Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This week, most of the western and northern portions of the country recorded below-normal temperatures while most of the south was above normal. Active weather from the central plains into the Midwest brought above-normal precipitation over much of the region while the dryness intensified over the south and into the Gulf Coast…
Most of the region was cooler than normal this week, with departures of 2-4 degrees below normal from northern Kansas into the Dakotas. Areas of southern Kansas and eastern Colorado were 2-4 degrees above normal for the week. Above-normal precipitation was confined mainly to portions of northern and eastern Kansas, western and central Nebraska, western and eastern South Dakota and western North Dakota, with departures of up to 3 inches above normal observed over north central Kansas. With the cooler conditions and recent rains, D0 was removed from most of Nebraska and northwest Kansas with D1 improving in Kansas as well. In the Dakotas, D0 was removed from southeast North Dakota and northeast South Dakota as well as north central South Dakota. The remaining D0 in east central South Dakota was shifted to include more of the agricultural areas west of Sioux Falls…
Cooler than normal temperatures dominated the west this last week. Most areas were normal to 5 degrees below normal for the week, with only areas of southeast New Mexico 5-10 degrees above normal. Monsoonal moisture continued to push into the southwest and into portions of Utah and Nevada. Some areas of Arizona were 2 inches above normal precipitation for this week. With the scattered rains, improvements were made to the D2 in southern California as the last several monsoons have been beneficial to this region and precipitation values are near normal over the last 3 years. Improvements were also made in northeast Utah where D1 improved to D0 this week. Continuing on the improvements started last week over northern Nevada, D2 conditions were pushed to the west, improving the D3. Nevada also showed the return of D4 in the west central portion of the state. The earlier rains in the region that allowed for D3 have since subsided and the impacts are again present, especially in the agriculture and ranching communities, allowing for D4 to expand this week. In Washington and Oregon, D3 conditions were pushed to the west as low flows on rivers and streams and warm water temperatures are impacting the region. In Idaho, D3 was expanded in the northern portion of the state where conditions continue to worsen, while some improvement to D2 was shown in the southeast as recent rains helped the region…
Over the next 5-7 days, the monsoonal moisture in the southwest is anticipated to remain in place, bringing with it up to an inch of rain over portions of New Mexico and Arizona. Some of this moisture will push up into portions of the Great Basin as well as the central and northern Rocky Mountains, where up to an inch of rain is anticipated in parts of Utah and Colorado. The active pattern will remain over the high plains and Midwest, where 2+ inches of rain are anticipated in portions of northeast Nebraska, southeast South Dakota and southwest Minnesota. The southeast will see more moisture, especially along the coastal regions where up to 3 inches is projected. Temperatures are expected to be above normal over the west, the southern plains, and the eastern third of the United States, with departures of 3-6 degrees above normal. The high plains and northern Rocky Mountains look to be 3-6 degrees below normal during the next week.
The 6-10 day outlooks show that most of the country has the potential to have good chances of above-normal temperatures, with the greatest probability over the west coast and from New England into the Mid-Atlantic. The exception to this is the high plains and Rocky Mountain region, where the best chance of below-normal temperatures is expected. The eastern half of the United States has the expectation of above-normal precipitation during the period while the area from California into the Great Basin is projected to have the probability of below-normal precipitation.
EPA is committed to working closely with response agencies and state and local officials to ensure the safety of citizens, respond to concerns and to evaluate impact to water contaminated by the spill.
EPA has deployed ten On-Scene Coordinators in Silverton, Durango and Farmington, New Mexico. Water quality experts and several technicians and contractors will respond to the discharge as it reaches communities in New Mexico.
Two Public Information Officers (PIOs) are also on site in Durango at the Joint Information Center (JIC).
In EPA’s regional office in Denver, there are 21 employees and one contractor providing support services to the response.
Several incident management team positions are being deployed to Durango.
Two Community Involvement Coordinators (CICs) were deployed to Farmington on August 9 and will meet with local Navajo chapter officials and host public meetings. The CICs will also partner with Navajo Nation EPA (NNEPA) and Navajo Department of Public Safety to ensure comprehensive outreach to all affected Navajo chapters.
We have tapped into several contracting mechanisms to provide support for the response, which includes water quality sampling, drinking water and agricultural water distribution as well as construction and maintenance of the water treatment ponds.
Water Monitoring, Sampling and Data Collection
EPA teams are deployed throughout the Animas River corridor collecting data. We collected water quality samples from nine locations in the river near intakes for Aztec, Farmington, Lower Valley Water Users Association, Morning Star Water Supply System and the North Star Water User Association. Each of these locations will continue to monitor as the release makes its way past these areas. Our Mobile Command Post arrived in Farmington on August 9. At the request of New Mexico Environmental Department (NMED), we are sending additional scientists and technicians to New Mexico to assist with water quality monitoring, sampling and outreach.
