into the
Colorado river, showing the northern tributary of the
Animas River was closed to recreation until August 14. During
the closure, county officials warned river visitors to stay out of the
water. Residents with wells in floodplains were told to have their
water tested before drinking it or bathing in it. People were told to
avoid contact with the river, including by their pets, and to prevent
farmed animals from drinking the water. They were advised not to catch
fish in the river. The
Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency
Management issued a state of emergency declaration in response to the
spill; it has suffered devastating effects.
People living along the Animas and San Juan rivers were advised to
have their water tested before using it for cooking, drinking, or
bathing. The spill was expected to cause major problems for farmers
and ranchers who rely on the rivers for their livelihoods.
The long-term impacts of the spill are unknown, as sedimentation is
expected to dilute the pollutants as the spill cloud moves downstream.
The acid mine drainage temporarily changed the color of the river to
By August 7, the waste reached Aztec,
New Mexico ; the next day, it
reached the city of Farmington , the largest municipality affected by
the disaster. By August 10, the waste had reached the San Juan River
New Mexico and Shiprock (part of the Navajo Nation), with no
evidence to that date of human injury or wildlife die-off. The heavy
metals appeared to be settling to the bottom of the river. They are
largely insoluble unless the entire river becomes very acidic. The
waste was initially expected to reach
Lake Powell by August 12; it
arrived on August 14. It was expected to pass through the lake within
Utah Division of Water Quality said the remaining contaminants
will be diluted to a point where there will be no danger to users
beyond that point. By August 11, pollutant levels at Durango returned
to pre-incident levels. On August 12, the leading edge of the plume
was no longer visible due to dilution and sediment levels in the
river. The discharge rate of waste water at Gold King Mine was 610
gallons per minute as of August 12.
The EPA reported, August 10, 2015, that levels of six metals were
above limits allowed for domestic water by the
Colorado Department of
Public Health and Environment. The department requires municipalities
to cease to use water when the levels in it exceed the limits. Some
metals were found at hundreds of times their limits, e.g. lead 100
times the limit, iron 326 times the limit.
Arsenic and cadmium were
also above the limits. The measurement was made 15 miles (24 km)
upstream from Durango. Emergency tailing ponds constructed in
response to the 2015 Gold King Mine Spill, pictured on August 7
The EPA took responsibility for the incident. The EPA notified local
residents of the spill 24 hours after it occurred, a delay which the
press and local officials criticized. The
Associated Press reported,
17 days after the spill: "In the wake of the spill, it has typically
taken days to get any detailed response from the agency, if at all."
On August 8, Governor of
John Hickenlooper declared a
disaster, as did the leader of the Navajo Nation.
On August 11,
New Mexico Governor
Susana Martinez declared a state of
emergency in her state after viewing the affected river from a
helicopter, and said her administration was ready to seek legal action
against the EPA.
Multiple municipalities and jurisdictions along the course of the
river, including the Navajo Nation, stopped drawing drinking water
Animas River because of heavy metal contamination. The
Navajo Nation President,
Russell Begaye , advised his people with
livestock and farming against signing a form from the EPA saying that
the Environmental Protection Agency is not responsible for the damage
to crops and livestock. Despite assurances of safety from both the
U.S. EPA and the
Navajo Nation EPA, farmers of the
Navajo Nation on
August 22 voted unanimously to refrain from using water from the
Animas River for one year, overruling president Russell Begaye. He had
planned to announce the reopening of irrigation canals.
Following the spill, the local governments of Silverton and San Juan
County decided to accept
Superfund money to fully remediate the mine.
Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) rejected a request
Navajo Nation to appoint a disaster-recovery coordinator.
A $1.5M water treatment plant built by the EPA to treat acid mine
drainage from the Gold King Mine began operation in October 2015.
However, the larger issues raised by toxic drainage from many similar
abandoned mines throughout the country: what agency should be tasked
with oversight, and how remediation should be funded, had not been
IMPACT ON THE NAVAJO NATION
The effects of the Gold King Mine spill on the
Navajo Nation has
included damage to their crops, home gardens, and cattle herds. The
Navajo Nation ceased irrigating their crops from the San Juan River on
August 7, 2015. While San Juan County in
New Mexico lifted the ban on
water from the San Juan River on August 15, 2015, the President of the
Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, who had ongoing concerns about the
water’s safety, did not lift the Navajo Nation’s ban until August
21, 2015. This followed the Navajo Nation’s EPA completing its
testing of the water. During this time, the US EPA had water
delivered to the Navajo Nation.
An estimated 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers were affected directly
by the closing of the canals after the spill. While water was trucked
into the area to provide water to fields, many home gardens and some
remote farms did not receive any assistance. They suffered widespread
The EPA and the
Navajo Nation are still disputing how to fairly
compensate the Navajo for the damage caused by the spill. As of April
22, 2016, the
Navajo Nation has been compensated a total of $150,000
by the EPA, according to testimony at hearings of the Senate Committee
on Indian Affairs. According to President Begaye, this is only 8% of
the costs incurred by the Navajo Nation. According to Senator John
McCain , the
Navajo Nation could incur up to $335 million in costs
related to the spill.
Mount Polley mine disaster
* ^ The water was under pressure because the flooded adit sloped
upward away from the entrance, gaining about 10 ft in elevation over
1,000 ft. If the water was 1 ft deep there, this would correspond to
the weight of 11 feet of water on the plug. :67
* ^ The impact on the
Navajo Nation has been reported in various
Portland Press Herald
Portland Press Herald reported that the disaster is
"devastating to the Navajo Nation." By August 12, the New York Post
reported that "Bottled water on the
Navajo Nation is becoming scarce.
CNN reported: "the
Navajo Nation in
New Mexico appears to have the
most at risk."
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