Recalling EPA’s Gold King Mine disaster – Part 1

Five years after the infamous blowout, EPA finally settles with Utah over Gold King pollution

Duggan Flanakin

On the fifth anniversary of the notorious spill of 3 million gallons of heavily contaminated acid mine water from the Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and State of Utah announced an agreement that ends the state’s lawsuit.

Neither the EPA nor the contractors involved at the Gold King spill site are entirely off the hook for their alleged missteps that resulted in downstream damages. Lawsuits filed by the Navajo Nation, the State of New Mexico, and a group of Navajo farmers and ranchers have been consolidated, and discovery is proceeding, with a projected trial date sometime in late 2021.

Pursuant to the agreement, Utah will dismiss its legal actions against the EPA and the United States; mining companies Kinross Gold Corporation, Kinross Gold U.S.A., Inc., Sunnyside Gold Corporation, and Gold King Mines Corporation; and EPA’s contractors: Environmental Restoration, LLC, Weston Solutions, Inc. and Harrison Western Corporation. EPA also agreed to strengthen Utah’s involvement in the EPA’s work to address contamination at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site, which includes the Gold King Mine and other abandoned mines.

The agency further agreed to act on the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s application for $3 million in Clean Water Act funds for various projects, including the development of water quality criteria for Utah Lake, septic density studies, nonpoint source pollution reduction projects, and nutrient management plans for agricultural sources. 

The agency also agreed to initiate Superfund assessments by the end of 2021 at the Rico Argentine Mine Site, the Camp Bird Mining Site, the Carribeau (or Caribou) Mine Area, all located in Colorado, and possibly other sites that have the potential to impact downstream waters in Utah. Coupled with its work at the recently established Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site (which includes Gold King), the EPA expects to conduct and oversee more than $220 million in abandoned mining site work that will potentially improve Utah’s water quality by reducing the flow of heavy metals and other pollutants from old mines in the state’s waterways.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the agreement “a win-win for EPA and Utah” that “will bring environmental benefits to Utah, avoid protracted litigation, and hopefully serve as a lesson for the future to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.” EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold promised that the agency’s “partnership with Utah will be stronger as we continue to support the State in addressing its water quality needs.”

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said the state is “very pleased that millions of dollars can now be spent towards mitigation, remediation and assuring water quality in Utah, rather than years of more litigation, trials and appeals.” This, he added, “is what cooperative federalism looks like – a true federal and state partnership” that protects the people, public health and the environment.

The relationship between the EPA and Utah was not always so amicable. Within days after Cement Creek and the Animas River were turned yellow all the way from Colorado through New Mexico and Utah all the way to Lake Powell, Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert declared a state of emergency and added that he was “deeply disappointed by the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency. It was a preventable mistake, and they must be held accountable.”

CFACT Senior Policy Analyst Paul Driessen described the incident this way: A contractor under EPA supervision used a backhoe to dig away tons of rock and debris that were blocking the entrance portal of the Gold King Mine, which had been mostly abandoned since 1923. Because of steady seepage, the EPA should have known that the water was highly acidic (pH 4.0-4.5) and laced with heavy metals. It could and should certainly have checked.

Eventually, the greatly weakened portal burst open, unleashing at least 3 million gallons of toxic water that contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers all the way to Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona border on the Colorado River. The EPA waited an entire day before notifying downstream mayors, health officials, families, farmers, ranchers, fishermen and kayakers of the toxic spill.

Driessen lambasted the Obama Administration, other Democratic Party officials, and eco-activists for their initial response to the incident, which also caused major damage to Navajo Indian lands. But while EPA’s own internal report called the incident “likely inevitable,” an Interior Department review released in October 2015 found it was both “preventable: and also “emblematic” of the federal government’s “inconsistent and deeply flawed approaches to reopening shuttered mines.” Driessen and others agreed.

Specifically, the Interior Department said that contractors at the Gold King site chose not to bore a hole to physically check water levels and contamination inside the mine before digging – a protocol established in 2011 during a successful mine reopening. “Had it been done, the plan to open the mine would have been revised, and the blowout would not have occurred.” Before undertaking its incompetent cleanup, EPA had threatened Gold King property owner Todd Hennis with a $35,000 per day fine unless he granted them access to the property (which the agency and its contractors then turned into a disaster zone).

In a follow-up article, Driessen found the testimony of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell shocking, as she stated she was unaware of anyone being fired, fined or even demoted – and that federal investigations and reports refused to hold anyone responsible for the ensuing disaster. Even worse, while then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said she EPA “absolutely, deeply sorry,” she disavowed any personal or agency responsibility and sent the Navajo emergency water tanks contaminated with oil. Then FEMA denied the Navajo any disaster relief, which prompted nearly 300 affected farmers and ranchers to file a separate (now consolidated) lawsuit.

