Every now and then, I think those of us who live in Colorado should play tourist and take in some of the sights that thrill our visitors from the rest of the country. There are lots of fun things to do, while still avoiding the silly places that only want to sell you a “genuine” arrowhead or a box of fudge. Not that there is anything wrong with a box of fudge.
One touristy spot I found very enjoyable was the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine, just outside of Cripple Creek. If you are interested in Colorado’s history, you need to visit Cripple Creek and Victor to take in the remarkable mining past of our lovely state. The Mollie Mine was a very interesting place to spend some time. You first crowd into a very tight-fitting elevator just like the miners used to descend roughly 1,000 feet. As you plummet, I mean rapidly drop, you see flash before you dozens of old mine shafts running off into the darkness, where you can imagine the thousands of hard-working souls toiling away from late 1800s until the 1960s. And even though the miners are long gone, the legacy of their work is visible and will remain so centuries, as uncounted mine shafts bear moot testimony to their hard work.
But there is another part of mining’s legacy – highly toxic water, which is becoming an increasingly important threat from below. As noted in a recent news report, this toxic water problem exists across the nation but is poised to be particularly challenging in Colorado. As it turns out, the Earth is a tad wet as you tunnel down. Mines often must have massive pumps running to get rid of waste waters that naturally seep from the walls of the mine shafts. But what happens when the mine closes?
You likely recall the 2015 story about the Gold King Mine, when a cleanup crew inadvertently triggered the release of over 3 million gallons of very toxic and nasty water that had been slowly building up in an abandoned mine. Nationally (though mostly in the Rocky Mountain West) such collected waste water is rapidly approaching a crisis. A review of just 43 mining sites under federal control, the AP reported, suggests that more than 50 million gallons per day flows out into streams, rivers, and into water tables, the equivalent of roughly 2,000 tanker trucks of pestilence. In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, experts estimate that the 400 or so former mine sites drain 15 million gallons per day into the region.
So, let’s fix this, right?
Well, as you might imagine, the politics of toxic mine water is complex and tedious. First, we are confronted with the issue of who should pay? That’s not a hard question when, say, an existing company spills some nasty stuff into a local stream – we go after that company. But whom does one see about toxic water in a mine whose last owner died 50 years ago? How do you seek restitution from a company that folded during the Eisenhower Administration? Someone should do something, right?
Well, guess whose left to pick up the pieces? Yup, the federal government and to a lesser but still challenging degree, the state. Frankly, old stinky and dangerous water, currently trapped behind some type of barrier up in the mountains is not an issue that really fires people up. Sure, when there is a leak, people get upset, but all too often, what’s out of sight is soon out of mind. The result is — to seriously muddle my metaphors — a ticking time bomb of toxic water.
Decades ago the federal government created a “superfund sites” program to close off and mitigate some of the worst pollution in the country. Colorado is home to over twenty such sites, out of a national total of roughly 1,400. And there have been successes to be sure. But every day more water seeps into these underground lakes of toxins. If you haven’t listened to the lyrics of the old Harry Chapin song “The Rock” recently, I suggest you do, the metaphor is apt.
In political science classes, we teach about “the tragedy of the commons,” which basically says that when we as a nation or a state “own” something, people often think of it as a free good for anyone who wants it. I’ve previously written about such “free water” at the Gillette Flats spigot, and now I find myself concerned with the dirty water left over after the humans involved tainted it. If we only respond to crisises when toxic waters pour out, we risk greater damage at greater cost than if we were to take action now. The “commons water” is, to put it simply, our legacy now, too. I hope we can learn to take actions before we see another massive spill, but I doubt we will, which is a pity.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.