Collection, transport and lab analysis of metals in water is complex and time consuming. Workers at the lab and data experts are working continuously to evaluate and summarize the data.
The incident, which occurred on August 5, caused a spike in concentrations of total and dissolved metals as the contaminated mine water moved downstream. These concentrations began to trend toward pre-event conditions in the vicinity of the spill by the following day. We continue to monitor river conditions at multiple locations to detect trends. Rain events and variations in stream flows can cause the pH and metals concentrations to rise and fall. EPA is working with state and local government officials to determine when to reopen both drinking water intakes and open the river for recreation.
The contaminant plume is depositing sediments and we are beginning to assess the impacts of the sediment.
Mine Discharge Treatment
We are treating the mine water in a series of settling ponds constructed near the portal. The treatment appears to be effective. We are raising the pH (acidity) of the water with the addition of lime and sodium hydroxide solution to facilitate sedimentation of the metals in the ponds. We are adding flocculant agents (used in water treatment processes to improve the sedimentation or filterability of small particles) to increase the amount of sedimentation. The treated water that is being discharged to Cement Creek has a pH of 5.5.
Aerial Observation to Determine Extent of Release
EPA’s ASPECT (Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology) plane observed that the conditions from Farmington to Durango show improvement. While the San Juan River remains discolored, the leading edge of the contaminant plume is no longer visible. These visual observations are a useful indicator, however, water quality data will provide the definitive information about river conditions. Learn more about ASPECT.
Coordination among EPA Offices and with State, Local and Tribal Governments
EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, which is responsible for the implementation of our programs within Colorado, Utah and other Rocky Mountain states, is working in close coordination with:
EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, which implements our programs in New Mexico and other South Central states,
EPA’s Region 9 offices in San Francisco, which implements our programs in Arizona and in other Southwest states,
the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah,
the Southern Ute tribe and the Navajo Nation, and
San Juan County, City of Durango and Town of Silverton.
Outreach and Communication
EPA is sharing information as quickly as possible with the public as experts work to evaluate any effects the spill may have on:
fish and wildlife.
For more details, see the section below, and our regular updates on the response, which will be published as they become available.
Which Other Organizations are Involved in the Response?
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – USGS measured increased flows using a stream gauge for 6+ hours on August 9. This resulted in a provisional calculated flow volume of 3,043,067 gallons discharged from the Gold King Mine. EPA’s original estimate of one million gallons discharged from the Gold King Mine was based on an estimate of the size of the adit. A stream gauge is an instrument that measures volume by measuring flow, which is much more precise.
U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – we are coordinating with ATSDR in response to public health concerns/questions associated with the mine waste plume. ATSDR has been in communication with local health officials at San Juan Basin Health in La Plata County (Durango) and the San Juan County Health Department in Silverton, Colorado. Public health questions/concerns should be directed to Chris Poulet, ATSDR/R8 at 303-312-7013.
New Mexico Environment Department – we are working closely with the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to evaluate possible impacts in New Mexico. Potentially impacted water systems have been notified and precautions are in place to ensure drinking water in homes is protected. With NMED, we are providing free water quality testing for private drinking water well owners in the affected area as well as providing water quality monitoring for the five drinking water systems with intakes from the river.
Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office has been monitoring the effects of the spill on terrestrial and aquatic wildlife since the incident began. CPW is watching for any impacts on wildlife, whether they are acute or chronic. Fish are especially sensitive to changes in water quality. CPW is also monitoring a control station on a clean tributary. The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment is assisting with drinking water concerns. They indicated they are optimistic that the effects of the spill on terrestrial wildlife will be minimal.
Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs – Our Region 9 office in San Francisco is working with the Navajo Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The discharge has moved quickly and is in the vicinity of the Navajo Nation boundary, near Kirtland, New Mexico. Navajo officials have reacted quickly, assessing their well fields and drinking and irrigation water intake systems and issuing a precautionary “do not use” public service announcement regarding water from potentially impacted sources. The Navajo EPA surface water monitoring program (Shiprock office) collected water and sediment samples from the San Juan River, prior to the impact of the release. Region 9 provided two contractors and four additional personnel to coordinate and conduct increased sample collection and lab analysis.
Mustard-colored water in the Animas River of southwestern Colorado illustrates more than anything else the long gestation time of many environmental disasters.
The surge was unleashed last week by a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency who unwittingly breached a dike, allowing contaminated water backed up in the Gold King Mine to flood into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas. The images from the river downstream in Durango were appalling.
