It will take many years and many millions of dollars simply to manage and not even remove the toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine that unleashed a 100-mile-long torrent of heavy metals into Western rivers that has likely reached Lake Powell, experts say. Plugging Colorado's Gold King Mine, which is still leaking, could simply lead to an eventual explosion of poisonous water elsewhere, so the safest solution, experts say, would be to install a treatment plant that would indefinitely clean the water from Gold King and three other nearby mines. That would cost millions of dollars and do nothing to contain the thousands of other toxic streams that are a permanent legacy of mining across the nation.
Federal authorities first suggested a treatment plant for Gold King more than a decade ago, but local officials and owners of a nearby mine were reluctant to embrace a federally sponsored cleanup. The Gold King delay illustrates a problem dwarfing the waste plume accidentally released by contractors working for the EPA: There are about 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide, and only a fraction have been dealt with, despite decades of effort. Utah officials, meanwhile, say the plume has likely reached Lake Powell, although it has been diluted on the 300-mile journey to the reservoir and lost the bright yellow color seen closer to the site. State authorities say tests suggest the spill has dissipated enough that the water is safe to drink, though they continue to warn people not to use it for irrigation or livestock water. (Read more Environmental Protection Agency stories.)