SILVERTON, Colo. — When the mine here opened in the early 1890s amid a frenzy of frontier gold exploration, its founders gave it a lofty name: the Gold King, reflecting their great hopes for finding riches in its depths. Over the next decade, the Gold King went on to become one of the most productive mines in Colorado’s San Juan County, with three shifts of men working 24 hours a day in its dark corridors.
But the mine’s prosperity proved short-lived. When the economy hit a recession in the early 1920s, its operators abandoned it, with open tunnels that filled with snowmelt and rainwater that eventually turned to acid, leaving behind a toxic legacy that this region has struggled to clean up for decades.
Then, on Aug. 5, the Gold King split open while a team contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency was investigating the source of a leak. The accident sent a yellow plume south into the Animas River and turned Western waterways into a mustard ribbon, causing three states and the Navajo Nation to declare states of emergency.
The accident heightened a debate here over the future of this region’s old mines, and served as a reminder, some critics say, that the Gold King’s toxic demise could be repeated at any of thousands of abandoned mines around the country.
“Our initial economy was largely driven by mining,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in an interview last week at the State Capitol, a building with a gold-leaf dome that pays homage to this history. “But it left us a sad legacy of these sites that are going to need significant resources to fix. Damage that no one understood or realized that this was going to be an issue.”
Colorado “dodged a bullet” this month, he added, saying the effects of the spill could have been far worse had the mine been larger or more laden with metals.
In its heyday, the Gold King produced about 350,000 ounces of high-grade gold, according to its current owner, and its products landed on the fingers of well-off women in New York City, in the pockets of everyday Americans and in the vaults of banks around the world.
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