#AnimasRiver: Emergency Response to August 2015 Release from Gold King Mine — EPA


Click here to go to the Environmental Protection Agency website. Here’s their summary:

On August 5, 2015, EPA was conducting an investigation of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, to:

  • assess the on-going water releases from the mine,
  • treat mine water, and
  • assess the feasibility of further mine remediation.
  • While excavating loose material that had collapsed into the cave entry, pressurized water began leaking above the mine tunnel, spilling about three million gallons of water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

    EPA is working closely with first responders and local and state officials to ensure the safety of citizens to water contaminated by the spill. The agency has activated its Emergency Operations Center to ensure coordination among its regions, laboratories and national program offices in Washington DC. EPA is closely coordinating with the officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Southern Ute tribe and Navajo Nation. EPA is taking the lead on efforts to contain the leak and flow from the mine is now controlled. EPA has also deployed federal On-Scene Coordinators and other technicians in Colorado, New Mexico and Navajo Nation to assist with preparations and first response activities in these jurisdictions. EPA is sharing information as quickly as possible with the community as experts work to analyze any effects the spill may have on drinking water and public health.

    They have links to the technical data on the web page.

    Reservoirs Are Dead. Long Live Reservoirs: Water Bosses Eye The Cache La Poudre — CPR

    Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water
    Map of the Northern Integrated Supply Project via Northern Water

    From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

    Colorado’s water planners…see the Cache la Poudre as an opportunity to help quench Colorado’s seemingly endless growth and thirst for water. That’s why Northern Water has proposed building two large reservoirs on behalf of 11 cities. It’s a project that sets them in emblematic conflict with environmentalists and other groups.

    Resolving environmental disputes on large-scale water projects takes time. So does the federal permitting process. Water managers say that even without the conflict, projects take years–sometimes decades–to acquire the necessary permits.

    “We would not look to short circuit the diligence and the rigor associated with environmental permitting processes. That’s really important,” said Jim Lochhead, manager of Denver Water. “That having been said, the permitting process if you look at it in total between federal and state, and everything else we need to do is broken.”

    The Northern Integrated Supply Project

    To quench Northern Colorado’s growing thirst for more water, the local agency Northern Water has proposed the Northern Integrated Supply Project. The effort would build one reservoir north of Fort Collins, and another near Greeley. Once both reservoirs are filled, about 40,000 acre feet of additional water supply would be released every year from storage. Households typically use between one-half to 1 acre-foot of water annually.

    We can’t conserve our way to future supply. No matter how we phrase it, you just can’t do it,” said Brian Werner with Northern Water.

    Northern Water is pursuing the project on behalf of 11 cities along the Front Range. Werner said his agency wants an “all of the above strategy” to meet growing water demand. So it’s eyeing more conservation and the exchange of water rights from agricultural land. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water supply.

    There were environmental studies done on the river to evaluate problems and propose solutions. Mark Easter with the environmental group Save The Poudre said the measures don’t go far enough.

    “I think there’s a new conversation that’s starting around this, asking the question, do we really need these reservoirs?” said Mark Easter, board chair of Save The Poudre.

    A swinging pendulum

    A century of dam projects across the West have caused ecological harm to some Western rivers. Today the federal permitting process to build a dam or a reservoir is far stricter compared to the early 1900s. But some water managers fear the pendulum has swung too far.

    Take Denver Water. It decided in 2002 it needed to expand the reservoir outside Boulder. The agency won’t find out whether it can do this until later this year.

    For large-scale projects, it’s up to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to decide whether a project gets built. But you need permits from other federal agencies. And there are state permits. Meantime, Denver Water has employees devoted full-time to moving the reservoir expansion forward.

    “If we look at a future with climate change and rapidly evolving conditions in terms of climate, and weather and drought, we need to be a lot more nimble in our ability to build critical infrastructure in this country,” said Lochhead.

    Water managers like Lochhead say a rigorous environmental assessment is needed for projects. What slows the process down is that each permit has unique requirements…

    These two proposed reservoirs in Northern Colorado will take time and money before they get off the ground. The environmental group Save the Poudre says it will continue to fight these efforts. Meanwhile a final decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on whether these reservoirs can be built won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest.

