Cleaning Up

untitled (2)As reported by the media, it was a real mess. The US Environmental Protection Agency was conducting clean-up activities at the Gold King Mine in Colorado and accidentally caused a spill of a million gallons of contaminated mine water into the Animas River, turning it bright orange.

This contamination represents a case of natural materials being moved to where they present a problem. Historic mining exposed metals and minerals that occur naturally, mostly underground, and provided a route for these materials to move into the external environment. This movement allows contact between the mined materials and workers, nearby residents (if any) and the environment. If the materials had been left unmined and in place, their impact would likely be insignificant — or at least, natural.

(However, I appreciate that being killed by natural elements, such as radon, lead, mercury or selenium leaves you just as dead. Even before the spill, parts of the Animus reportedly had water high in metals and minerals.)

Mining collects really valuable materials, but in the process relocates associated materials to places where they could present problems, such as mine dumps. In addition, mining can change the subsurface groundwater flow paths and introduce oxygen via the mine workings. This oxygen and moisture reacts with metals and results in concentrated acidic solutions that become acid mine drainage. Mines, most notably old, abandoned ones, can pose environmental problems this way. Active, officially permitted mines are required by law to mitigate any of these potential problems.

For many years, government agencies and many mining companies have worked to clean up old, abandoned mines, and most of those projects have been highly successful. A few have been problematic, and have required creative solutions or long-term investment, like the Argo Tunnel Mine water treatment system in Idaho Springs, CO where major mine water discharge to Clear Creek is being first treated in a water treatment plant. This project benefits downstream water users, including a large part of the Metro Denver area.

However, even cleanups can come with their own issues.

Imbesi’s Law: “In order to get one thing clean it is necessary to get something else dirty.”

Obviously, if you’re going to clean up something like minerals or metals, you are going to have to do something with whatever you collect. (For example, if I spill something in the kitchen, I wipe it up with a paper towel that I throw away.) Certain materials, mostly organics, can be chemically treated or destroyed, but inorganics can only be contained, usually in some kind of waste disposal site. (And, yes, organic treatment systems, such as incineration, come with their own real or perceived problems.) If you’re moving the waste from the mine site to another place for disposal, you have to be prepared to deal with NIMBY, Not In My Backyard. (I will note that many people have really, really big backyards!)

So, you’re cleaning up this problem and taking the stuff you cleaned up and any other things you got dirty (decontamination materials, protective equipment, etc.) to someplace else where it won’t present a problem. And, there are many places where the material can go; however, disposal and transportation costs can seriously impact the project viability. So it’s always a good idea to see if there are suitable places close by.Usually, potential disposal sites haven’t been contaminated, so what you are essentially doing is contaminating them. Even though you are removing contamination from a place where it can impact people or the environment to a place where, presumably, it will not, there are a lot of NIMBY backyards out there (and they don’t have to be close to anyone).

Another factor is the political side of things. Disposal efforts could be blocked by elected officials, under the NIMTOO principle, Not In My Term Of Office. (Of course, the principle applies to many types of decisions and not just cleanups or disposal sites.)

And, as we have seen in the Gold King Mine incident, in spite of the best intentions and efforts, sometimes, bad things can happen.

Freeman’s Extension to Imbesi’s Law: “It is possible to get everything dirty without cleaning anything up.”

Just ask EPA … but I’d wait a bit to do that. They’re a little busy right now.

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