"Tó bee iina, El Agua es Vida, Water is Life"
By: Paula Garcia & Olivia Romo
On August 5th 2015 the Silverton, Colorado Gold King Mine released the acid mine drainage that had accumulated over several years from abandoned mining operations. The spill occurred when contractors working for the Environmental Protection Agency were conducting monitoring and reclamation activities. Ironically, it was cleanup efforts that resulted in the spill of heavy metals from the Gold King mine into the Animas River. The underlying causes of the pollution are abandoned mining operations and gaps in policy protections. The most recent spill of acid mine drainage from the Gold Mine highlighted long-standing concerns about the lack of accountability of mining corporations and the lack of resources for effective regulation, cleanup, and oversight.
Mining on public lands is governed by the 1872 Mining Law, which was enacted in the 19th century to promote the settlement of the Western US. The mining law allows anyone to make a claim of minerals on public lands without paying any royalties. The 1872 Law grants a right to mine, but not standards for prudent mine operations, mine site cleanup, reclamation or restoration, or financial responsibility. Also complicating the lack of oversight and regulation is the problem that mines are considered non-point sources of pollution making their coverage under the Clean Water Act uncertain.
To gain insight on the cause of the spill, it is helpful to get some historical context. In 1991, the Sunnyside Mine shut down and cut a deal with Gold King, a local mining company. The previous owner plugged the mining tunnel, built a barricade against the acid mine drainage, and then turned the mine over to the local company. This followed a similar pattern with mines across the country in which companies make millions of dollars in profit and then leave their mess behind. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 40% of the headwater of western U.S. watersheds have been polluted by hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines.
Additionally in a report by Earthworks, it may cost $32 to $72 billion dollars to remediate polluted mines that were abandoned by mining companies.
While the recent spill has generated more awareness about mining pollution, local irrigators mention that such spills are part of a longer history in the region. Jim Rodgers, a fourth generation farmer who lives ten miles from Shiprock, is the last non-Indian irrigator on the Jewett Valley ditch before the Navajo nation. He expressed frustration that contaminations like these disrupt the access farmers need to water, uncertain if he was going to be able to get his last cut of alfalfa from his field this season. Due to the restrictions on the ditches and severe flooding in the area, many farmers could not irrigate their fields because of contamination and the silted water. Fearlessly, Jim states, "As farmers, we are used to things being difficult, even before the spill this had already been a difficult year to begin with."
According to Ernest Smith, Chairmen of the Lower Animas Community Ditch, "Not only have the mines been contaminating the river and Acequias, but so have the people". In Farmington, as in most other areas, there has been a history of illegal dumping of trash, brush, tree stumps, and people running septic tanks into the arroyos and ditches. In 2013 the San Juan Watershed group conducted a study on the Animas, La Plata and San Juan rivers in Colorado and in New Mexico, and found an alarming amount of bacteria from human fecal matter and E. coli in Farmington, New Mexico. Seven San Juan County water systems pull drinking water from one of the three contaminated rivers, according to data compiled by Joe Martinez III, a manager for the drinking water bureau of the state Environment Department. Sadly, not just illegal dumping is happening, septic systems from old trailers and homes have been identified as leaking and contaminating the ground water.
The heavy metal pollution from upstream mining operations is one of many concerns with water quality in the San Juan Basin and the Gold King spill with the riveting pictures of an orange river brought attention to the river and the people who depend on it. Nobody said it better than Chairman, Ernest Smith from the Lower Animas Community Ditch, "This heavy metal contamination is a wakeup call for Colorado and New Mexico to start cleaning up the river by finding the resources to focus on abandoned mines, septic tanks, and all the illegal dumping into ditches and arroyos. I have been living on the acequia since 1959 and the farmers before me have seen many more hardships. This spill is nothing surprising or more severe than any of the others. However, it is good to know that this spill is the one that has brought more awareness and attention to our community, so everyone, including local politicians will realize that water is a precious resource we have to protect regardless of how much money it will take!"
The impacts are being felt by all who share the river for traditional and commercial agriculture. In addition to several Acequias and community ditches in the San Juan Basin, the contamination was a great concern to the Navajo Nation who declared a state of emergency. Some 30,000 acres in the Navajo Nation are at risk from the pollution where numerous Navajo farmers expressed sadness and frustration over losing crops due to lack of clean water for irrigating crops. A legendary grass roots student organization, Kiva Club, from the University of New Mexico of Albuquerque organized the "Animas Toxic Spill: Diné Relief Initiative" that provided 5 tons of water and $900 to Shiprock and Aneth chapter houses on the Navajo Nation. More specifically, they delivered about 225 gallons to local farms on the San Juan who were on the verge of letting their crops die because the costs and time to haul water was impossible[s1] . Next, they delivered 1 ton of drinking water to the Aneth chapter house and 3 tons to elders in need of clean drinking water.
Students engaged in stories, histories of contamination, and food among one another in the Navajo Nation keeping in mind that not just now but for decades the Diné have been living among contaminated water, corruption, and poverty. For the Diné, the San Juan river is a sacred spirit, an ancestor they pray and give offerings to for protection and in times of war. These are times of hostility for the Navajo Nation who have had difficulty obtaining clean water to begin with, not to mention that many do not have connections to a public water system. Elders have had to haul water from as far as Gallup and Cortez for drinking, cooking, and bathing especially in times of contamination beginning with Uranium exposure. These populations, farmers, and young people are fighting every day for clean water, opportunities, and for the resources to restore land and their communities back to health. In addition to Kiva's efforts, fundraisers and benefits have sprouted all over the state in community centers, schools, and bars where musicians from the Navajo Nation are raising consciousness and proceeds to go to the farmers and people on the reservation. On September 4th in Albuquerque, Discotays, Laughing Dog, Lilth, Klee Benally, and other Navajo musicians rocked out at the Launchpad, where many environmental and indigenous organizations gathered to fundraise and raise critical awareness not just around the Gold Mine spill, but the numerous episodes of contamination and violence against indigenous people in New Mexico. Although these fundraisers have built a network of support for those impacted by the Gold Mine spill, there is a lot of work to be done to clean up our rivers, Acequias, and backyards.
In a recent Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt noted that one of the great challenges facing communities and regulatory agencies is the complexity and cost of clean-up activities. The highly mineralized and mined region in Southern Colorado and Northwestern New Mexico have a long history of acidic drainage into surface water. Part of it is naturally occurring but undoubtedly higher levels of pollution are exacerbated by mining. Community groups including the Animas River Stakeholders Group have advocated for remediation and have urged action by federal and state agencies to conduct remediation activities. In some cases where there has been some remediation, fish populations have recovered to some extent but only after multi-year and concerted efforts specific to certain mines. In other areas of the country, there have been some improvements in environmental quality from remediation of abandoned coal mines that could serve as a starting point to developing policy reforms for abandoned hard rock mines.
Lachelt pointed to some recent efforts to reform the 1872 Mining Law, H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 introduced by Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The legislation would create a fund to clean up abandoned and inactive mines by establishing a royalty on mining operations. Regardless of the extent or nature of contamination or who is responsible for pollution or its release from old mines, one fact is clear: any type of cleanup, remediation, or containment of mining pollution will take resources. Lachelt points out that there is much to learn from other cleanup efforts and that much expertise is yet to be gained. But it appears that creating a fund to contribute to clean up and remediation is a step in the right direction.