    Gold King mine spill: EPA expands response #AnimasRiver

    Here’s the latest from the EPA website:


    This morning EPA is releasing a detailed data table of the sampling in Cement Creek and the upper portions of the Animas River from August 5, the date of the incident, and August 6.

    EPA expects to have new data from August 7 which is currently undergoing review and will be available to the public later today. We acknowledge frustration with the turnaround time for this information. Workers at the lab and data experts are working continuously to develop the information.

    The data table contains a list of analyzed constituents, largely metals, and their numeric value in micrograms per liter, which is equal to parts per billion, or ppb.

    The data table released today will include updates to the information released by EPA on August 7. The incident, which occurred on August 5, caused an increase in concentrations of total and dissolved metals as the contaminated mine water moved downstream. These concentrations began to trend toward pre-event conditions by August 6. August 7 and 8 data, when it is available, will inform whether the trend towards pre-event conditions continues.

    Note: Total metals analysis for water samples includes the metals content both dissolved in the water and present in the particulates in the water. Typically a dissolved metals analysis of a water sample is performed by removing the particulates with a filter, then analyzing the filtered water for metals.

    Click here to read the EPA’s emergency response form.

    Click here for the preliminary data analysis from th EPA.

    Click here for the August 7 analysis from the EPA.

    From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley and Tom McGhee):

    The EPA on Monday expanded its response to the Animas River mining disaster, delivering bottled water in Colorado, New Mexico and Navajo Country and testing for contaminants as far as Lake Powell.

    The acidic heavy metals that flooded into Cement Creek and the Animas in southwestern Colorado — including arsenic, lead, copper and cadmium — initially broke state water quality limits, based on data the Environmental Protection Agency has released.

    Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster. New Mexico also declared a disaster. California officials have been calling the EPA about water supply implications. Residents along the Animas near Durango, with about 17,000 people, swamped La Plata County with requests for well tests.

    And a long-running debate about solutions — possibly involving Superfund status for leaking old mines — is ignited.

    But five days after an EPA crew triggered the Gold King mine blowout, EPA regional chief Shaun McGrath still could not give an assessment of potential harm to people.

    The spread of toxic heavy metals was such that authorities will block access to the Animas at least until Aug. 17 while the EPA develops “risk-screening criteria” and data show that water has returned to “pre-event conditions,” McGrath said.

    “The risk-screening levels, that is based on exposures through different uses in this area,” he said.

    “Are we back down to pre-event conditions? … That is going to take a little bit of time.”

    An initial deluge of acid mine wastewater estimated at 3 million gallons brought the concentration of lead in the Animas River to 5,720 parts per billion (ppb), according to the EPA’s data — far above the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment domestic water quality standard of 50 ppb, the shut-off point above which municipal water providers are told not to draw water into their systems…

    The water data available Monday, from a location 15 miles north of Durango, were taken one day after the Gold King blowout. The contamination is expected to be diluted. EPA responders have set up new retention ponds below Gold King.

    From the Farmington Daily Times (Steve Garrison):

    EPA on-scene coordinator Hayes Griswold explained to San Juan County, Colo., officials that an EPA team working at the mine on Wednesday underestimated how much pressure was hidden behind the debris that plugged the mine’s entrance.

    He said the team was not attempting to dislodge the plug, but was instead attempting to stick a pipe into the top of the mine.

    The pipe would allow the team to safely pump liquid out of the mine for treatment, Griswold said.

    “We were very careful,” he said, adding that he has 28 years of mining experience.

    However, the team removed too much material from the mine’s roof, which caused the rupture, Griswold said…

    Griswold said Monday that the mine was discharging anywhere between 200 to 700 gallons per minute of polluted water.

    The fluctuation in discharge was caused by cave-ins within the mine, which may temporarily slow the flow rate, Griswold said.

    The water flowed down the mountain pooling in one of several man-made ponds a few thousand feet below the mine’s mouth where contractors treated it with lime, coagulants and caustic soda.

    Griswold said he believed there were other mines in the area that posed a similar threat of rupturing.

    A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
    A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

    From The Durango Herald ( Shane Benjamin):

    The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it doesn’t anticipate any decisions on whether to reopen the Animas River in Durango until at least Aug. 17.

    Local, state and tribal governments will likely make independent decisions based on different segments of the river and the impacts, said Shaun McGrath, administrator for EPA’s Region 8, which covers six states, including Colorado…

    Also on Sunday, Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a state of disaster that will allocate $500,000 from the state’s Disaster Emergency Fund to help pay for the response to pollution the EPA accidentally released Wednesday from the Gold King Mine.

