COLORADO — The “abandoned” mine where the EPA unintentionally caused the spill of more than 3 million gallons of wastewater is not exactly abandoned.
For starters, the Gold King Mine has an owner, and it is not as barren inside as it is made out to be.
As tempers flared over the plume that exposed communities in three states to harmful metals as it flowed downstream, the criticism has been mostly targeted the EPA.
One week has passed since the August 5 spill, and Todd Hennis, the owner of the Gold King Mine in Colorado, has mostly been silent.
It was his mine that discharged the wastewater while the EPA was working on it, so what’s he going to do about it?
He denies any wrongdoing or negligence that contributed to last week’s spill.
According to Hennis, he has tried to do something about the discharge from his and other area mines for years.
“I’ve been predicting for the last 14 years that the situation would continue getting worse and worse,” Hennis told CNN on Thursday. “I foresaw a disaster, and that has been borne out.”
The spill — which temporarily turned the Animas River a shade of yellow-orange — will not just set up criticism of the EPA, but add fuel to an old fight between mine owners.
Hennis, the president of Boulder-based San Juan Corp., has for years been at odds with Kinross Gold, a Canada-based multinational mining giant.
Hennis accuses Kinross of using its deep pockets and influence to take steps to reduce its liability for treating polluted water while passing the risks to other nearby mines, including Gold King.
The mining ecosystem
It is a Kinross-owned mine — Sunnyside Mine — that Hennis blames for the accumulation of wastewater that spilled.
In the mid-1990s, Kinross got permission to bulkhead, or plug, a segment of the Sunnyside Mine called the American Tunnel.
The project was approved to reduce pollution, but Hennis claims that the actual effect was that it pushed wastewater into other mines, including his.
Before the American tunnel was plugged, the Gold King Mine discharged 7 gallons of water a minute, and didn’t pose a health risk, Hennis said. After the project at the Sunnyside Mine, the discharge from the Gold King Mine discharge had grown to 250 gallons of water a minute, he said.
“All of these discharges were minimal or non-existent until Sunnyside,” Hennis said.
A year ago, the EPA decided to investigate Gold King to see where the increased in water was coming from. According to Hennis, the EPA ran out of time to complete the work, and elected to seal the mine and return in 2015.
Last week, the EPA crew returned, and when the contractors began removing the backfill to restart their investigation, the pressure was too much and the water spilled, Hennis said.
The accumulated wastewater, he claims, came from the Kinross-owned mine, via drill holes and natural fractures in the ground.
Kinross roundly denied the allegations and said it’s mine had nothing to do with the spill.
“Sunnyside mine workings have no physical connection to the Gold King and such a connection never existed,” said Kevin Roach, director of reclamation operations at Sunnyside. “Sunnyside is not the cause of the water buildup at Gold King.”
Sunnyside Mine has not operated since 1991, and since then, Kinross has met all of the environmental requirements, he said.
“As the EPA has taken responsibility for the discharge it is unfortunate that Mr. Hennis, whose company owns the Gold King mine, is trying to deflect responsibility from what has clearly been the location of the incident, which is Gold King mine,” Roach said.
Elevated discharge continues
One week after the spill, the Gold King Mine continues to discharge water at an elevated rate.
As of Wednesday, the polluted water was flowing from the mine at a rate of 610 gallons per minute, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey.
“It’s not over by a long shot,” Hennis said.
The difference now is that the EPA has had time to build pools to collect the discharge and is treating it.
Despite its age, the Gold Creek Mine has not been untouched for decades, as some reports suggest.
During the 1990s, the now-defunct Gold King Mine Corp. completed $10 million in exploration, Hennis said, including 400,000 ounces of gold and 4 million ounces of silver.
The mine also has large deposits of tellurium, which is used in high-tech alloys, he said.
Hennis’ company took ownership of the Gold King Mine when the previous owners were foreclosed on, and Hennis himself has not done any work on the mine outside of what the EPA has requested.
His goal with owning the mine, he said, is to find a buyer.