(Driessen’s in-depth September 2015 articles (here, here and here) provide extensive details – and damning conclusions – about the scope of EPA and contractor incompetence, negligence, double standards, whitewashing … and refusal to accept responsibility, compensate victims, or even observe the very rules that EPA typically imposes with an iron fist on corporations, municipalities and citizens. (Most of the damning photographs of activities leading up to and after the blowout appear to have been scrubbed from the internet. However, quite a few can still be found here and elsewhere.)

In the early days of the Trump Administration (while Obama holdovers were still running the show), the EPA finally released an Inspector General’s report on the Gold King incident. Rob Gordon, longtime head of the National Wilderness Institute and currently an advisor to the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said the IG’s report was yet another whitewash, more for its omissions than its inclusions.

Gordon noted, for example, that the IG’s report had omitted EPA’s critical, erroneous and indefensible assumption that the mine was only partially full of water, and failed to mention that the EPA crew reburied the natural plug after unearthing it. His final assessment was that there are “gaping holes in the EPA’s fiction” which, if allowed to stand, will send a message that “misleading, deceiving and lying works, and that bureaucrats need not follow the laws they enforce on others.”

Navajo and New Mexico officials were equally dissatisfied with the EPA’s initial response to their cries for just compensation for immediate and future losses of both revenue and their traditional use of land and water impacted by the spill. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas lambasted the EPA for seeking to “impose weak testing standards in New Mexico.” That litigation is still ongoing.

(Part 2 of this article will report on the issues and progress of their now-combined lawsuit.)

Duggan Flanakin is director of policy research for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (            

32 thoughts on “Recalling EPA’s Gold King Mine disaster – Part 1

  1. Good report by Duggan. With respect to re-opening sealed mines, which are easy to realize contain acidic waters and metals in solution, been there and did not do that. There is a natural process wherein sulfide metal deposits oxidize in the near-surface environment, and the acidic ground waters take metals into solution and end up going down the local drainages, where they form metal cemented gravel terraces known as “ferricrete” (basically iron cement). The Romans figured out how to follow these ferricretes upstream until they came to the “iron hat”, which is the iron-stained residual soil over an oxidizing sulfide metal deposit. Along comes miners and dig into the sulfide metallized zone and extract something of value, and allow oxidizing surface waters into the un-oxidized (lower) part where oxidation/acid/metals in solution develops. So the miners seal up the mine when they leave (old days, now the rules are strict) and the mine builds up an acidic stew of metals, some of which are toxic. Then along comes the clueless Obama EPA and digs an escape route for the toxic waters. Classic! There are a variety of ways to correctly reclaim and safeguard depleted mine workings, and it is now common practice, at least in advanced cultures, usually (but not always).

  2. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler called the agreement “a win-win for EPA and Utah”

    Certainly a win for the lord high mugamugs at EPA, who should have been fired immediately for their unforgiveable lack of concern for the level of the mine water before turning that contractor loose. That level was high enough that the hydrostatic pressure overcame the thin layer of earth left by the contractor, and all that toxic minewater obeyed gravity and roared down the river into the ocean, painting the world orange as it went.

    But Obama admin bureaucrats were above the law, so weren’t accountable.

  3. I think the incident should at least be followed up as a case study of how the planet cleans itself up. The Antiok copper smelter in northern British Columbia had killed and degraded forest over many square miles in the 1920s.

    A fire back then destroyed the smelter. In the 1970s, environmentalists visited the area to do a case study and got hopelessly lost in a deep dark woods. They had to engage a local guide who took them to the site. There on the forest floor, were, iron, pipe and decomposed concrete debris choked with moss and tufted with tall trees. Now, 50yrs since, even this evidence is probably gone. Report? It was apparently never done.

    Are there any fish in the Utah river now? My guess is yes. Let’s see….

    This is missing from all such stories.

    • It depends on the amount of metal and sulphides. I know a sulphide mine that was mined during WW I and closed in 1920. The mine itself and associated stuctures are long overgrown and have reverted to pine forest, but the mine spoil dump is still sterile after a century. The sulphides oxidize slowly and form sulfuric acid which leeches out the heavy metals.

    • Is this your Antiok (Anyox)?

      Satellite imagery is blurred but you can still see cleared and developed areas. Maybe the areas damaged by acid rain healed with decades of freedom…why is that not to be expected?

