Two weeks after an EPA crew accidentally released three million gallons of toxic mine water into the headwaters of the Animas, the river has been declared safe for irrigation, recreation, and other uses. No doubt many people — including Governor John Hickenlooper, who guzzled some Animas water to demonstrate that the levels of heavy metals from the spill were subsiding — are feeling relieved now that Durango's main waterway is back to "normal."
Todd Hennis is not one of them.
Hennis is the owner of the Gold King Mine, where the spill originated. For years he's also been a voice in the wilderness, pushing state and federal regulators to do more about the rising discharges of toxic water — a heady brew of zinc, copper, manganese, cadmium, arsenic, lead and more — from the old Eureka mining district above Silverton, the most problematic collection of properties in the state's extensive inventory of abandoned and leaking mines. His crusade to head off a disaster like the Animas spill, or something even worse, was the subject of my 2005 feature "What Lies Beneath."
As we noted last week, runoff from old underground mines poisoning streams and rivers is nothing new in Colorado. But Hennis believes the situation in the Eureka district has been exacerbated by a complicated deal that state regulators struck with the owners of Sunnyside Gold, the last operating mine in the area, which closed in 1991. Rather than treat all the water in its vast mine pool, Sunnyside's Canadian owners were allowed to seal off the mine and turn over some of its remediation efforts, including a water treatment plant for discharges, to a local "straw" operator — who subsequently went out of business.
Hennis got title to the Gold King in 2005, after a foreclosure action against that same operator, and has been trying to sell it ever since. Before that, he'd owned the Mogul, a mine that had discharge problems of its own. In a lawsuit, Hennis contended that the Mogul had been infiltrated by rising waters from the "sealed" Sunnyside operation; as part of a settlement, Sunnyside took over the Mogul and sealed it off, too. The Gold King was supposed to be immune to such problems, though, since it was located higher up the mountain.
"The historic flow at Gold King is about seven gallons per minute," Hennis says. "It was thought to be high enough that the [Sunnyside] mine pool wouldn't reach it. But the mine pool reached it with a vengeance. Sunnyside essentially filled up a bathtub and put a plug in the bottom; but when the water rises above the rim, it comes out all these other properties."
Sunnyside's current owner, Kinross, has denied any connection between its mine pool and the Gold King discharge. But Hennis has been handing out documents to journalists that suggest otherwise, including operating agreements for "Sunnyside/Gold King partnerships and joint ventures" that date back to the 1980s, indicating that Sunnyside's workings extended into Gold King property. "That mountain is Swiss cheese," Hennis insists. "The only long-term solution is for the Sunnyside mine to be carefully dewatered, and the water treated. If the mine pool level is lowered, all these discharges from adjoining properties goes away."
Last year, an EPA crew went up to Gold King to try to gain access to the long-unused mine portal. The job was bigger than the crew anticipated, so they made plans to return this year. "They took rock and dirt and piled it up at the mine entrance," Hennis says. "I believe they clogged the discharge pipe, so that a huge amount of water built up behind the backfill they put in place."
The crew that visited this year apparently overestimated the amount of material blocking the entrance. As they attempted to move some of the debris to insert a valved pipe, the barrier crumbled — and unleashed a flood of orange water. "The contractors are lucky nobody got killed," Hennis says. "But the people on site did a good job of responding and closing off the area."
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The EPA now has four settlement ponds in place below the Gold King portal. Crews are hand-ladling caustic soda on the discharge, allowing metals to precipitate into the holding ponds, and the water in Cement Creek (an Animas tributary) is the cleanest that Hennis has ever seen it. But he worries that a bulkhead failure at Sunnyside or some other catastrophe could result in an even bigger spill into the Animas than the August 5 dump.
"The pool is so much higher than anyone anticipated behind those bulkheads," Hennis says. "The force of the water is much more than was planned, and if there's a seismic event, it will open up fissures and faults. Gold King released around three million gallons. We could have billions and billions of gallons. It would run for months and affect rivers all the way down to the Mexican border."
The EPA plans to get a temporary water treatment plant operative in the area this fall. In the meantime, Hennis has turned over to the agency the keys to the Sunnyside treatment plant — which has been closed since 2003, and which Hennis acquired from the local operator after Sunnyside's owners were allowed to reclaim their $5 million bond from the state and walk away.