“Right now, we have to rely on a lime treatment plant, but the reality is that's only treating one mine — and there are 48 mining or mining-related sites in this district,” Michelle Furi, the Mountain Studies Institute’s deputy director said. “It's really not tackling the problem, it’s barely even touching it.”
MSI encourages innovation in mine cleanups.
“Unfortunately, what we have right now is that sort of dinosaur of a lime treatment plant,” Furi said.
Treatment plants are costly because they require at least $1 million a year to run without any end in sight. The limestone needs to be mined elsewhere — for the Gladstone treatment plant, lime is mined at Monarch Pass, about 165 miles away.
“They [treatment plants] create this cumbersome byproduct of the sludge that then has to be dried out, then it has to be trucked and stored permanently somewhere else, and then capped,” Furi said. “The carbon footprint there is just astronomical.”
Before the spill in 2015, the EPA installed a bulkhead at Red & Bonita the same year, but they didn’t close the valve until summer of 2020. Then, they re-opened the valve in September, 2020 to drain down the impounded water behind the bulkhead. That water then gets sent to the Gladstone water treatment plant to be treated.
The experiment helped authorities to better understand the hydrology of the region.
MSI holds an annual innovation expo and a boot camp, which acts as an accelerator for startups. “There's a lot of technologies that are innovative, from drones and robotics to bio-cement,” Furi said.
But innovative solutions have to overcome a lack of money, and comply with a complex regulation framework.
“We see the EPA really wanting to engage ... and looking for innovative technologies to incorporate them where they can in these sites,” Furi said. “[But] we have a long way to go.”
Artificial wetlands could be one of the possible solutions. In 2019, contractors for the Bureau of Land Management were finishing a constructed wetlands with an iron terrace at Elk Tunnel, which are passive water treatment filters that remove iron from the water.
Electro-coagulation, which consists of injecting electricity into the water to remove heavy metals, has also been attempted at the American Tunnel in the district in 2012. .
“One of the challenges, there, is the volume,” Furi said. Most innovative technologies were tested on small volumes of water, and often cannot handle the large amounts that a water treatment plant can.
But if most innovative solutions haven’t been implemented at a larger scale, it’s also because each site has different geology, terrain and conditions that make it difficult to replicate an idea from one site to another.
“There's the politics behind it,” Furi said. “It's risk management, assessing what is the risk for testing, [for] putting capital behind these [methods] and [for] changing regulation.”
The EPA allocates about $1 billion to Superfund each year. In 2019, about $849 million were spent on cleanups, in addition approximately $4.7 million were allocated to monitoring the water at the Gold King Mine.
“They spent some money diverting drainage around, buying waste piles, but it’s unclear whether that’s made any difference whatsoever,” Butler said. “They have spent a lot of money doing studies there. Whether or not those studies are really going to get them to a solution is a little unclear.”
Having such a large Superfund district that includes 48 mines makes cleanup projects go slower, as some smaller sites could have required only a few thousand dollars to be cleaned up.
Superfund sites also require finding responsible parties to pay for cleanups. “The unfortunate thing about all this is there's a lot of money being spent on the legal end of things,” Terry Morris, a former engineer at Sunnyside Gold and a CAG member said. “In the 90s when I was here, the Animas Stakeholders group was little by little taking care of things that the local population deemed helpful, and then with the Superfund, it became a bureaucracy.”
The 2015 spill wasn’t the first incident. In 1978, the high alpine lake, Lake Emma, located about 12,000 feet up in the Rockies, crashed through the Sunnyside Mine where Morris was working. It blasted out the mine portal and turned the river black all the way down into New Mexico. It killed the fish in the river, and the mine was shut down for at least two years.
Since then, a lot of cleanups have happened, especially starting in the 1990s. Yet, the largest acid draining mines still need to be cleaned up.
“There's still some things to learn we don't fully understand: the mine pool underneath the Superfund site, for example, and how all the mines are connected and all springs are connected across the different watersheds in the Upper Animas,” Roberts said. “We don't know exactly how the fractures and mine tunnels interact.”
Roberts is now researching how these cleanup efforts may need to adjust to climate change.
“Especially with the increasing frequency of drought, a lot of these river levels are lower and that may mean that mine drainage may be a larger contribution to the surface water and thus metal concentrations are higher,” Roberts said. “Or it may mean that less water from snowmelt makes it into the mines and there may be less mine drainage in the future.”
Either way, it definitely has implications for water treatment moving forward, he said, and how the success of remediation should be measured.