The most active agency in carrying out the Trump agenda in its first year has been the EPA, where there has been a raft of efforts to roll back the regulatory initiatives of the Obama Administration. However, in one area the agency has promised to take a more active approach, with Administrator Pruitt promising to aggressively push the Superfund program to make progress on long-delayed cleanups. In an earlier blog post, DWT assessed the multi-point program and the likelihood that the program could produce significant results. But if the approach is successful at one site — the Bonita Peak Mining District Site — we may have a template for implementation of that program in the context of addressing the tens of thousands of complex abandoned mining sites in the Western U.S.
Bonita Peak is the site of the massive blowout at the Gold King Mine in August of 2015. As EPA itself noted at the time, the 3 million gallon release was simply a larger instance of continuing releases of contaminated water from the Gold King and surrounding mines that had long devastated the habitat in the Animas River for tens of miles. It was cold comfort for EPA to note that the sediment concentrations in the River had soon returned to “normal,” when normal meant that no trout could live in a twenty mile stretch of the river. The resulting Superfund site includes 48 mines, not just the Gold King. With the current administration announcing a big cut in EPA spending, the locals are afraid that an under-funded and multi-decade Superfund process – the very fear that fed opposition to Superfund listing the past twenty years—was inevitable.
That multi-decade investigation and remediation is in fact inevitable, absent the discovery of some magic bullet for mine remediation. However, EPA is taking a slightly different approach here that could produce very significant results in the short term, long before the completion of the remedial investigation process. EPA is now proposing, subject to completion of a public information process, the implementation of up to forty separate “quick fixes” to reduce the flow of acid mine drainage (AMD) into the Animas and its tributaries. These range from the potential installation of a bulkhead to block large scale flow from one mine, to smaller projects involving the diversion of stormwater runoff around waste rock piles, and movement of waste rock and tailings from streambeds and adjacent banks. These smaller actions won’t eliminate all of the AMD, but they could result in a significant improvement in water quality.
What it Means
This quick, incremental approach has been broached before in the context of Good Samaritan statutes under the Clean Water Act. Those statutes failed passage because of the conflict between the mining companies and environmentalists. The former feared picking up additional liability if they carried out incremental fixes, and the latter feared half-baked remedies. But here EPA can carry out the partial remediation while continuing with the full CERCLA remedial process. Should the effort at Bonita Peak be successful, there may be some hope for expansion of that approach to the tens of thousands of abandoned mines throughout the West and lessening the pollution of Rocky Mountain trout streams.