Joel R. Reynolds is Western director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The definition of a mine, said Mark Twain, is a hole in the ground owned by liars. And this month the industry’s biggest lie — that it can be trusted with our water — is once again on display as another mining disaster has spilled millions of gallons of toxic mining waste and chemicals into our streams, rivers and lakes.
On Aug. 5, at the abandoned Gold King mine in southwest Colorado, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup team inadvertently unleashed into a tributary of the Animas River a 3-million-gallon soup of toxic mining wastewater. The accident has closed the Animas indefinitely and threatens drinking water supplies, the economy and wildlife in the region, into New Mexico and potentially all the way to Lake Powell.
This latest tragedy followed by one year almost to the day a pair of mine containment failures in Canada and Mexico. On Aug. 4, 2014, at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in central British Columbia, an earthen dam built 17 years ago to hold mining waste laced with mercury, lead, copper and other heavy metals — called tailings — failed, inundating the Fraser River watershed.
Three days later and 1,200 miles south at the Buena Vista copper mine in Sonora, Mexico, 10 million gallons of mining acid turned the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers orange with poisonous chemicals, shutting down drinking water supplies, closing schools and affecting an estimated 800,000 people.
Called by Mexico’s environment minister the “worst natural disaster provoked by the mining industry in the modern history of Mexico,” the spill was apparently caused by recently constructed but defective holding tanks.
This trio of mining disasters is, or at least should be, a wake-up call. In an era of advancing climate change, fresh water is the indispensable natural resource, essential to life for everyone everywhere, and becoming more valuable with each day of deepening drought.
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