Navajo Nation says it feels brunt of Colorado mine leak — The Pueblo Chieftain

Animas River August 9, 2015 photo via The Durango Herald

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan and Ellen Knickmeyer) via the (The Pueblo Chieftain:

Russell Begaye stared at the yellow water that keeps pouring out of a hole in the side of a Colorado mountain, racing down a slope and dumping heavy metals into rivers critical to survival on the nation’s largest Native American reservation and across the Southwest.

At the Gold King Mine, Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, couldn’t help but see the concerned faces of his people — the farmers who can’t water their corn now, and the ranchers scrambling to keep their cattle, sheep and goats away from the polluted San Juan River.

“We were told that the water was clearing up and getting back to normal,” he said. “This is what EPA was telling us. We wanted to go up there as close as we could to the source. We wanted our people to see the water is still yellow.”

Climbing unannounced past barriers and up the mountain, Begaye and a small contingent of Navajo officials got a closer look over the weekend at the mine blowout sending more than 3 million gallons of water laden with lead, arsenic and other metals into Cement Creek, then down the Animas River and into the San Juan River.

A 100-mile-long plume has since traveled for hundreds of miles, through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah on the way to Lake Powell, a key source of water for the Southwest. And the yellow sludge has been diluted along the way to the point of transparency, but authorities were still concerned about potentially toxic metals in the plume.

Yellow sludge still poured Wednesday from its source at the mine, 11,300 feet high in the Rockies, where an EPA cleanup crew hastily built a series of four sedimentation ponds by moving small mounds of earth covered in plastic.

EPA officials said Wednesday that these ponds aren’t retaining the flow, but they are reducing acidity levels and removing dissolved metals from the water from the runoff flowing into Cement Creek. That flow continues at pre-spill levels of about 213 gallons per minute, but is spreading less contamination than it did before last week’s accident.

Signs are now posted warning people to stay out of the water. Farmers have stopped irrigating and communities have closed water intake systems. Bottled water on the Navajo Nation is becoming scarce.

Begaye said his tribe is bearing the brunt of the massive spill that was accidentally unleashed by EPA workers inspecting the long-idled mine above Silverton, Colorado, on Aug. 5. Two-thirds of the San Juan River crosses Navajo land before reaching Lake Powell.

“This is a huge issue,” Begaye said. “This river, the San Juan, is our lifeline, not only in a spiritual sense but also it’s an economic base that sustains the people that live along the river.

“When EPA is saying to me it’s going to take decades to clean this up, that is how long uncertainty will exist as we drink the water, as we farm the land, as we put our livestock out there near the river,” he said. “That is just, to me, a disaster of a huge proportion.”

Frustration is mounting throughout the Four Corners region among officials and residents who say the EPA has moved too slowly and hasn’t been forthcoming about the dangers of the spill. The Navajo Nation feels even more slighted given its status as a federally recognized tribe and sovereign nation.

Begaye said he has yet to receive a call from President Barack Obama. “It seems like the Obama administration just closed their doors and disappeared,” he said.

On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy planned to tour sites in New Mexico and Colorado affected by the spill. She called it a tragic and unfortunate incident, saying the EPA was taking responsibility to ensure the mess was cleaned up.

“I am absolutely, deeply sorry that this ever happened,” she said Tuesday in Washington.

The EPA has said the current flows are too fast for the contaminants to pose an immediate health threat, and that the heavy metals will likely be diluted over time so they don’t pose a longer-term threat, either.

Tests show some of the metals have settled to the bottom of the rivers and would dissolve only if conditions became acidic, which experts say isn’t likely.

Fish testing was going on Tuesday in the Animas River near Durango, Colorado, with biologists working to determine the leak’s impact on fish.

“We didn’t have a big fish kill in the river,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The one thing we don’t know is sort of long term impacts to the aquatic community out here in general.”

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper visited a contaminated stretch of the Animas and said he hopes a “silver lining” to the disaster will be a more aggressive state and federal effort to deal with mining’s “legacy of pollution” across the West.

