#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.”

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