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Science & Environment

Toxic Wastewaster Spill In Colorado Highlights Problem Of Abandoned Mines

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's been more than a week since 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater gushed from the Gold King Mine in Colorado. That wastewater filled with toxic heavy metals has contaminated several rivers in three states. This disaster points to a bigger problem with abandoned mines around the country. Alan Prendergast has been writing about that for the weekly newspaper Westword in Denver, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ALAN PRENDERGAST, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Alan, how many abandoned mines are there in the U.S.?

PRENDERGAST: Well, you know, just in the West, there's an astonishing number. It's, like, half-a-million. And there's 23,000, I think, in Colorado. But most of those are not really doing much. I think there's probably a couple hundred in Colorado that are actively leaking into waterways.

BLOCK: And what are the environmental concerns, specifically, in these mines that are leaking?

PRENDERGAST: Well, essentially, for the most part, these are high-country mines. They are mines that have a lot of heavy metals in the brew that's coming out of those mines. I mean, we're talking about cadmium, arsenic, zinc. You know, these are just a lot of heavy metals that kill fish. They hang around. They settle into the bottoms of rivers, and it's not a good situation.

BLOCK: And if a mine is abandoned, if it's sealed off and closed, who's in charge of it? Are there inspections?

PRENDERGAST: Well, this has been kind of a complicated process in Colorado. For a while, the state regulators were taking the lead in trying to deal with the discharge from some of these mines. And they worked out a very complicated deal with the last mine that was operating in this district above Durango. That was the Sunnyside gold mine. That closed 25 years ago. Essentially, they were allowed to seal off their mine. They call it bulkheading. And even though there was still some water seeping out, they agreed to sort of do some remedial work with other mines, and the state allowed them to sort of finish their responsibilities that way.

The problem was that the mine eventually transferred its obligations to a local owner who didn't have the resources to, for example, operate a water treatment plant that closed in 2003. So the buildup of these underground waters that are slowly leaking out of these mines has been going on for some time, and the EPA was trying to figure out what else to do with it. So it started out as a state effort, and then eventually you got the EPA coming back in because they were getting alarmed at some of the levels of these heavy metals that were showing up in streams that eventually go into the Animas River.

BLOCK: Has there been any legal action taken under the Clean Water Act before this?

PRENDERGAST: No, I don't believe there has been. I mean, EPA was looking at this. At one time, they were thinking about declaring this area a superfund site, and there was a lot of pressure from the locals not to do that because this is also a, you know, increasingly tourist-conscious area. And the idea of being labeled a superfund site was seen as being detrimental to tourism. So, I mean, I think the problem is that there hasn't been one plan over the years. There's been a series of different approaches to this, and not all of them have been fully implemented, and not all of them have been successful. They've seen the levels of these metals rise and fall in the creeks. And at times, they felt encouraged. And then, suddenly there'll be a surge, and they're not sure where it's coming from, but they have to address it.

BLOCK: Well, given the magnitude of the spill and the attention that it's gotten - those images of that mustard-colored water - do you think this is a turning point, a wake-up call of some kind?

PRENDERGAST: It's certainly going to prompt a lot more attention to this than it's had. It really has deserved more attention. I mean, I - this is a problem that's been building over 20 years, and people don't want to talk about it. You know, at the federal and state level, I think the ability to do remediation has been badly underfunded. I think all of these things are going to get more attention now.

BLOCK: That's Alan Prendergast, a reporter with the newspaper Westword in Denver, Colo. Alan, thanks so much.

PRENDERGAST: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.