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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

New Study Finds Mine Remediation Extremely Effective For Mountain Streams In The West

A photo of a dirty river.
Creative Commons
The Gold King Mine spill released about three million gallons of toxic water into the Animas River in 2015. It flowed downstream into the San Juan River.

Mining in the West often results in polluted watersheds, but a new study shows efforts to clean up leaking mines are extremely effective.

Researchers from Colorado State University, the University of California Santa Barbara and the U.S. Geological Survey worked on the study, which looked at the effects of mine remediation on four mountain streams in California, Idaho, Montana and Colorado.

The streams were all designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as Superfund sites, which means they were extremely polluted.

“They started off as being, if not devoid of life, pretty close to that,” said Will Clements, one of the researchers. “And then in a fairly short period of time, 10 to 15 years, they all had made this remarkable recovery.”

The researchers used data collected over the course of 20 to 29 years at each site. They looked at ecological factors, like which species recovered most quickly, as well as chemical factors like what metals were present in the water.

A side-by-side of the Arkansas river from 1996 to 2015.
Courtesy Will Clements
Researchers monitored recovery at the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colorado as part of the study. The former Superfund site is now a gold medal trout stream.

They used samples from nearby streams to determine what recovery looked like.

David Herbst, another author of the study, said it’s the first time researchers have looked at the effect of mine remediation on different streams over a long period of time.

“It gives us a much more accurate idea of how long it takes for these things to be successful, because typically a restoration project doesn't happen overnight,” he said.

Despite the fact that each site had different contaminants and different ecology, they all recovered in approximately the same amount of time. Herbst said that means the results can likely be applied to polluted streams across the mountain west.

Clements said that includes the San Juan River in Southeast Utah, which was polluted by the Gold King Mine Spill in 2015. That mine is currently undergoing remediation by the EPA.

There are currently 17,000 abandoned mine openings across Utah, according to the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. Not all of them are polluting waterways.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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