    The governor plans to visit Durango on Tuesday.

    The EPA also said it is ramping up its ground response by establishing a “unified area command center” in Durango with an incident commander who will coordinate operations in three agency regions that include Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and California.

    EPA scientists plan to create a “risk screening” analysis based on different uses. They will use data that is being developed to identify if contaminants are acceptable for agriculture, aquatic life, wildlife, recreation and human consumption. They will also indicate whether the levels of contamination are down to pre-event conditions.

    EPA officials have repeatedly delayed providing a detailed analysis of whether metals in the yellow-brown plume were dangerous to aquatic life, wildlife, crops, skin contact and human consumption. Wildlife that drank from the river during the height of the event should be fine, they said, but, based on preliminary results, the EPA supports local officials’ decision to close the river to human activity.

    La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said elected officials are as frustrated as county residents with the slow pace of sampling and data interpretation. Six days after the mine blowout, she still didn’t know if the same water quality is needed for different uses, such as agriculture, recreation or drinking. She hopes the EPA won’t delay giving the green light for some uses just because the river is unsafe for other uses.

    “We’re looking at a river that looks pretty good,” Westendorff said Monday. “We all want evidence that we can start using it in some form or another.

    Scientists outside the region are helping to make that call, she said. “I don’t’ get the impression there is someone sitting in this room here that is in a position to make that call.”

    County officials are working to identify water wells that are in close proximity to the Animas River that may be tainted by the mine runoff in the Animas River.

    A multi-agency team will conduct sampling upon request of well water if discoloration is observed or if residents are highly concerned. If discoloration is observed in well water or residents are highly concerned, the EPA will provide drinking water. The county is also helping to supply farmers and ranchers with water for their crops and livestock if needed.

    “I want our irrigators to know they are a high priority,” Westendorff said…

    Aerial and ground reconnaissance indicated Monday that the plume associated with the Gold King Mine has dissipated downstream and there is no leading edge of contamination visible in downstream sections of the San Juan River or Lake Powell.

    Contaminated mine runoff continues to flow out of the abandoned mine. The EPA has constructed four ponds at the mine site, and they are treating water by lowering acidity levels and removing dissolved metals. The system is discharging treated water to Cement Creek at levels cleaner than pre-event, the EPA said Monday night in a news release. Over the next several days, EPA will make upgrades to the system to ensure its continued operation.

    EPA continues to collect water samples daily from the Animas and San Juan rivers. Fish cages placed directly in the Animas River indicate no mortality as a result of the spill.

    “To date, we have seen no indication of widespread fish mortality in the Animas or San Juan,” a news release said.

    While lacking specific health and environmental impacts, the EPA is reporting a downward trend in water concentrations for metals at sample sites. The EPA recommends washing with soap and water after contact with river water to minimize exposure to the metals and any bacteria that maybe present in the untreated river water.

    Dissolved iron in the waste turned the long plume an alarming orange-yellow – a look familiar to old-time miners who call it “yellow boy” – so “the water appears worse aesthetically than it actually is, in terms of health,” said Ron Cohen, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines.

    New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has declared an emergency that frees up state funds to address the wastewater plume as the Animas enters the state and joins the San Juan River.


    Click here for The Durango Herald’s coverage.

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Matthew Reichbach):

    The spill is now three times the original estimate

    The EPA originally estimated that the spill was one million gallons of contaminated water. This weekend, the EPA revised the estimation and now says the spill was closer to 3 million gallons.

    Contaminated water is still leaking from the abandoned mine. From the Farmington Daily-Times:

    The mine continues to discharge 500 gallons per minute, EPA Region 8 administrator Shaun McGrath said in a teleconference call Sunday afternoon, but the polluted water is being contained and treated in four ponds at the site of the spill near Silverton, Colo.

    After the plume passes, the river appears to be moving closer to normal…

    Why is it so toxic?

    Chemical reactions.

    OK, a better explanation:

    For most of the West’s history, miners were basically allowed to run willy-nilly across the landscape, burrowing for gold, silver, or other valuable minerals. According to Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines, whenever you dig into a mountain, “at some point you are going to hit water.”