The makings for the disaster, however, began almost 130 years ago. Located seven miles north of Silverton at an elevation of 11,400 feet, the Gold King was among several big mines and mills clustered around a company town called Gladstone. The Gold King had a brief but productive life. The mine was staked in 1886 and the vein that made it a bonanza was identified in 1896. Until mine portals were shuttered in 1922, it produced $8 million in ore. That was more than a tenth of all production in San Juan County, according to “The Rainbow Route,” a railroad and mining history.
If a bonanza to owners, the mine was deadly to workers. Six people died of carbon dioxide drawn into the mine by a fire at the nearby boarding house. Another five people died in an avalanche, reports Scott Fetchenhier, an amateur historian and San Juan County commissioner.
Mining can be hazardous to people living downstream, too. In the 1930s, farmers along Clear Creek, northwest of Denver, complained bitterly of their irrigation water being sullied by gold miners upstream at Central City and Blackhawk, to the detriment of their crops.
Even after state and federal laws were enacted, seeking to curb pollution, we’ve continued to cut corners. When mining ended in 1979 after a century at the Eagle Mine, located a few miles from Vail, Colo., a giant mess remained. Pollution made people uncertain whether they should eat fish caught in the Eagle River.
That question was soon answered. The settlement between the mining company and Colorado regulators assumed that sealing the mine would prevent water from flowing into the rivers. The experts were wrong. By early 1990, the Eagle River looked like Kool-Aid. The fish vanished. Belatedly, the EPA was called in and, after $100 million, the pollution has largely been cleaned up. However, heavy metals must continue to be removed from water in the mine before it gets into the river. The last time I checked, in the 1990s, the plant cost $1 million a year to operate. This will continue in perpetuity.
That cost near Vail is being borne privately, by a corporate conglomerate. Not so the $155 million cleanup at Summitville, an open-pit mine in southern Colorado where cyanide was used to extract gold from low-grade ore. After the mess became public, Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
Mines from around Silverton had been causing trouble long before this spill. The Silverton Standard & Miner had reported that water quality has worsened 2005. Four of five trout species in one area had vanished.
Since 1995, the non-profit Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to address these legacy problems. It has been thwarted by absence of federal Good Samaritan legislation. Independent groups can’t afford to touch problems like the Gold King because, in case of accident, they “own the damages,” in the words of Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers, a conservation group. He explains that environmental communities worry that Good Samaritan legislation will allow big mining corporations to skip out on their responsibilities, such as occurred at Summitville.
The larger lesson derived from this giant mess in Silverton and Durango is that mining just doesn’t belong in headwaters areas, says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for American Rivers. He cites a copper-mining proposal for the Smith River in Montana. “Eventually, inevitably, the (contaminated) water will make it back to the river, whether it’s by catastrophic accident or a natural event,” he says.
I take a bigger view yet. Don’t blame the miners of 100 years ago. I have friends whose parents and grandparents worked at these mines near Silverton and Vail. They led hard lives.
But today we know better. We also know better than to pollute the atmosphere with reckless abandon, creating a bigger, denser greenhouse around the planet. Yet we keep doing it. People want 100 percent certainty. People complain about the costs. Right now, I’m wondering which would have cost more on the Animas River, prevention or cleanup.
From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown And P. Solomon Banda) via The Denver Post:
The spill of toxic wastewater from an abandoned gold mine high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains caused untold millions in economic disruptions and damages in three states — to rafting companies, Native American farmers unable to irrigate, municipal water systems and possibly water well owners. And largely because the federal government inadvertently triggered the release, it has vowed to pay the bill.
That bill could be years in the making. Attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah vowed to ensure citizens and towns are compensated for immediate and long-term damages from the spill. But Colorado’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, acknowledged it could be years before the full impact is known.
“We have to be vigilant as attorneys general, as the lawyers for the state, as protectors of the environment, to be sure that the assurances that we received today from the Environmental Protection Agency are the same in two years, in five years, even 10 years when we discover what the damage to the environment actually is,” Coffman said Wednesday after she and her counterparts gathered in Durango.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency took full responsibility for the spill, which was unleashed Aug. 5 when an EPA-supervised crew accidentally unleashed the torrent of wastewater from the Gold King mine. The plume of heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, flowed into southwest Colorado’s Animas River and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.
McCarthy also said she had ordered agency personnel across the country to cease field investigation work on abandoned mines while the spill was investigated. EPA officials said they were seeking details on what the stop-work order means.
The Gold King spill was proving devastating to the Navajo Nation, which recently negotiated a settlement giving it rights to water from the San Juan River. The tribe plans to build a $20 million water treatment plant in northwestern New Mexico to take in the extra volume of water granted by the settlement and provide a clean drinking source to more of the 16,000 families on the reservation who still haul water to their homes.
