#AnimasRiver is getting back to normal, Cement Creek is a long-term problem with no solution

Animas River at Durango photo -- Steve Lewis via Twitter
Animas River at Durango photo — Steve Lewis via Twitter

From the Farmington Daily Times (Steve Garrison):

While experts continue to monitor conditions on the Animas River after a spill last week at the Gold King Mine in Colorado, federal officials are beginning to discuss solutions to the decades-old problem of pollution in the Upper Animas Mining District.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. lawmakers from Colorado and New Mexico called on President Barack Obama to consider devoting federal funds to building a water treatment plant on the Upper Animas River.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy told The Daily Times Wednesday the EPA needed to take a “long-term view” of the crisis.

She pointed out the EPA has long sought a Superfund designation for the Upper Animas River watershed, but has been rebuked by locals and former mine operators.

Though the Upper Animas Mining District is not a Superfund site, it’s long been the focus of remediation efforts by local, state and federal entities.

The EPA was in the process of plugging the Red & Bonita Mine when the Gold King Mine was inadvertently breached by an EPA team on Aug. 5.

The agency installed a concrete bulkhead at the Red & Bonita Mine, located upstream of the Gold King Mine, due to the threat the mine posed to human health and the environment, according to federal records.

The EPA determined in March 2013 the century-old mine was discharging approximately 300 gallons per minute of acidic water containing high concentrations of aluminum, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and zinc, the records state.

Mark Williams, a specialist in mountain hydrology and acid mine drainage at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained Wednesday in an interview that water trapped within mines such as the Red & Bonita becomes acidic by interacting with exposed sulfide, or fool’s gold. That acidic water then leeches metals from rock in the mine and that heavy-metal laden wastewater leaks into local rivers, Williams said.

Though acid drainage occurs naturally in some environments, its exacerbated by mining, which exposes the sulfide to oxygen.

Williams said he toured the Upper Animas Mining District with EPA officials in the early 2010s to discuss site remediation.

He said the EPA and its local partner, the Animas River Shareholders Group, has taken a “mine-by-mine” approach to remediation, which has made progress difficult.

Williams and other experts have said the plugging of the Sunnyside Mine in the late 1990s and early 2000s likely caused water to escape through fractures from the Sunnyside Mine into surrounding mines, including Gold King, Red & Bonita and Mogul.

The former operator of the Sunnyside Mine, Sunnyside Gold Corp., disputes that assertion, but the EPA notes in its regional risk assessment report that water discharge from the Gold King, Red & Bonita and Mogul mines increased dramatically in 2003, shortly after Sunnyside Gold Corp. finished plugging Sunnyside Mine…

Williams was skeptical that a water treatment plant would provide a long-term solution.

“Understanding the hydrology of these complicated systems is expensive, but in the long run, it’s the only method that is viable,” Williams said. “We can’t treat water forever.”

A water treatment plant operated by Sunnyside Gold Corp. was used to filter water in the Upper Animas River for years before it was shutdown in 2003 after the company prevailed in a lengthy legal battle.

Williams said any solution would take years to implement, partly because winter weather limits the work season in Silverton to the summer months…

Marcie Bidwell, executive director of Mountain Studies Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization, agreed that solutions are limited.

“One answer is to treat everything,” she said. “Another solution is to reduce what we treat by holding it in the mine.”

Simon said the lack of new solutions means he is in no hurry to embrace a Superfund designation in the Upper Animas Mining District.

“We don’t have a viable approach either way,” he said. “I think we should be finishing the characterization work and further exploration of innovative ways of treatment.”

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley and Jesse Paul):

Orange wastewater cascaded from the Gold King Mine on Thursday as heavy machinery echoed, digging a new waste pond.

Workers tossed chemicals into four existing ponds lined with plastic while Environmental Protection Agency responders walked around the cleanup site, now complete with portable toilets, a command post and pickup trucks moving in and out.

The EPA has yet to release its work order detailing precautions the crew was to take before the Aug. 5 spill. But other documents reviewed by The Denver Post show the EPA was acting on a growing awareness that state-backed work done from 1998 to 2002 on mines around Gold King had led to worsening contamination of Animas River headwaters.

The EPA was acting at Gold King after what, in an October document, the agency deemed a “time critical” effort to try to contain the increased toxic leakage — with elevated cadmium at 35 parts per billion, lead at 60 ppb and zinc at 16,000 ppb — from the nearby Red and Bonita Mine.

The state-backed work included plugging old mines with bulkheads, which state officials had allowed in a legal consent agreement with the owners of the Sunnyside Mine. The Sunnyside was one of Colorado’s largest underground mines before it closed in 1991.

Before it was plugged, flows from the Sunnyside were reported to be approximately 1,700 gallons per minute. That wastewater had backed up into other mines, causing worse toxic discharges. According to an EPA document, water quality in the Animas River had “degraded progressively since that time.”

EPA supervisor Hays Griswold, at the scene of the blowout Aug. 5, provided some details of what happened when his crew triggered a 3 million-gallon deluge of acidic wastewater laced with heavy metals.

The plan they had “couldn’t have worked,” Griswold said in a Denver Post interview. “Nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high.”[…]

Griswold said the crew was working at Gold King after looking at other nearby mines, to understand how to drain Gold King using a pipe. The mine’s opening was blocked by loose dirt and rock.

It was unclear whether a drainage pipe already was in place.

San Juan Corp. president Todd Hennis, who bought the Gold King in 2005 and said he has looked at but never touched the portal of the mine, was aware of EPA intervention at the site.

Hennis said EPA crews began work last year on Gold King for fear it was filling up with acidic wastewater and had covered the main portal (elevation 11,458 feet) with dirt.

“Last year, they piled a large amount of dirt on the portal to prevent a blowout during the winter,” Hennis said, “figuring they would come back (in 2015) and re-open it.”

EPA-run crews had begun to install waste ponds at the nearby Red and Bonita Mine to try to trap toxic contaminants before they reached Cement Creek, where fish have disappeared.

Griswold said his crew’s main intention last week was to work on the Red and Bonita Mine and that they had just gone to investigate the Gold King.

They started to dig away the dirt at the Gold King portal, where, Griswold said, weak rock around the portal had been collapsing.

“We were just investigating where we could put the pipe. We’d been digging out the debris, clearing the area out,” he said, noting they were using a backhoe.

“We had found the hard rock I wanted to find overhead,” he said. They stopped for a moment, shortly before 10:30 a.m.

“And all of a sudden, there was a little spurt from the top.”

And then the mine blew.

“All that was holding it back was the dirt. The dirt just wasn’t going to hold,” Griswold said.

When a Durango resident last week asked for the work order, EPA chiefs acknowledged it was not accessible and said they would make it available. The Denver Post has been asking repeatedly for the work order. But despite promises, the EPA has not released it.

Colorado’s director of abandoned mines reclamation work, Bruce Stover, said he was not at Gold King at the time of the blowout but recently looked at mines in the area in a technical support role to the EPA…

Griswold said Thursday the cleanup crews need to work quickly before winter, when avalanches, freezing temperatures and an eventual spring snowmelt could complicate their work.

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