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Colo. Gold King Mine Continues To Leak Waste As Winter Sets In

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency is racing to secure the site of Colorado's Gold King Mine. That's the place where the agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of wastewater. The water is orange. It flowed into the Animas River, and more water is coming out of the mine. Here is Grace Hood from Colorado Public Radio.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Nearly three months after the Gold King Mine spill, this is what progress sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION NOISE)

HOOD: Construction crews finish a $1.5 million temporary wastewater treatment plant. EPA on-scene coordinator Steven Way explains that water has continued to gush since the August spill.

STEVEN WAY: The discharge out of the Gold King now is higher than anybody's seen it. It was down below 100 gallons a minute last year. So now it's at a - 500 to 600. It's been there since the middle of August.

HOOD: That's 500 to 600 gallons of orange water draining per minute laced with heavy metals like zinc, copper and cadmium. The EPA had been collecting the water in ponds and treating it. It's already brought a plant online to keep the process going over the winter. But Way says the facility is only handling water from the Gold King Mine. Meantime, two additional old mines and an underground tunnel are draining hundreds more gallons of untreated wastewater every minute.

WAY: And so the question becomes, what can you do with those different sources? And can you affect enough of a change with those known sources that you can control or not?

HOOD: The August 5 blowout at the Gold King Mine created memorable images of orange river water that flowed from Colorado into New Mexico and Utah. Cleanup has cost taxpayers $14.5 million and counting. But spills like this aren't the main concern.

PETER BUTLER: Blowout scenarios - they are impressive. They get a lot of attention. They're probably not the biggest issue.

HOOD: Peter Butler is co-chair of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

BUTLER: The biggest issue is more this continuous metal loading that comes from the mining sites.

HOOD: In other words, the slow discharge of tainted waste is gradually polluting waterways. Across the West, a 2011 government report estimates about 33,000 abandoned hard rock mines are causing environmental problems. Money is one hurdle. Legal accountability is another. Right now, a primary determinant to voluntary cleanup efforts involve the ongoing liability that groups would have if they attempt cleanup under the Clean Water Act.

DOUG YOUNG: I think it's - a Good Samaritan is a good step.

HOOD: Doug Young has worked on ways to solve this problem at the Colorado-based Keystone Policy Center. He says Good Samaritan legislation would amend the Clean Water Act to allow environmental groups and local governments to be involved with more cleanup efforts.

YOUNG: Because we really don't have the resources federally - privately to do it, I don't know where else we're going to find the resources to address the problem.

HOOD: Some in Congress have said they'll sponsor legislation this session. But lawmakers have tried and failed over the past two decades to pass a bill. Those skeptical of the idea include California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer. She raised concerns about potential legislation at a September hearing on the Gold King Mine Spill.

BARBARA BOXER: These so-called Good Samaritan waivers - unless they are very carefully crafted - are not the solution.

HOOD: Boxer and others are concerned that companies won't be held fully responsible for cleanup. Others prefer charging hard rock mining companies a federal reclamation fee similar to what coal mining companies pay. In the meantime, the cleanup pace continues to be slow. Over the past six years, Colorado has spent $2 million annually - averaging about three or four mine cleanups per year. For NPR NEWS, I'm Grace Hood in Silverton, Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.