Toxic Frontiers

Toxic Frontiers

The Animas River spill highlighted the toxic legacy of the Gold Rush era—an era whose abuses U.S. mining companies are now repeating abroad.

A stretch of the Animas river in San Juan National Forest, Colorado, August 6 (Mor / Flickr)

On August 5, three million gallons of water laced with cadmium, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals poured out of the defunct Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colorado. The toxic water entered the Animas River, which flows through the tourist city of Durango, and attracted national attention as it turned the Animas’s usually blue waters yellow and orange. The accident occurred after an environmental remediation firm under contract with the Environmental Protection Agency breached the dam holding the waters back while attempting to stabilize the mine’s tailings pond.

The Gold King spill brought rare media attention to the environmental costs of mining in the American West, a jarring reminder of the threat posed by unchecked resource extraction. One month later, the images of the mustardy water have retreated from the news cycle and the Animas has returned to its natural blue. But the region remains studded with mines like the Gold King—and, moreover, North American companies continue to dig new mines that dwarf the Gold King in size and environmental impact across the global South today. It’s time for the U.S. public to hold them accountable.


Euro-American conquest of what is today the American West followed the mineral trail. It was the opportunity to get rich off of the region’s vast natural resources—furs, timber, and especially precious metals—that spurred migration to the West. Furs, timber, and especially mining drove American expansionism. This has gone far to define the region’s history. Colorado experienced its first gold rush in 1859; within five years, white settlers had killed hundreds of the region’s indigenous residents to claim the entire territory for themselves, with many more dying of disease and starvation. This genocidal campaign peaked at the Sand Creek Massacre, when a 700-man militia led by Colonel John Chivington attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment, killing and mutilating more than 100 people. Meanwhile, white settlers hunted bison nearly to extirpation near the frontier town of Denver, a sign of the massive environmental transformation to come.

As the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction gave way to the Gilded Age, this pattern of violence and primitive accumulation propelled the expansion of capitalism into the West. Wherever a mining boom hit—Coeur d’Alene, Butte, Deadwood, Bisbee—a flood of prospectors would arrive. Miners, often with next to no capital, would begin panning for metals or digging small mines, hoping to strike it rich. But corporations often consolidated control over the most productive mines within a year, and miners’ get-rich-quick dreams were eclipsed by the shift to industrial labor. The mine mogul George Hearst, for instance, traveled the West buying out small miners to take control of many of the largest finds, while Montana’s “copper kings” drove out all competitors in the Butte mines, establishing almost total control over the state’s politics, economy, and society for decades. The companies operating these mines could dispose of waste however they wanted, wherever they wanted, backed by court decisions dating back to the 1830s that allowed corporations independence from regulation or responsibility in the name of progress. While the smallest mines could close within a few months, the largest stayed open for decades. Most left behind lead, cadmium, arsenic, zinc, manganese, and many other toxins, creating widespread environmental damage across the region. 

Today, there are around 7,300 abandoned mines in Colorado and tens of thousands more across the West. Almost all of them are leeching heavy metals into streams and rivers, leaving about 40 percent of the region’s waterways tainted. Many of the abandoned mines threaten larger spills, like the one that turned the Animas orange. The Animas itself has seen such incidents before: in 1975, a tailings pile near Silverton caved, pouring 50,000 tons of heavy metal-laden tailings into the river and turning it, in the words of one observer, the color of “aluminum paint.” In Leadville, historically home to some of Colorado’s richest gold, silver, lead, and zinc mines, such events have happened repeatedly. The federal Bureau of Mines originally built a drainage tunnel in 1943 to contain all the water from the town’s mining district, but when it began collapsing in the 1970s, water began to build up. Today, over a billion gallons of water are backed up in that tunnel. If that water were to burp out, the damage could be immense, potentially poisoning the Arkansas River for hundreds of miles and tainting the water eastern Colorado farmers rely on to irrigate major melon, corn, and other cash crops.


As is so often the case, the rise of large-scale mining in the American West is not just a history of environmental exploitation, but one of labor exploitation as well. Mine safety was notoriously bad, with a poisonous industrial environment that put workers at constant risk of “black lung” and other illnesses, not to mention injuries of all kinds and, in many cases, death. Comprehensive federal legislation on both mine safety and mine pollution did not pass until the 1960s and 1970s. Coal was responsible for the highest number of workplace deaths, with thousands of miners a year dying in accidents, but western hard rock mines also killed. The Granite Mountain Mine fire in Butte, Montana in 1917 killed 168 workers and spurred organizing by the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World. Mine owners responded by lynching IWW organizer Frank Little. In the same year, the Phelps-Dodge corporation rounded up striking miners in Bisbee, Arizona and shipped them into the New Mexico desert, ending IWW infiltration of their company town through extra-legal violence. The United Mine Workers of America and other mining unions finally succeeded in organizing these mines during the mid-twentieth century, but the companies never accepted them. In 1983, Phelps-Dodge rid its Arizona mines of unions once and for all through a notorious union-busting operation that set the stage for the destruction of unions throughout the United States over the past three decades.

The boom-and-bust mining economy has also left much of the region without access to stable jobs. When the mines close, where can their workers turn? Where can the people who built the United States through mining and farming and lumbering the West’s rich natural resources go? Throughout the region, two disparate economies have developed, with the rise of tourism and wealthy “amenity migrants” revitalizing particularly beautiful or desirable areas on one hand and towns where the mining landscape tore down mountains or left giant open pits, such as Leadville and Butte, on the other. In the second, residents suffer from poverty and a lack of economic opportunity. They cling to the mining or logging culture, hoping it comes back, because they have no other options. Tourist towns like Silverton and Durango have little space for working-class culture and few well-paying jobs like mining. With complex international economic conditions often dictating the success of these mines, it is easier for workers to blame environmentalists for the loss of their jobs.

