The next billionaire may be the entrepreneur who figures out how to turn contaminated mine water into drinking water. In the process, they would make part of their fortune recovering chemicals and metals we use in our everyday lives.
No one was talking about old mining waste until Aug. 5, when an EPA cleanup crew accidentally breached the wall of a containment pond at the Gold King Mine near Durango, Colo., sending three million gallons of mustard-tinged muck down the Animas River. Suddenly, the world’s attention focused on heavily polluted settling ponds from mining operations that, in some cases, are more than 100 years old.
The Animas River feeds into the Colorado River, which is one of the largest sources of drinking water for people living in the West. The toxic water poured into the Animas and flowed down as far as Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. As a result, public drinking-water systems were temporarily shut down, and farmers from the Navajo Nation stopped using river water for irrigation.
Meanwhile, heavy metals have settled on the river bed, endangering fish, wildlife and livestock.
Polluted water from sewers, mining and industrial activities is a global problem. In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply.
While the U.S. has stringent laws governing water quality and mining reclamation, many of the polluters are long gone. The Bureau of Land Management estimates there are 2,700 abandoned hard rock mining sites in need of environmental cleanup. There are 74 sites in Washington, and remediation work is in progress or planned for the 13 worst.
Active mining operations now fall under strict laws developed over the last 40 years, and mining practices and clean-up technology have come a long way since the days of the “strike it rich” prospectors.
While the tainted waters of the Animas River are clearly visible, the pollutants that travel underground contaminating aquifers are harder to detect and treat.
Take the mammoth Berkeley Pit, for example. It sits inside the nation’s biggest Superfund site surrounding Butte, Mont. Once called the “richest hill on Earth” because of the massive veins of copper, gold, silver and other metals, the Butte mines produced enough copper to pave a four-lane highway four inches thick from Pullman to Forks, 460 miles.
When Atlantic Richfield shut down mining in 1982, the Berkeley Pit began filling with water. Today, it contains 42.5 billion gallons of water laced with heavy metals and sulfuric acid. If cleaned up to drinking water standards, it would provide enough water to supply the residents of Vancouver, Wash. for five years.
Over the years, there have been efforts to deal with the pit water, but they were stifled by unproven technology and high costs. But things are changing and there are three overriding circumstances that may spur creative inventors to develop new technology.
First, in Butte, the pit water level continues to rise and is within 80 feet of reaching the valley’s water table level. That could happen by 2022, polluting the headwaters of the Columbia River.
Over the years, the EPA and ARCO have spent billions diverting tainted water into settling ponds for treatment before it is released into the Clark Fork River, but the water in the Berkeley Pit has just been contained. It needs treatment.
Second, as the world’s population increases and the demand for fresh water outstrips supply, rising costs for fresh water will drive innovation.
Finally, the potential payoff is growing for those who take the risk and make the investments because the world needs not only additional fresh water but also the precious metals and chemicals polluting our tainted waters.
n Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com