On the Navajo Nation, some 30,000 acres of crops are in danger without irrigation. Farmers also worry about contaminating their irrigation ditches once the gates are reopened, and ranchers are looking for assurances that livestock won’t be exposed to contaminants each time they wade into the river and kick up sediment while getting a drink.

Navajo farmers are in the middle of alfalfa season and without rain, tribal officials say they will be in trouble. They have been flooding the airwaves and social media with Navajo-language public service announcements to keep people updated.

Federal officials have said they are working to review and analyze data gathered from samples taken along the two rivers.

McCarthy said Tuesday that initial results show high levels of contaminants in the water have been diminishing as the plume moves downstream. Workers have built four ponds at the mine site to capture and treat additional discharges, she said.

Heavy metals from Gold King and other defunct mines in Colorado have been leaching out and killing fish and other species for decades as rain and snowmelt spills from abandoned, exposed sites.

The EPA has considered making part of the Animas River in Colorado a Superfund site for a quarter-century.

The designation would have provided more resources for a cleanup, but some people in Colorado opposed the status, fearing the stigma and federal strings attached, so the EPA agreed to allow local officials to lead cleanup efforts instead.



Weekly Climate, Water and Drought Assessment of the Upper #ColoradoRiver Basin #COriver

Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation as a percent of normal Federal water year 2015 thru July 31, 2015
Upper Colorado River Basin precipitation as a percent of normal Federal water year 2015 thru July 31, 2015

Click here to read the current assessment. Click here to go to the NIDIS website hosted by the Colorado Climate Center.

#AnimasRiver could focus more effort on mine cleanups

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 Denver Post (Scott Willoughby):

There is good news — believe it or not — bad news and, most significant, revealing news seeping out along with the acidic heavy metals flooding into the Animas River basin this week.

The bad news, as most are by now aware, comes in the form of the sludgy orange cocktail of arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals that poured into Cement Creek and the Animas on Thursday after an EPA crew accidentally triggered a blowout of the Gold King Mine near Silverton. An estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater flooded into the river and took the water well beyond the state water quality levels for several heavy metals, especially lead, which measured at an astounding 5,720 parts per billion (ppb) shortly after the spill. The acceptable threshold for the state’s domestic water quality standard is 50 ppb.

Comparably elevated levels of cadmium, arsenic, iron, copper and manganese were recorded at a location 15 miles north of Durango a day after the Gold King blowout, although the levels of acidity had been severely lowered and contamination is expected to be further diluted over time.

And so begins the upbeat element of the report out of southwest Colorado. Better still is that the initial impacts to fish swimming in the Animas near Durango do not yet appear to be severely detrimental. Only one of 108 caged fish placed in the river by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials died during the first 24 hours in the mustard-yellow water. Monitoring of macro-invertebrates in the river has been similarly positive, although that could clearly change as sediment settles on the riverbed.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife broadcast video Tuesday of fingerling rainbow trout introduced in the Animas River just before the big plume of contaminated water hit Thursday. Five days after the spill, the fish “appear to be in pretty good shape,” a CPW biologist said. The fish will now be submitted for analysis of heavy metal accumulation as on-site teams assess impacts of heavy metals on the river over the next several weeks if not months.

Although the long-term repercussions remain to be determined, the greater impact may prove to be that of perceptions.

Local fly-fishing shops already have reported being inundated with phone calls from people considering canceling their fishing trips to Durango, unaware of multiple other available fishing options in the region.

This is far from the first time heavy metals have spilled into the Animas River. Despite its Gold Medal trout fishing designation in the heart of Durango, the fishery has suffered for decades due to mine seepage, and annual stocking is necessary to sustain fish populations.

From the Farmington Daily-Times (Steve Garrison):

[Mark Esper] said the red rocks in Cement Creek have always been red and life in the creek and the Animas River in that area has always been scarce.

That is because for decades the mines in the Upper Animas district have leaked acidic water laced with various heavy metals into Cement Creek, the result of almost a century of mining in the region.

