Upper Gold King Mine Spill Still Not Cleaned Up

Mine Wastes on Animas River bank rocks in Durango Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan
Independent Environmental Scientist
Northern New Mexico

The ghost town of Gladstone is found in one of the most stunningly beautiful areas of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, located at the head of Cement Creek about 6 miles north of Silverton. 

Proceeding south along the Animas River from Silver City leads to the most beautiful farmland in all of Colorado and New Mexico adjacent to the Animas River. So, from Gladstone, it’s 6 miles to Silverton, and then 47 mi to Durango and 22 miles to the New Mexico border (75 mi total so far) and then 30 miles to the confluence of the Animas River with the San Juan River. 

This is a total of about 105 miles of river that then connects with the San Juan River and flows west.

Gladstone Colorado map. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

The sleepy little settlement of Gladstone was settled in 1879, and was home to many miners working area claims. In 1887, while Olaf Nelson went about his  (http://www.narrowgauge.org/ncmap/excur2_gladstone.html). work at the Sampson Mine; he noticed a promising vein that looked like it went outside the limits of the Sampson claim. Olaf registered his claim and managed to dig a shaft, and began shipping ore from the Upper Gold King mine.

The town woke up as several valuable loads of ore were shipped from the mine before Olaf’s death in 1890, and these operations continued until 1907 when a fire destroyed the mine’s surface buildings. In 1918 a new company bought the mine and operated it until the fall of 1922; the mine has been inactive since then.

In 1978, the sleepy bigger community of Silverton woke up when a Sunnyside Mine worker breached the floor of Lake Emma sending an estimated 500 million gallons of water through the mines, sweeping up huge machinery, tailings and sludge, and ultimately going down the 105 mi of the Animas River to the San Juan River.

Aug. 4, 2015, workers with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) performing cleanup activities in Gladstone at the Upper Gold King mine spilled roughly 3 million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, turning the nearby Animas River a really smelly and strong, disgusting bright orange color and spreading contaminants including cadmium, arsenic, copper, lead and zinc down the watershed. http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/08/07/epa-causes-massive-mine-waste-spill-colorado-turns-river-orange

The EPA released a lot of information on this disaster on its website: http://www2.epa.gov/goldkingmine. A pH test of the water flowing from the Upper Gold King Mine breach on the day of the accident showed that the waste water coming from the mine was at a pH of 4 to 4.5, which is on the acidic end of the scale (a pH of 7 is neutral). http://www.livescience.com/51820-colorado-mine-spill-river-photos.html. The Upper Gold King had been leaking at a rate of 0.45 cubic feet per second before the EPA crew began digging to investigate the portal.

So how does this happen hydrologically? Water draining from the mines occurs when mining operations in the mountainsides alter the hydrology of the area and combine with natural springs, pulling water into mine tunnels. The water reacts with iron disulfide (pyrite) and oxygen to form sulfuric acid (acid rock/mine drainage). The resulting acidic water dissolves naturally occurring heavy metals such as zinc, lead, cadmium, copper and aluminum and results in water containing these metals flowing out of the mine.

Because the fact that the mine wastes were so colorful, news reports showed the surge as it proceeded downstream towards Arizona, showing wildlife in the waste water as well as natural and irrigated crops. http://www.12news.com/story/news/local/arizona/2015/08/07/gold-king-mine-wasterwater/31297679/


About a week after this spill, the Colorado EPA lifted the ban on the use of the Animas River for recreational use or contact, as well as the ban on using the water for human drinking water, and water for crops and cattle. 

However, at this same, several locations on the Animas River are still contaminated, in spite of their best efforts. Proceeding north from the confluence of the San Juan and Animas Rivers, a very slight orange color was seen near the left (north) bank of the Animas River in Farmington. This contaminant dilution would be expected however, due to the large flow rates of the river in this area.