Heavy metals already were present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river,” complained Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. He said meeting EPA standards for clean drinking water could double the plant’s cost and require millions more in operating costs each year…
Current Colorado law requires a mining company to post a bond to cover the eventual cost of cleanup before a permit is issued to start operations, said Tony Waldron, supervisor of mine programs for the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. If the company fails to clean up the site when the mine closes, the state uses the bond to hire a contractor to do the work.
In most cases, the bonds have been sufficient to cover the cost of cleanup when mine operators don’t finish, Waldron said. The state has a fund it can use to make up the difference.
But the Gold King Mine isn’t covered because it was abandoned in 1923, before the law was in effect. In the absence of an owner, the federal government was working with local residents and the state to do limited mitigation work in the area around the Gold King mine — one of a cluster of old and polluted mines perched more than 11,000 feet high — when the spill occurred.
Cleanup costs alone can be staggering — and continuous.
Colorado tightened its bond requirements in the 1990s after the operator of the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co., declared bankruptcy and couldn’t complete a cleanup. Summitville became a federal Superfund site, with the EPA in charge.
The cleanup is ongoing because contaminated water continues to drain from the mine. The total cost to date is more than $100 million, according to the U.S. Geological Service.
Authorities said Wednesday that the waste from the Gold King spill will continue to be dangerous when contaminated sediment gets stirred up from the river bottom.
“There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time,” said hydrologist Tom Myers, who runs a Nevada-based consulting business. “Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”
EPA spill liaison Nat Miullo suggested the danger from the spill had diminished with the dissipation of the initial burst of tainted water. Any future spike in contaminant levels caused by stirring up sediments would be “much, much smaller in scale,” he said.
But environmental regulators in downstream New Mexico warned that it was crucial to determine where the contamination settles.
“Those are some of the longer-term issues that affect humans as well as wildlife,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said.
Seven days after her agency’s massive mine wastewater spill into a major southwest watershed, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said water quality in the Animas River through La Plata County has “returned to pre-event conditions.”
Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a boots-on-the-ground appearance Wednesday in Durango that’s expected to continue Thursday in Farmington, N.M., called the Aug. 5 incident “heartbreaking” and said the EPA “couldn’t be more sorry.”
“Right now, rest assured, we will learn lessons from this, and we will move those lessons forward in the work moving ahead,” she said of the spill of 3 million gallons at the Gold King Mine near Silverton.
In a 15-minute news conference, McCarthy said cleanup operations at similar mines throughout the country have been “put on hold” until the EPA determines how the Gold King accident happened. Speaking outside a command center, McCarthy said the EPA plans to solicit an independent investigation of the calamity.
Some Durango residents are angered that McCarthy is neither planning a trip to the Gold King Mine nor holding a public meeting. EPA officials and McCarthy said the mine — roughly a 55-mile trip, some of it over unpaved road — was too far to visit.
“As you know, it is a significant distance away, but I did visit the river. I took a look at it myself to get a sense of the river,” McCarthy said. “And I think the good news is it seems to be restoring itself, but we have continued work to do and EPA is here.”
Her appearance came after Colorado’s senators and the congressman representing Durango-area residents urged her to visit the impacted areas.
“The most important thing for me, for this trip, was to come to the unified command center,” she said, citing a necessity to meet with local and state officials to ensure that their needs are being fulfilled.
“That is my first order of business,” she added…
Just before McCarthy addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, members of the Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations released a letter they sent to President Barack Obama requesting federal resources. In the letter, the group also said the federal government should explore creating a water-treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.
While the EPA says it’s treating contaminated water still flowing from the Gold King Mine, three adjacent mines continue to release more than 540 gallons per minute of waste laced with heavy metals.
Asked about what politicians across the Southwest have complained was a slow response by the EPA to notify the public of the spill, McCarthy said, “We will address those issues as we look at the investigation. … .
“The most important thing is we are moving forward. We are fully ramped up. We have data coming in. We can assess that data.”
Wednesday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment informed the city of Durango that “drinking water treatment facilities can begin to use the Animas River to collect and treat water for customers.”
The Animas River in La Plata County, including Durango, remains closed by authorities. The county sheriff’s office has not said when it will reopen the water. Meanwhile, local businesses that rely on the Animas’ flow remain shuttered.
EPA officials Wednesday said the plume of contaminants is approaching Lake Powell in Utah and that apparatus are in place there to conduct testing.
“We are already there,” McCarthy said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, saying his state has mobilized resources.
A spokeswoman for the San Juan Basin Health Department on Wednesday said results of water testing on private wells in the area have not been returned but are expected “very soon.” A county spokeswoman says the EPA is paying for the tests.
The department earlier this week said a call center set up to answer questions and take requests for well testing was “overwhelmed.” Samples have been sent to labs in Denver and Georgia.