    That water, when it runs through the rocks in a mine, hits a mineral called pyrite, or iron sulfide. It reacts with air and pyrite to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. That acid then continues through the mine, dissolving other heavy metals, like copper and lead. Eventually, you end up with water that’s got high levels of a lot of undesirable materials in it.

    And that’s why there are now elevated levels of heavy metals in the river…

    Abandoned mines are common

    Until 1981, when a mine shut down for whatever reason, the owners could just essentially board them up and walk away. There was no requirement for rehabilitation plans or any plans to deal with the toxic materials left behind.

    From Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting:

    By some estimates, there are as many as half a million abandoned mines in the U.S. These sites have the potential to contaminate water, pollute soil, kill wildlife and sicken humans, to say nothing of the risks of falling down a hidden mine shaft. (This is a legitimate concern in some areas – in California, the state employs teams that scour the state looking for abandoned mines and plugging them up. There was even a “Dirty Jobs” episode about these folks.)

    Spills aren’t uncommon either

    The striking visual of the orange water flowing downriver, along with the massive size and cause of the spill, has created massive national interest in this spill. Smaller spills are relatively common throughout the West, as the Associated Press noted.

    The federal government says 40 percent of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.

    And Wired notes the same thing.

    The abandoned mines in the area have long been a problem, filling up with acidic wastewater that leaches heavy metals out of rock and leaks into the river—a slow-motion environmental debacle. And the EPA has been trying to designate the mines a Superfund site for years, only to come up against local resistance. The mines still aren’t on the Superfund list, but the EPA has been trying to them clean up anyway.

    In fact, the mine where the pollutants filled the Animas was itself leaking. The personnel were looking at the mine because of the pollutants that were seeping into the surrounding areas.

    “These are historic abandoned mines that have had acid drainage for decades. That is the very reason why we were up there,” EPA regional chief McGrath said. “We were trying to reach that drainage coming off the Gold King Mine. They were trying to put in a treatment system.”

    States of Emergency

    The spill of pollutants has prompted areas to declares states of emergency. On Sunday, La Plata County and the City of Durango, both in Colorado, declared a state of emergency.

    San Juan County in New Mexico declared a state of emergency this weekend as well.

    The Navajo Nation declared a state of emergency and has already announced intentions to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the spill that has disrupted life in the Four Corners area.

    The state of New Mexico also will file suit.

    Gov. Susana Martinez was the latest to declare a state of emergency, doing so Monday afternoon.

    And one bonus thing, from another mine spill from over three decades ago.

    Church Rock uranium mine spill

    The Animas River spill is massive, but the 3 million gallons pales in comparison to another spill that slammed the Navajo Nation, 36 years ago.

    A spill of radioactive material from the Church Rock Uranium Mine in 1979 leaked 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Rio Puerco.

    New Mexico In Depth wrote about the spill last year, shortly before the 35th anniversary of the spill.

    The radioactive material was a mixture of water and mill tailings, leftovers that retained toxic contaminants from the mining process that converted mined uranium into yellow slurry, known as yellow cake. The tailings were “placed in unlined evaporation ponds at the mill site,” the report says, meaning the radioactive goop that washed into the Puerco River and flowed through communities downstream was a public health hazard.

    In 2009, shortly after the 30th anniversary of the spill, the Navajo Times wrote about the disaster, noting the health effects that have continued to impact the area decades later.

    The Navajo Times story says the radioactivity was so bad that those who stepped in the water had blisters and and burns on their feet.

    More Animas River watershed coverage here.

    The August 2015 ‘Headwaters Pulse’ is hot off the presses

    Denver City Park sunrise
    Denver City Park sunrise

    Click here to read the current issue. Here’s an excerpt:

    If Colorado’s population grows by adding another three to four million people at mid-century, changes will occur in how our land is used. Today’s population hovers at 5.3 million and a few million more residents means Colorado’s cities, suburbs and country estates will inevitably spill onto today’s farms and pastures.

    But how will they spill? And how will Colorado’s existing towns and cities reinvent themselves? Those are among the questions as Colorado peers toward the bottom of its water bucket, trying to calculate how revised land use can help bridge the gap between water supplies and expectations… it’s a golden opportunity to rethink the way we grow in Colorado. Read the full story, “From the Ground Up” in the new issue of Headwaters magazine here.

    More CFWE coverage here.