The Animas River Stakeholders Group, et al., offer $45,000 prize in search for solutions to pollution

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

From The Durango Herald (Chase Olivarius-Mcallister):

Last week, the regular meeting of the Animas River Stakeholders Group took on the feeling of a jolly, if intellectually fraught, Nobel Prize committee debate.

Scientists, government employees and mining officials huddled around a long table in the cold basement of the Miners Union Hospital grading innovative, sometimes preposterous proposals for addressing metal removal from mine drainage.

The ideas came from InnoCentive, a Boston firm that has hundreds of thousands of individual problem-solvers eager to take on challenges in chemistry, food production, business, engineering, information technology and the life sciences.

As part of the competition, the stakeholders described the environmental calamity in the Upper Animas Basin and offered $45,000 to the top problem-solver. (They raised the prize money from 12 organizations, including the International Network for Acid Prevention, Freeport-McMorRan Copper and Gold, Sunnyside Gold Corp., National Mining Corp., Goldcorp, New Mexico Coal and Trout Unlimited.)

As water quality in the Animas River has deteriorated over the last seven years, there has been insufficient money to build and operate a limestone water-treatment plant, which would cost $12 million to $17 million to build and $1 million to operate annually. Stakeholders are hoping that one brilliant solution could at least bring down the sticker price of river cleanup. (In the absence of an answer, the town is re-evaluating whether it should seek Superfund status.)

InnoCentive’s problem-solvers submitted online more than 50 proposals, with some more far-fetched than others, involving everything from absorption through plants, salting out metals, magnets, artificial river settling, cement, yeast, eggshell lime, plasma, brown coal, algae and Voraxial filtration…

As the stakeholders moved through the ideas, poring over a spreadsheet that had different stakeholders’ assessments of the schemes, expert opinion diverged many times.

While Kirsten Brown of the Colorado Division of Mining and Safety and Steve Fearn, mining specialist and co-coordinator of the stakeholders’ group, liked one proposal that involved removing heavy metals with magnets, Peter Butler thought “scaling and clogging would be an issue.”

Butler, co-coordinator of the stakeholders’ group, was more supportive of another proposal, artificial river settling, writing, “Could be an effective alternative to settling ponds. Separates metals somewhat.”[…]

They hope to choose the winner by May. When the winning idea might be implemented is unknown.

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River via the USGS
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River via the USGS

Meanwhile there was a meeting Wednesday in Silverton to discuss potential Superfund designation to bring in federal dough and expertise. Here’s a prequel from Chase Olivarius-Mcallister writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to designate parts of Silverton a Superfund site. Yet for years, many locals have considered the word “Superfund” dirtier than Cement Creek…

A series of abandoned mines in the Upper Animas Basin has been spewing toxic metals into the local water system for more than 20 years. Scientists say it’s the largest untreated mine drainage in the state, and problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said Silverton’s environmental calamity is “huge, affecting so many jurisdictions and communities. But it has felt like we were sort of at a stalemate.”

Lachelt said San Juan County commissioners now are leading the issue, not ignoring it.

“The La Plata County commissioners stand by the San Juan County commissioners in seeking out all of this information and seeking a rapid solution to this long-lingering problem,” she said. “I don’t think there’s one single reason it’s taken so long, and we’re certainly not there yet. But I think we’re seeing a lot of folks come together and realize we really don’t want to lose any more species of fish. We can’t afford to, and we have to act.”

‘Objections worn thin’

Since last summer, political pressure to find a solution in Silverton has escalated.

Rob Robinson, who used to represent the Bureau of Land Management within the Animas River Stakeholders Group, sent a letter and petition with 15 signatures in December to the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment urging a Superfund listing in Silverton. Robinson said for years he had kept faith that the Animas River Stakeholders Group’s collaborative process would work.

“I was a member of (the stakeholders) for many years and believed strongly in what they were doing: community-based, watershed-based cleanup. I guess it’s not gone so well,” he said. “In fact, it’s really disastrous when you compare the situation with what’s happened at other Superfund sites.”

Steve Gunderson, director of Colorado’s Water Quality Control Division, said he was “appalled” by what he saw when he toured the Red and Bonita Mine in 2012.

“This site, even though it’s complicated and remote, is in an incredibly beautiful part of the state. It may take a Superfund designation to bring the resources to bear,” he said.

But Gunderson said he doubts the EPA will “move forward with a Superfund designation unless there’s support with the local government because Superfund can be fairly controversial, and the first reaction is often angst about what the economic ramifications might be.”

Many Silverton residents interviewed by The Durango Herald last summer feared a Superfund designation would stymie tourism and soil the prospect of mining’s return.

“Superfund isn’t the answer,” said Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and a town resident. “I want to see Silverton become a successful, vibrant community again. Right now, it isn’t, and mining is the one thing we have.”

But Robinson said such objections had worn thin.

“God, they’re the same positions they took 25 years ago! I think ‘Gee-whiz, it’s like a broken record, going on and on,’” Robinson said. “People like Steve Fearn argue a Superfund site will discourage mining investment. But the pollution is discouraging people from mining.

“What Steve Fearn says is immaterial. What’s important is that the Clean Water Act promises to clean up the nation’s water, making it all swimmable, fishable. That’s the goal, and the people administering … Superfund aren’t doing their job,” he said. “That’s the problem.”[…]

In the absence of a Superfund designation, for years, the stakeholders group has tried to work collaboratively with the EPA and Sunnyside Gold Corp. to improve water quality in the Animas River.

However, water quality recently has gotten much worse in the river.

Between 2005 and 2010, three out of four of the fish species that lived in the Upper Animas beneath Silverton died. According to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, the volume of insects and the number of bug species have plummeted. And since 2006, USGS scientists have found that the water flowing under Bakers Bridge – then downstream, into Durango – carries concentrations of zinc that are toxic to animal life.

The technology to clean the dirty water exists: a limestone water treatment plant. But the stakeholders group has no money to pay for it, and the EPA estimates it would cost between $12 million and $17 million to build and $1 million a year to run – in perpetuity.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last mining company to operate in Silverton, denies all liability for cleaning up the worsened metal pollution. It has offered $6.5 million in return for being released from all liability. Kinross Gold Corp., an international mining conglomerate, bought Sunnyside in 2003. The company generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2013, according to its fourth-quarter report…

On Monday, within hours of commissioners announcing that most of their Wednesday meeting would be dedicated to discussing Superfund with the EPA, Larry Perino, Sunnyside’s representative in the stakeholders group, sent co-coordinators Fearn, Bill Simon and Peter Butler a letter proposing the company’s “game plan” for cleaning up the Animas River.

The plan centers on all parties continuing to work through the stakeholders group, bulkheading the Red and Bonita Mine and using the money Sunnyside already has promised – with compound interest. The plan does not include pursuing Superfund listing…

More Animas River watershed coverage here and here.

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