And when the EPA comes in to clean up these towns, workers often resist. After changing hands several times, and undergoing an initial cleanup effort after the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the mining complex that included the remnants of the Gold King finally closed in 1991 and, after negotiations with the government, its Canadian owner capped it with concrete and agreed to do water remediation downstream from the mine. What the mine’s owner did not agree to was to have the mine listed as a Superfund site, which would have mandated a more comprehensive cleanup effort. It’s hardly surprising that mining companies aren’t prepared to pay up. But residents are often opposed to the Superfund mandate, too. They don’t want what is now the tourist town of Silverton tainted with that label. So the EPA agreed not to list it so long as it could implement water quality improvement projects, which are underway.

It’s hard to blame the residents. Throughout the West, tourism has replaced natural resources as the major economic engine of many former mining communities in the region. And, leaving economic concerns aside, many residents simply find the Superfund label insulting. This became clear when the EPA declared Leadville a Superfund site in 1983, after over a century of mining, and began cleaning up the toxic tailings piles that littered the city where many locals played as children and where their children still played. Locals resisted the EPA for a decade, feeling offended by the rejection of their heritage. If the lead in the tailings hurt the children’s cognitive development, as the EPA claimed, did that imply that Leadville miners were stupid, since they played there too? Many former miners, at any rate, took it that way.

Resistance from mining communities is only one of the many obstacles the EPA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other government agencies face in maintaining these abandoned mines and preventing water contamination. Underfunded and under attack from conservatives, the EPA has to deal with extremely technical situations in which a minor error can cause severe pollution. When they, or their contractors, make a mistake—as they did last month—conservatives seize on the opportunity to blame the EPA and tell us government doesn’t work. Their opportunism is astounding. The contractors may have messed up, but the EPA is hardly responsible for polluted rivers. Rather, corporations, along with their right-wing backers, are whom we should hold responsible. When President Carter signed the original Superfund bill in 1980, it forced polluters to pay for the cleanup of two centuries of toxicity, creating a fund of $3.8 billion by 1996. This bill did a tremendous amount to protect Americans from pollution. It also angered conservatives who considered it anti-business. In 1995, the newly powerful Republicans in Congress refused to renew the polluter tax after it expired, leading to the depletion of the program’s surplus and hamstringing its ability to remain effective.

Still, new U.S. mining operations are reasonably well regulated by international standards. That’s why the frontier for mining companies has moved from the American West to the global South. The global race to the bottom has given companies incentive to recreate the abuses of the Gold Rush era overseas. From El Salvador to Papua New Guinea, U.S. and Canadian companies are digging mines much like the Gold King, except much larger and with far more powerful technology. These enormous operations run roughshod over local tradition and national law in countries across Asia, Africa, eastern Europe, and Latin America. Here, the mine companies pollute with impunity, bust labor unions, and create long-term environmental change which residents will live with long after the ore runs out.

Of course, citizens fight back. In Peru, indigenous people have struggled against the Colorado-based mining company Newmont Mining’s attempt to open a gold and copper mine that would devastate local water supplies. Newmont also paid a $5 million fine for a major cyanide spill at a mine in Ghana, even as the company’s security guards beat local protesters fighting against its exploitative practices. Across Romania, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2013 to block a Canadian-led gold mining project in the rural Rosia Montana area. In Zambia, residents have recently sued the British mining firm Vedanta Resources for polluting local rivers with acid from copper mining, accusing the corporation of slashing costs in order to save money after buying the mine in 2004.

But with the state and international funding agencies behind them, corporations have powerful tools at their disposal. When El Salvador president Mauricio Funes blocked the Commerce Group from reopening a nasty gold mine that had poisoned both fish and people with its waste, the company sued his government for $100 million in 2010. The suit was eventually thrown out of court, but the Australian mining company OceanaGold has filed another suit against El Salvador for $301 million and its verdict is yet to be decided. All of these suits test the financial will of impoverished nations.

The challenge for today’s activists is to connect mining companies’ toxic legacy in the United States with their ongoing exploitation abroad, and join the global campaign to hold these corporations accountable. In this respect, accidents the Gold King mine spill might help. Seeing environmental disaster has moved Americans in the past. In 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill spawned massive grassroots activism against the oil industry. The same year, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire in Cleveland after a century of serving as a dump for the city’s factories. These two events, splashed across the front pages, combined to help pass the National Environmental Policy Act, the most comprehensive environmental legislation in American history, as well as build support for the politically influential environmental movement of the 1970s. The Exxon Valdez oil spill served a similar function in the 1980s. The pollution of the Animas has exposed the severity of U.S. environmental degradation to a new generation. What will be our policy response? What will we demand of mining companies today?

First, we need to demand the return of a robust Superfund. The polluter tax must be reinstituted and strengthened so that we can clean up the Colorado mines and other areas of toxicity from New York to California. Second, we need to create a legal framework to hold mining companies accountable in American and international courts for their environmental impact overseas. At present, they act with impunity around the world, and it is our moral obligation to ensure that American-based companies live up to international standards when they operate overseas. In a globalized economy—if it is ever to be a just one—citizens have to demand regulations that follow companies no matter where they situate production.

Whatever we do, we cannot let the Animas spill go by without rethinking the present and future of mining in the U.S. and overseas. We can’t afford to wait until the next massive spill.

Erik Loomis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Rhode Island. His book, Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, was published by The New Press in June 2015.  

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