      Then there’s places like the Berkeley Pit in Butte, MT, that are not cleaning themselves up fast enough.

      Nature’s solution to pollution is often dilution. That is outdated when it comes to human practice.

      • We are at present quite capable of setting up a system than can remove the heavy metals from the solution and either reuse them or put them into a place where they cannot escape in the future (salt mines). Yet this is not being done, why? I think it has to do with the EPA incompetency and as a bureaucracy not wanting to fix the problem after all they have to justify their jobs. After nearly sixty years why do we still have super funds sites?

      • Thank you for the correction, Michael. My memory was from 50yrs ago at the time of the ‘study’. I was a mining exploration geologist headquartered in Vancouver in 1970. I note your link doesnt carry any info on the irredeemable “environmental disaster” of Anyox.

        There was a tailings dam failure a decade or so ago at a William’s Lake copper mine in BC that dumped millions of tons of fine flotation silt into the river system. No one seemed to report the recovery of the drainages and their ecology, so I assume everything is fine now. You can be sure that if their was grave irreparable damages we would have never stopped hearing about it. It seems a vacant area of study.

      • Well, the smelter was lost in the forest, that I know. The community is probably 10 times as big as it used to be, so yes it’s
        not the same Also sulphur is a fertilizer. Too much as SO2 and H2SO4 will kill off the flora, but ultimately with dilution, it will support a comeback. My point is that we have been brainwashed too much on the subject. My correct guess that fish would be found in the river in Utah underscores my point.

    • One caveat — this is an EPA report. I would prefer an INDEPENDENT study of fish toxicity in Lake Powell ..

  4. If a corporation had done this there would be no end in sight to lawsuits and incrimination. In this case some EPA thugs forced their way onto private land without a warrant, threatening the land owner with daily fines. They broke the seal on the old Goldmine releasing poisonous contaminated water. They were mostly concerned with saving their back hoe from the rushing waters. The Obama EPA could provide no explanation as to why the seal on the old gold mine was broken by these thugs. They poisoned rivers in several states and on Indian reservations and there is no record of anybody being fired, demoted or disciplined. How typica.

  5. Back in ’08 there was a similar mine “blow-out in the Deer Lodge mountains
    west of Helena.

    I was there and witnessed it first hand. The Little Blackfoot River ran pumpkin orange for
    four days. Usually the flow in November would be around 70 fps but this event had
    it running near flood stage around 400+ fps . It healed itself up within a year or so.
    That area was heavily mined , hard rock type. This was on Negro Mountain…where the
    start of the Elliston mining district first began in the 1890’s.. The old timers had a odd
    way of naming things..Negro Mountain and the Big Dick mine.. I have a chunk of ore
    that was from the original strike. That vein measured 3×20 ft on top of the mountain and
    ran straight down for 200 ft. Very rich-1100 oz of silver with 7 oz of gold to the ton. The
    secondary enrichment continued down for several hundred more ft. The government
    came in back in the ’80 and blasted most of the mines adits shut allowing the water
    to build up behind the sealed openings. This blowout moved boulders the size of Volkswagens
    coming down the mountain. That mountain is honeycombed with shafts. The Golden Anchor
    is a “ghost mine” with many of the old building there…its said to be haunted…I wouldn’t
    spend the night there..

    Its my favorite place to spend time..there is still gold to be found in that area. the biggest
    nugget found was to the north a few miles and weighed 16+ lbs..

  6. I go into that area ever time I can afford to, it’s a beautiful place. Many of the old mines near Silverton have that “brownish-yellow” sulfide stew sitting in them awaiting their turn. You can also see the rocks in the Animas river stained brown, and I noticed this back in the 1960’s so it isn’t a new feature. I have seen the river at Silverton running a deep opaque muddy brown many a time. It’s only been the last 20 years that I started seeing it look like fairly clean water.

    It isn’t clear to me how you “clean up” an old abandoned mine other than sealing it. If you drain it the water continues to percolate down bring dissolved metals with it. You will not build up a large volume of it to be released all at once, but it will continue to trickle down into the river.

    Some of these mines may eventually reopen if metal prices go up. There are still a lot of valuable metals locked away in those mountains. I imagine there are still plenty of really rich veins hidden away from the surface waiting to be mined into.

    • I live in the largest super fund site area in the US. Butte America. The source of
      a considerable amount of wealth in the country today. Copper. I grew up and
      came of age in this mining area. When the Anaconda Copper Co sold out to
      ARCO is became the single largest business error in history. Without doubt.

      To answer your question regarding mine clean up I’ve watched mine reclamation
      up close for years. Acid mine discharge often is delt with by digging a trench
      and lining it with a membrane, then filling it with limestone gravel. The
      discharge is then for the most part clean after it goes through the trench.

