U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich helped fill troughs used to water livestock today as local farmers and ranches relied on stored and transported water and waited for word they can reopen irrigation ditches that were closed to prevent contamination from a plume of toxic wastewater that was released into the Animas River last week from a mine in Colorado.
Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, are working on legislation they believe would help prevent future spills.
That legislation, Heinrich said, "tries to reform 140 years of mining policy" by requiring hard rock mining companies to pay royalties that will help fund the remediation of abandon mines."
The Gold King Mine, spilled more than 3 million gallons of heavy-metal laden, mustard-colored wastewater into the Animas River last week after Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally breached a plug in its entrance.
"We have many, many abandoned mines that could do this again," Heinrich said as he met with emergency response teams and reporters at the San Juan County Fire Operations Center in Aztec.
Heinrich told The Daily Times in an interview the legislation would specifically reform the General Mining Law of 1872.
Opponents argue the act, signed into law by former President Ulysses S. Grant, allows mining companies to acquire mineral-rich public land at little cost and to operate with no governmental oversight.
In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill requiring mining companies to pay royalties, as is required of oil, gas and coal producers, but a similar bill died in the Senate.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is from a state with a strong mining industry, was majority leader at the time.
Heinrich said the federal government has treated "hard rock minerals as a give away."
A bill was recently introduced in the House by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., that would create royalty payments for mining companies and levy a relatively small reclamation fee.
Heinrich said the Senate bill would be similar to Grijalva's, possibly with smaller royalty payments to gain support, but may also add language that protects well-intentioned individuals involved in environmental clean up from liability, a so-called "Good Samaritan" law.
Joe Ryan, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, said Thursday such a law is long overdue.
Currently, Ryan said environmental groups risk liability by becoming involved in clean up efforts at abandoned, polluted sites.
Ryan said local groups, such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group, could take an active role in cleaning up the river if they were protected.
Heinrich told The Daily Times he has also been attempting to meet with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to discuss an EPA Superfund designation for the Upper Animas Mining District.
"Why this happens over and over and over again is because we don't have the funding to clean it up," Heinrich said, adding later. "We have evidence that Superfund doesn't scare tourists away. What does scare tourists? Having Tang-yellow water running through the river."
The EPA has attempted to gain a Superfund designation for the high-mountain area north of Silverton, Colo., that includes the Gold King Mine for two decades, but the agency has been blocked by local residents and former mine operators, who fear it may hurt tourism and future ming projects.
The designation would allow the EPA to perform long-term remediation of toxic sites and also seek compensation from parties liable for causing the damage.
After his visit to the county fire operations center, Heinrich joined fire crews taking water to a small farm between Cedar Hill and Center Point north of Aztec.
Farm owners, Jarod Ray and Levi Bridge, had shut off water to one of their fields 10 days before the plume came in because they were preparing to cut the grass and clovers before the clover could go to seed.
When they heard a plume of acid mine waste was coming down the Animas River and that the irrigation ditches they depend upon would be shut, they filled up all the troughs and buckets they had with water.
"It got us almost through the week," Ray said.
Ray and Bridge have pigs, a bull, chickens and several horses that needed water on Friday and Heinrich helped fill troughs with water from a fire truck.
Heinrich, whose family raised cows when he was a child, said he understands the frustration farmers and ranchers are feeling.
"Anyone who irrigates knows that you have a limited window," he said, adding that every day the water is off means a loss in production.
He said as soon as officials determine it is safe to open the ditches, they should be opened without delay.
At the same time, he said it is important to make policies ensuring this does not happen again.
"We've got to find a way to start cleaning up these mines and start preventing these spills before they happen," Heinrich said.