Environews: September 2015

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.
by Amy Brunvand

Toxic mine spill points to need for regulation reform

Utah politicians often gripe that mining is over-regulated, but we recently found out what happens when pollution from mining is under-regulated. On August 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was attempting to clean up an inactive gold mine near Silverton, Colorado when 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River, sending a bright orange plume of acidic, heavy metal-contaminated water into Utah’s San Juan River and down to Lake Powell.

Republican politicians have been trying to pin the blame for the spill on EPA, but EPA didn’t create the toxic waste. The toxic mine waste was residual from the General Mining Act of 1872 (still in effect 143 years later) which allows hardrock mining companies to operate on public lands without environmental protection or remediation requirements, exempt from the Clean Water Act, and without paying royalties or severance taxes to mitigate impacts. A consequence of this lack of environmental regulation is that over 40% of the headwaters of rivers in the Western U.S. are polluted by waste from hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines; and taxpayers—not mining companies—are responsible for the cleanup bill.

Nonetheless, Utah legislators Margaret Dayton (R-Orem) and Mike Noel (R-Kanab) made outrageous accusations that the EPA might have spilled toxic waste on purpose in order to qualify for Superfund money. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes rushed to Colorado to “investigate,” and managed to find a few fellow conspiracy-theorists among the residents. Reyes is threatening lawsuits against EPA for causing the disaster. Zach Frankel of Utah Rivers Council points out that instead of spreading improbable conspiracy theories, it would be more helpful for Utah lawmakers to demand accountability from oil companies that frequently spill toxins into Utah’s rivers.

Despite Republican attempts to divert public attention away from water quality issues, the spill is a wake-up call regarding the need for regulatory reform of hardrock mining. Arizona representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ-X) and Senator Heinrich (D-NM) have introduced the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 in order to change the rules so that the Clean Water Act would apply to mining pollution and mining companies would be required to reclaim mine sites to sustain pre-mining uses.

Utah Rivers Council: utahrivers.org

Earthworks, 1872 Mining Law Reform: earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/general_mining_law_of_1872

More September Environews: 

Don’t blame the coyotes; Mule deer and drilling don’t mix

Envision Utah gets it wrong

Moab leasing plan


This article was originally published on August 30, 2015.