Low levels of waste contaminants at East Broadway Bridge in Farmington Aug. 12, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

North of Aztec there is an old Railroad Bridge adjacent to the Route 550 bridge on North Aztec Blvd (about 0.2 mile south of Rd 2350). This is a relatively slow moving part of the Animas River here but it does contain signs of orange waste water next to the river, where deer were drinking before they were scared away. There are many irrigation ditches and other diversions similar to this on the Animas River containing many types of ecosystems, lots of farms, lots of cattle and wildlife, and lots more people than in 1879.

In terms of time and extent of exposure, large- and small-scale mining operations occurred between 1871 and 1991. The Upper Gold King Mine is located in the Upper Animas Watershed of the San Juan Mountains, which contain 400 abandoned and inactive mine sites!

Gold King Mine Wastes next to Animas River north of Aztec Aug. 13, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Proceeding north to Durango, “contaminant ring around the Animas River” was apparent near Rivergate Lane. This is 53 miles downstream of where the mine wastes were added to Cement Creek! In spite of this distance, it appeared that the surge of Upper Gold King wastewater had been about 8 inches above the current river flow at this time. 

Gold King Mine Wastes on Animas River banks in Durango Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Mine Wastes on Animas River banks in Durango Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

So, the Upper Gold King mine wastewater surge made it to the mouth of Cement Creek by 12:45 p.m. Aug. 5, to Durango by 8 p.m. Aug. 6 and to the New Mexico state line by about 5 a.m. Aug. 7, 2015. This is a plume migration of about 5 miles per hour.

However, the information no one talked about is contained in this figure of USGS gauging station data collected over this time period. Notice that the discharge rates are relatively slow in Silverton (about 200 cubic feet per second) and even show the 3 million gallon spill being discharged Aug. 5 at 1:13 p.m. The Animas River at Durango usually runs at a discharge rate of about 800 cubic feet per second, while these rates at Farmington, NM on the San Juan are more like 2,000 cubic feet per second. Obviously, the mine wastewater is seriously diluted moving downstream from a discharge rate of 0.45 cubic feet per second at the mine.

Gauging station discharge rates for Silverton (red) and Durango (green) on the Animas River, as well as Farmington (blue) on the San Juan River for the period Aug. 4-15, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

In Silverton a location along the Animas River was found about 0.1 mi downstream of the confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River. This site is about 6 miles from where the Upper Gold King mine wastes were added to Cement Creek and definitely shows large amounts of the mine wastes along several spotty locations near the river.

Until approximately 2005, water quality in the Animas River was improving, but since 2005, water quality in the Animas River has not improved and, for at least 20 miles below the confluence with Cement Creek and the water quality has declined significantly. The Upper Gold King Mine incident is not going to help here. Impacts to aquatic life were also demonstrated by fish population surveys conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which found no fish in the Animas River below Cement Creek for approximately two miles and observed precipitous declines in fish populations as far as 20 miles downstream since 2005. http://www2.epa.gov/goldkingmine.

Upper Gold King Mine Wastes on Animas River banks in Silverton Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Mine Wastes on Animas River banks in Silverton Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Six miles up Cement Creek there was evidence that the surge of wastewater from the Upper Gold King Mine had been there. The wastewater line indicated that the surge was about 2 feet higher than the current flow of wastewater down the creek.

Mine Wastes on Cement Creek banks in Gladstone Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Finally, the mining sites of interest were observed in Gladstone. The Red and Bonita Mine is on the west side of the mountain that the Upper Gold King is on.

Red and Bonita Mine having wastewater pumped out of it Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

The Upper Gold King Mine where the 3 million gallons of liquid wastes was released is the light-colored area at the top of the discharge area at an elevation of 11,458 feet. http://www.denverpost.com/environment/ci_28608746/epas-colorado-mine-disaster-plume-flows-west-toward

Upper Gold King Mine having wastewater pumped out of it Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

The discharge path above the road leads directly to the blue settling ponds shown in the next picture.

Blue settling ponds used to slow down wastewater from Upper Gold King Mine before it enters Cement Creek Aug. 14, 2015. Courtesy/Dr. Jack Nyhan

Recovering from this spill will take a full and coordinated approach from the Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies working with state, tribal and local officials, private corporations and independent environmental professionals using traditional soil-water-plant-animal ecosystem studies.