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Finding the Orange Lining in the Animas River Spill

8/27/2015 | COLLEEN COYLE

Finding the Orange Lining in the Animas River Spill

The Aug. 5 release of 3 million gallons of orange mine waste into a tributary of the Animas River has triggered a variety of calls for action. Colleen Coyle takes a deep dive into how a tool like Water Sage can benefit government officials, industrial operators, and water users to further improve notice procedures and find an “orange lining” in this environmental crisis.

Unless you live on a mountaintop, we all live downstream.  And we all need timely notice of dangerous spills and emergencies.

The August 5, 2015 release of approximately 3 million gallons of orange mine waste into a tributary of the Animas River has triggered a variety of calls for action, including expanded efforts to clean up mine waste, condemnation of old mining practices, and criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The more vocal criticism centered on the EPA’s response time and methods to notify local and state officials, as well as downstream water users particularly in New Mexico.  The New Mexico governor reported that she received notice from the Southern Ute Tribe, not the federal agency in charge.  Other officials stated that they received their notice in the newspaper.  Although Colorado irrigators received notice in time to close headgates, New Mexico water users reported that they didn’t receive notice for 24 hours.  Tribes, irrigators, municipalities, and recreationists have all complained in the press about delays in notice.

The Department of Interior is investigating the matter on the Animas River, and whether procedures were adequately followed or not will be determined, but regardless of that outcome, this incident raises the question  – how can notice procedures for water emergencies be improved?

Abandoned and active mines are located throughout the West, and this is not the first, nor last, occurrence of contamination from these sites.  Some have the potential for vast damage to people and property, like the Berkeley Pit in the middle of Butte, Montana, which contains over 43 billion gallons of heavily contaminated water. In 2000, the EPA reported that mining-related contamination is present in the headwaters of over 40 percent of Western watersheds and estimates there are at least 500,000 historical and modern abandoned mines in the U.S. Reclamation of those mines would cost at least $35 billion.

But that’s not to say mine reclamation efforts don’t have some shining examples to highlight.  A few areas, like the Milltown Dam in the Clark Fork River in Montana, have successfully launched massive projects to remove contamination from rivers. Over a ten-year period, three million tons of contaminated materials were excavated, the river area was restored and redeveloped, and a dam was removed, all at a project cost of approximately $120 million dollars and a subpart of the largest Superfund site in the western United States.  If the Animas River spill sparks discussions to designate Superfund sites or otherwise pursue cleanup of toxic areas, we might see more successful efforts like the Milltown Dam remediation.  And that could be a good thing.

Crisis communications start with the same set of basic questions: Who are those impacted?  Where are they?  What are the best available technologies to reach them?  Many states have public websites, or even social media tools, to identify and notify landowners and water right owners downstream, including irrigators and municipal water suppliers.

Yet, when it comes to water emergencies, agencies and industries often lack integrated, intuitive, map-based tools to give them a fast but complete picture before they provide water uses and landowners with essential information. Water emergency plans must include simultaneous notification to government officials, irrigators, municipalities, and other instream and diverted water users.  Specific contact information, or tools to access the information quickly, should be included in the plans to the extent possible.

Given how many abandoned mines and other potential hazards exist across the West, the number of incidents is small, but the impacts of spills are huge and remain in the public’s memory for a long time.  Emergencies will always generate strong reactions and criticisms in the search for causes and solutions, but providing information to affected people quickly also allows everyone to make better decisions during the crisis.  The good news is those tools are becoming more readily available, and government officials, industrial operators, and water users can work to further improve notice procedures and find an “orange lining” in this environmental crisis.