And for decades, state and federal officials have talked about cleaning up the site using federal funds, but have faced opposition from local residents and mining companies.

Although many Silverton residents remain skeptical of the Environmental Protection Agency, some say it’s time for a federal clean up.

“We knew there was a problem at Gladstone (a ghost town near the mine),” said Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society. “And we knew that we needed to deal with it. But we didn’t deal with it.”

Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said state officials began investigating water quality in Cement Creek in 1989 after discovering that aquatic life was nearly nonexistent in the river.

He said after extensive water quality testing, the EPA was ready to add the entire Upper Animas River watershed to the Superfund National Priorities List by 1994.

The Superfund was created through federal law in 1980 as a way to address abandoned hazardous waste sites that threaten public health or the environment.

The law provides federal funds to the EPA to perform long-term remediation of toxic sites and also seek compensation from parties liable for causing the damage.

The last active operation in the region, Sunnyside Mine, closed in 1991, Simon said, but the mining companies continued to oppose the Superfund designation long after, fearing that they would be held responsible for cleaning up the mine waste.

Simon said many local residents did not support the designation either, fearing it would discourage future mining projects and tourism.

On Monday, Chairman Ernest Kuhlman of the San Juan County (Colo.) Board of Commissioners explained the town’s attitude toward the Superfund thus: “It retires mining, for one thing, and it retires tourism, for another.”

Kuhlman said he remains skeptical of the Superfund designation, despite last week’s spill, but wanted to know the EPA’s plan for the site…

Simon said local residents, mine owners and operators, and others opposed to the federal designation formed the Animas River Stakeholders Group in 1994 to retain local control over what water standards were implemented.

Though the Superfund designation was avoided, the threat of litigation had an impact — Sunnyside Gold Corporation, a former mine operator, signed a consent decree in 1996 with the state of Colorado to continue to operate a water treatment plant on Cement Creek and clean up several abandoned mines in the Upper Animas Mining District.

In exchange, Sunnyside Gold Corp. would be allowed to plug the Sunnyside Mine, located near Gold King Mine, and end its clean-up responsibility in the region.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. completed about 17 remediation projects in the Upper Animas Mining District by 1999, according to the stakeholders group’s website.

The corporation installed concrete bulkheads in the Sunnyside Mine between 1996 and 2002, which closed the mine and stopped the discharge of hundreds of gallons of polluted water.

However, Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine and neighboring Mogul Mine, said Tuesday the plug didn’t actually stop the water.

“The Sunnyside water is going by various paths, faults, fissures, etc. and coming out the neighboring mine properties,” Hennis said.

Hennis said that Gold King Mine, until 2003, was discharging 7 gallons of polluted water per minute.

After 2003, Gold King Mine, Red & Bonita Mine and Mogul Mine began discharging hundreds of gallons per minute, according to EPA records.

After a lengthy court battle involving Hennis, Sunnyside Gold Corp. discharged its obligation to maintain the Cement Creek water treatment plant, which was shutdown.

With polluted waters pouring from several mines and no plant to treat it, the water in the upper Animas River began to degrade significantly.

“I have been begging Kinross (current owner of Sunnyside Gold Corp.) to step forward voluntarily and be proactive and address the issues,” Hennis said. “They were trying to get out of any potential liability at a very cheap price.”

Kinross issued a statement Tuesday.

The company described last week’s spill as a “very unfortunate incident,” but denied any involvement.

“Sunnyside mine workings have no physical connection to the Gold King and such a connection never existed,” according to the statement. “Sunnyside is not the cause of the water build up at Gold King.”

Marcie Bidwell is executive director of the Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization that has been involved in monitoring river changes since last week’s discharge.

She said Tuesday it was “very possible” that runoff from Sunnyside Mine escaped through fractures into nearby mines.

Since 2008, Simon said the EPA has talked about a “targeted” Superfund limited to the Upper Animas Mining District. Sunnyside Gold Corp., a member of Animas River Stakeholders Group, offered $6.5 million to address water quality issues in the targeted area.

The catch, according to Simon, was the EPA had to release Sunnyside Mine Corp. from liability.