      Back in the ’80s Phelps-Dodge was a major presence in this area. They flew
      the area with magtrometers behind helicopters and filed a claim everywhere they
      had a “hit”. Even over other recorded claims. For years, when I was hiking in the
      mountains I would find where they had those hits..An aluminum nail/tag with
      some numbers hand etched on them. They also had core drilling equipment
      and crew on top of the mountains…$100/ft++ for thousands of ft…Just on Negro
      Mt they drilled many thousands of ft. I know crew members on those crews.

      There is considerable wealth left in the hill of this area…the old timers barely
      scratched the surface. Ruby Mountain N of Butte is UNTOUCHED.. est $7+
      Billion just in gold…@ $60/oz.

      The ARCO super fund cleanup has been a farce..not a lot of clean up but
      a good amount of government empire building… see the Spotted Dog
      Wildlife Management Area. It was financed with super fund $$$$

      Just the rare mineral deposits are worth enough to finance the entire national

  7. Completely lacking is a clear and correct statement of recorded harm to any person from these aftermaths of mining.
    It is so, so easy to write alarmism like “toxic heavy metals” and “irrepairable harm to the environment” and similar histrionics.
    Count the bodies. How many deaths have been caused by post-mining distribution of poison? Can I venture zero?
    Nature put elements like Arsenic where it was found. Nature redistributed some, Man redistributed other. Why become alarmed? OTOH, it is easy to count the bodies from auto accidents, orders of magnitude a greater cause of death, yet somehow pushed away from the human perception.
    Please, stop the anti-science chemophobia, the anti-mining hysterics, the fabrication of doom. Life is quite enjoyable when you focus on the positives in an era when most humans are enjoying the best time in history to date. Geoff S

    • Allow me to provide a prospective from an area with severe mine waste
      pollution. #1 super fund site in the country..Next to my ranch there is
      a mine/mill site where the waste is very toxic. A single hand shovel of said
      waste is toxic enough to kill 50 beef cows… Over in East Helena Mt near
      the ASARCO smelter the ground water is very polluted. If you were to
      drink a single glass of well water down gradient of said plant, you would
      be dead in less than 8 hours. Period. This plume is moving away from
      the old smelter. The smelter has purchased the “pollution right” in a large
      area around the plant.. I can elaborate on this subject at length…That
      said I’m not anti mining.

  8. It’s more of a “kicked the tin” (further down the street) than a ‘win-win’.
    This matter will come back to annoy future generations.
    I think we’ll find-out the hard way that it was a mistake to install the plugs and effectively dam up all the tunnels in the mountain. (I researched the matter in quite a lot of detail at the time – but it was a long time ago now and I have mislaid my notes.)
    As I recall, before the plugs were put in, the effluent from the mountain was being treated before being released into the river. However, the inheritors of the King Mine’s profits were paying for the treatment, and it was eroding away their fortunes. If the treatment had continued, they would have seen their fortunes eventually whittled away to zero.
    So, to protect their fortunes, they proposed plugging-up the mountain – as a way of cutting the cost of treatment. The EPA did not drive a hard bargain at all. They just rolled over and made a speech about a win-win situation. History repeats itself.

  9. Still available from the Obama-era EPA’s August 2016 document dump, what appears to be how the contractor didn’t follow guidelines for opening the mine entrance: (page 3 & 4, on Phase 1 site preparation & Phase 2 entrance opening):

    • Use removed material to create manlift access ramp to area above portal
    • Excavate loose material from the top of the high wall.
    • Drill in wire mesh anchors.
    • Hang wire mesh on the high wall as excavation to the sill of the portal proceeds.
    • Excavate to the sill and into the competent rock face at the portal.
    • Gradually lower the debris blockage with the appropriate pumping of the impounded water ……

    More inexplicable was what EPA was actually up to, which wasn’t actually basic cleanup: (first two intro paragraphs / first sentence of Goal section )

    The EPA Superfund Program is conducting a time-critical removal action at the Red and Bonita Mine site during the summer 2015. The action involves installing an engineered, reinforced bulkhead (i.e. massive plug) to control the discharge of contaminated water coming out of the mine adit (i.e. tunnel) and flowing into Cement Creek, a tributary ofthe Animas River.

    Along with this work, EPA also plans to remove the blockage and reconstruct the portal at the Gold King Mine in order to best observe possible changes in discharge caused by the installation of Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead. …

    The goal of this removal action is to prevent or reduce continued releases of heavy metals into the environment from the Red and Bonita Mine.

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