Monday, August 24, 2015

When Gold is Bad.

They say water is gold, especially here in the Southwest, but I don't think this is what they mean...

I took this photo on August 6th, from a bridge near Ilona and Michel's place, and learned from a Durango Herald photographer that the EPA, which has been investigating and mitigating leaking old mines north of here, had accidentally breached a barrier holding back millions of gallons of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine, just past Silverton, about 60 miles upstream.

(Photo credit: Malcolm McDougall of Silverton)

And here it is, fouling our Animas via Cement Creek in Silverton. It would be beautiful if it weren't so odious.

The Environmental Protection Agency would be very easy to blame, but like everything in life, it's more complicated than pointing to the last person to touch something. The Rockies are full of minerals, which is why Colorado's history of mining is so long and rich. It was also virtually unregulated, and it's thanks to today's rules and regs that currently operating mines will be, in theory, better stewards for future generations. Hence the intense irony that it was the EPA to cause this mess. They did not, however, create it. It was already there.

The water that was gathering behind the collapsed entrance to the Gold King Mine was not chemical-laced waste water from the mining operations - that has had decades to leak out and is, for all intents and purposes, diluted and gone. It's the infinitely replenishing ground water, which would have been pumped out during mine operations to keep the tunnels from flooding, that fills the mine and sits there after it's abandoned. The mixture of water and air oxidizes the metal sulfides in the rock, lowering the overall pH of the water, resulting in acid rock drainage. This is actually a naturally occurring process, and not only confined to long-forgotten mines, but the latter is definitely a bigger culprit, and acidic rivers are not hospitable to a healthy ecosystem.

They are also unhealthy for tourism, especially when a) it all comes pouring out in one baby-diarrhea mustard tsunami and, b) the media was still flashing horrifying, sometimes glowingly Photoshopped photos of our river like this:

(Photo from NBCNightlyNews)

... days after it already looked like this:

I took this shot from the same bridge on August 10th, four days after the scourge arrived in Durango.

So while people were blaming the EPA and the original mine owners and the folks of Silverton who are still resisting Superfund status which would provide the money needed to clean up the many mines in their backyard, Mother Nature quietly got to work.

And these were taken five days ago on the 18th:

We shall overcome!