“The EPA has not really bought off on that,” Simon said. “But the money is still there and the EPA recently requested they do some (remediation work) and pay for it from the $6.5 million fund, which is supposed to have risen to $10 million in that amount of time.”

According to Simon, the EPA has not agreed to release Sunnyside from liability.

Hennis said $10 million is not nearly enough to adequately remediate the mining district.

Simon said that since the Gold King Mine spill, he has reflected on his organization’s previous opposition to the Superfund designation.

“We were dead set against Superfund at the time, but I would not say that is the case now,” Simon said.

Martin Hestmark, assistant regional director for EPA’s Region 8, said Monday that he is talking with stakeholders about solutions, which may include building a new water treatment plant.

He said he does not regret that his agency was not more aggressive in seeking a Superfund designation for the site.

“It’s important that the affected communities be supportive,” he said. “That is an evolving process.”

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, Kathy Green, said the decision is up to the community.

“At this point, (Hickenlooper) plans to continue to work with the EPA and the community on response and recovery for the area, and in addressing other mines in the state,” Green said.

Larry and Cheryl Markwell own the Hungry Moose Bar and Grill in Silverton, which opened a year ago this month.

Both husband and wife described the Gold King Mine spill as a tragedy and said they were open to solutions.

“We have people that fish, canoe and raft (in Silverton),” Larry Markwell said. “If people aren’t in the water, they won’t be coming to eat.

Cheryl Markwell said the town was plagued by problems, including a housing shortage and expensive utilities.

“This town is full of talk,” Cheryl Markwell said. “It’s a town that needs to act.”

Southern Delivery System testing to start up next month

Southern Delivery System route map -- Graphic / Reclamation
Southern Delivery System route map — Graphic / Reclamation

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Billie Stanton Anleu):

Decades of planning and an $829 million investment in Colorado Springs Utilities’ biggest water project ever will be put to the test next month, and the folks behind the Southern Delivery System can’t wait.

Like children anticipating new bicycles for Christmas, project leaders are eager – not anxious – for the tests to begin. Their confidence is matched only by their pride in the project…

The water will flow from the Pueblo Dam through three new pump stations to a 100-acre water treatment plant built in Colorado Springs. The plant’s developed area alone could hold 77 football fields, noted Kim Mutchler, of CSU government and corporate affairs.

The entire system is to begin water delivery next April. But before it does, more tests will be done through September and October.

Since pipeline construction began in 2011, every piece of pipeline has been tested upon arrival, with each section water-tested once installed. Pump station testing started in July and is continuing into the fall, and small tests have been done for several months at the treatment plant.

Next month, tests are expected to begin sending water through multiple stages of treatment. Then several system-wide tests will be done through the fall before SDS starts serving customers next year…

Some of the biggest savings, says SDS Program Director John Fredell, came from the 3.62 percent interest rate on $180 million in 40-year bonds issued in September 2010. In all, $475 million in bonds have been issued.

But unforeseen cost cuts came, too, as engineers and others reviewed completed designs and plans, then unabashedly pointed to better, less expensive ways to accomplish what needed to be done.

To wit:

– The sprawling campus envisioned for the water treatment plant and its 10 million-gallon tank was reconfigured to put all essential functions under one roof, saving 4 miles of piping and more than $65 million.

– A contract engineer from the Broomfield-based MWH insisted that the three pump stations could be built for under $100 million, contrary to the contractor’s contention. So the project was rebid and built for $75 million. “Those are the benefits of having a really experienced engineer on your projects,” Fredell said.

– Several million more dollars were saved when a program leader noted that single welds instead of double welds could be used on pipes not handling high pressure.

– Another $10 million was saved when Dan Higgins, then the SDS construction manager, decided the pipeline beneath I-25 and Fountain Creek should be one long tunnel rather than a series of short tunnels using extensive open trenches, as envisioned by a consulting engineer. The new method also minimized impacts to floodplains, wetlands and mature trees.

