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Colorado Bill Aims to Protect Water Near Mining Operations

In the wake of the 2015 Gold Mine King spill, the Colorado legislature is considering a bill that aims to ensure better water quality at mines and more financial accountability from companies.

Written by Heather Sackett, Aspen Journalism Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The opening to the Kohler Mine that has been bulkheaded along the Red Mountain Pass. The mine is still slowly leaking water that is making its way into the Animas River. A new bill introduced in Colorado proposes tougher water quality restrictions for mines.Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado’s recently appointed District 26 Representative Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, has introduced a bill he says will help make sure maintaining water quality is a priority, even after hard-rock mines shut down.

Colorado House Bill 18-1301 aims to protect water quality from the adverse impacts of mining by requiring reclamation plans to set an end date for water quality treatment to comply with water quality standards.

The bill would also require mine operators to prove they have enough financial backing to protect water quality and they could not use self-bonding as a financial assurance.

“When a mining company is calculating the amount of bonding they need to operate and successfully close the mine, they need to make sure that water quality is always a part of that calculation,” Roberts said. “We have to make sure the companies have the money to clean up and monitor water quality because, if they don’t, it’s left to the taxpayers to pay for that.”

Gold King Mine

Roberts’ co-sponsor on the bill is District 59 Democrat Barbara McLachlan. Her southwestern Colorado district was the site of the Gold King Mine wastewater spill. In August 2015, Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally released 3 million gallons of toxic water contaminated with cadmium, lead, arsenic, iron and copper into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

“The Gold King Mine spill went right by my house,” McLachlan said. “We were sitting on our deck and watching the river turn a god-awful orange … At the Gold King Mine, the water quality was really bad, so they plugged up the mountain and the water backed up into all the adits. The water was never clean to come out.”

One of the retention ponds underneath the Gold King Mine. (Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

According to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, there are 148 draining mines statewide that are likely to impact water quality but do not have active water treatment. There are 2,300 abandoned mines statewide and 1,800 miles of streams impacted by mine-related pollution, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. But the bill, should it become law, would not apply to these existing mines. It would only change new mining operations.

Representatives Roberts and McLachlan recognize the importance of hard-rock mining to both Colorado’s economy and heritage. Roberts said he is confident the bill will find broad bipartisan support.

‘Water Is Sacred’

“[The bill] does not do anything to prevent mining from happening or starting future mines,” Roberts said. “It makes clear that our water is sacred. It’s one of our most valuable resources here in Colorado.”

Environmental organization Conservation Colorado supports the bill. Conservation Colorado water advocate Kristin Green said it would help ensure clean drinking water across the state.

“Colorado mining woes are very widespread, and there’s no single solution to fix the problem,” Green said. “It’s really important to make sure the problem isn’t getting any worse and to prevent ongoing pollution from mines in the future.”

But not everyone agrees this bill would be good for Colorado. Colorado Mining Association President Stan Dempsey Jr. said the bill is an effort to ban new mining in the state. He said proponents cannot point to a single incident that demonstrates the need for the bill and that the Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety already does a good job regulating mines.

No Need?

“The bill fails to recognize modern mining practices and the contributions mining companies make to the local communities and the state of Colorado,” Dempsey said. “There hasn’t been any evidence there has been a problem with self-bonding. We, as the mining companies, are as interested in improving water quality as anyone is.”

The Colorado River District, a water policy and planning agency for the Colorado River Basin, is taking a more nuanced stance. Chris Treese, river district external affairs manager, said the organization supports the common goal of maintaining Colorado’s water quality. The river district board voted Thursday, March 29, to support the provision of the bill that requires water quality protection to be included in the calculation of a mine operator’s reclamation bond.

But the river district does not support the provision that would set an end date for water quality treatment.

“The district believes the other sections are well-intentioned but off the mark,” Treese said. “Maintaining water quality is the goal, but setting a requirement of an end date for water quality treatment may not be the best way to achieve that goal. We are exploring alternative language that more directly establishes water quality as the legislative objective.”

This is one of the first bills Roberts has sponsored in his first session in the Legislature. In October, he was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Mitsch Bush. His seat is up for re-election in the fall.

House Bill 18-1301 was introduced into the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee on Monday, April 2, and then referred, unamended, to the Committee on Finance.

This story was originally published by Aspen Journalism.

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