SDS leaders also changed the type of pumps used, opting for more expensive $1 million vertical pumps – 11 in all – that will last longer, have lower electric costs and produce a higher discharge pressure, so another pump station didn’t have to be built in Pueblo.

“The most expensive commodity is electricity to push the water,” Fredell said.

But the humongous project also has brought financial benefits hidden to the casual observer.

When the SDS started in 2009, along with the recession, “We wanted this to be our own stimulus,” Fredell said. “We went on the road to Pueblo and El Paso and Fremont counties and did workshops on how to work with us.

Last section of pipe for Southern Delivery System photo via The Colorado Springs Gazette
Last section of pipe for Southern Delivery System photo via The Colorado Springs Gazette

“Only one company in Colorado can build this size diameter pipe. We got other companies from out of state to bid. But they (the Colorado firm) got over $100 million worth of business during the recession. This project helped keep them from having layoffs.”

Contracts set a goal of giving 30 percent of business to Colorado companies, with a penalty for those that didn’t.

“They’ve exceeded the local spend,” Fredell said. “We’ve had over 300 Colorado companies involved and spent $650 million through June, total, and $550 million has stayed in Colorado – $269 million to employers in El Paso County” plus $73 million in Pueblo County and $208 million elsewhere in the state.

The toughest part of the project has been the permitting and planning, he said, with more than 200 major permits obtained, and about 350 total.

The greatest challenges there were creating the 3,000-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which took five years, and obtaining the 1041 Permit from Pueblo County.

The EIS was handled by Keith Riley, SDS deputy program director for CSU, with help from Bill Van Derveer, assistant SDS program director with MWH.

“The two of them were just brilliant in the way they approached it, got the science for the EIS, got all the people together, and worked well with all the agencies, including the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency),” Fredell said.

Two other key players, both now retired from CSU, were Gary Bostrom, chief water services officer, and Bruce McCormick, also a water services officer.

“That’s one of the things I’m proudest of, the people we’ve had work on this thing. They were just ingenious,” Fredell said. “The credit goes to people like that.

“This project has been so much fun. I’ve gotten all my white hair on this project. It’s definitely challenged everybody.”

Colorado Springs’ Seven Falls gets a new look and new features as it reopens after 2 years — The Colorado Springs Gazette

Seven Falls photo via
Seven Falls photo via

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Rich Laden):

The five-star Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs has spent $12 million to buy, rebuild and makeover the property that’s been one of the Pikes Peak region’s marquee tourist attractions.

The hotel has added picnic areas, a mining-themed restaurant and even zip-line courses – all with the goal of transforming Seven Falls into an attraction with a broader appeal to residents, tourists and hotel guests.

“It’s designed to be a multi-hour experience and not just something where you come in and look at the falls and you’re done,” said Broadmoor president and CEO Jack Damioli.

“We’ve taken a look at Seven Falls and reimagined it and came up with the beautiful, historical natural attraction, a fine restaurant and then this soaring adventure (zip-line courses), which will appeal to a different generation and those seeking more adventurous activities,” he said. “It’s not the old Seven Falls anymore.”

Seven Falls, in South Cheyenne Canyon on the Springs’ southwest side, dates to the 1880s. Oilman Al Hill bought Seven Falls in 1946, and his family owned it until last year. Seven Falls was known primarily for its scenic waterfalls – cascading down 181 feet of sheer granite cliffs – and the canyon, which has been billed as “the grandest mile of scenery” in Colorado.

In September 2013, torrential rains destroyed hiking trails, washed away a viewing platform at the foot of the falls, sent debris and sediment rushing through the area and caused other extensive damage that forced Seven Falls’ closure.

“When the flood came through, it cleaned the canyon out,” Damioli said. “The water came down and everything just flowed straight downhill and took everything in its path with it.”

The Broadmoor announced in April 2014 it was buying Seven Falls, and completed the deal a year ago – and has renamed the property as The Broadmoor Seven Falls. The purchase added another piece to what the hotel calls its wilderness experience.

2015 Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year Award awarded to Eaton farmer Rod Weimer

Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM
Subsurface irrigation via NETAFIM

From The Greeley Tribune (Bridgett Weaver):

Before installing a drip irrigation system at Fagerberg Produce, Rod Weimer said he didn’t know anything about computers.

More than 15 years later, Weimer is a whiz with the smartphone app that controls the irrigation in 850 acres of Fagerberg Produce fields, which he manages.

“My first thought was, ‘I don’t even know how to turn on a computer. How am I going to be able to do this?’ ” he said. “With the help of my daughters, I learned how to work the computers. Today, it’s like I knew it all my life.”

The Netafim subsurface drip irrigation system was installed at Fagerberg Produce in 1998, and it was the first of its kind in the state.

It still draws many visitors who want to learn more about the irrigation method, including an annual visit by some of Colorado State University’s agriculture studies students.

For his efforts in introducing Fagerberg Produce and the rest of Colorado to the drip irrigation system, Weimer last month was awarded the 2015 Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year Award at the InfoAg Conference held in St. Louis, Mo.

Weimer, who lives in Eaton, was chosen out of farmers nominated from all over the country to receive the award from the PrecisionAg Institute.

PrecisionAg is described on its website as a diversified, independent media enterprise serving the global community using precision agriculture techniques — adjusting production inputs and practices based on in-field variability, typically through use of geographic positioning systems and other technologies

The Farmer of the Year award was won in partnership with Fagerberg Produce, a fact Weimer is always sure to highlight.

“Without the company, I wouldn’t have the resources to do what we did,” he said.

Fagerberg Produce owner Lynn Fagerberg has been extremely supportive of the whole project, he said.

“It’s so important to have an owner who allows you the resources and then it’s up to us to work,” Weimer said. “They give us those resources and trust us to do our jobs.”

The drip irrigation job wasn’t a short or simple undertaking, Weimer said.

In Colorado and westward — where farms fight for every drop of water to grow good produce — that water saving is important.

The Netafim system saves about 40 percent of the water output for the fields in which it sits, and it’s easy to manage.

“We’re running five farms in the 850 acres off my phone,” he said. “I can travel anywhere in the world and still access it.”

The system allows for more fields planted in drought years. Fields with drip irrigation typically see high yields and better crop quality, Weimer said.

He first heard of the systems at a Colorado State University event more than 17 years ago.

“From that point on I started researching drip, and I flew across the United States trying to find a system that would fit our needs,” he said.

In the late ’90s, it wasn’t easy to find such a technologically advanced system. In a time before a smart phone could be found in every pocket, the irrigation system relied on GPS and remote signals.

In the beginning, the innovation was taking place in Fresno, Calif., and most of the companies driving the technology didn’t want to set them up in Colorado because there was no service team nearby.

“Finally, after being very persistent I had a company that supported me and flew out and did a training on GPS so we could support it ourselves,” Weimer said.

He said it was scary, of course, but worth the effort.

Technology has improved through the years, and Weimer was able to evolve from running the system only from his personal computer to his smart phone today.

“It keeps changing and we keep adding,” Weimer said. “Every time there is a change, something new, something better, we add it.”

Weimer grew up in Kersey, and he’s been on a farm since birth, so he knew the importance of water conservation from a young age.

“I’ve always loved it,” he said. “I love playing in the dirt. I love seeing Mother Nature let you grow something fantastic.”

He’s been with Fagerberg Produce for nearly 28 years, and he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I really want to stress that, yeah, it’s my name on the award and I won Farmer of the Year, but it’s a company involvement,” he said.

Those first few years of adjusting to the drip irrigation were a bit scary, but ultimately, Weimer said they made the right choice.

He said the first time they turned it on, there were leaks everywhere thanks to some hungry field mice.

“I think my neighbors thought we were crazy,” he said. “There was a learning curve.”

But they quickly worked out the kinks, and the system has been smooth sailing since.

“Lynn Fagerberg and myself, we’ve always been excited for change,” he said. “If you don’t keep up with the time — with the technology that’s available — it’s going to be hard to survive.”

“This is a means of survival for us.”