Constant cleanup key to preserving river — the Vail Daily

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

From the Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

For longtime valley residents, the recent mine waste spill into the Animas River near Durango prompted memories of the winter of 1989-90, when the Eagle River through Minturn ran a dull, depressing orange. Its clarity today is thanks to constant work.

The Eagle Mine — located in a tight valley between Minturn and Red Cliff — closed in 1984. After the mine closed, countless gallons of water flooded the mine works and, five years later, into the river, turning the stream orange. Locals were aghast, of course.

When the river ran orange, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already added the mine to its list of Superfund sites for closely monitored cleanup, but the extent of the problem was still being determined.


While the river today looks normal — with the exception of some of the orange-tinged boulders in the river — the cleanup continues and will into the foreseeable future.

The “responsible party” for the mine cleanup is CBS, which acquired the mine when it bought Viacom, the previous responsible party. The mine ended up in the hands of those media companies via previous acquisitions and mergers. Today, CBS still pays for much of the work, and will essentially forever. The state and federal governments are also involved.

Because water continues to seep into the mine works — a vast underground network of caverns and tunnels — contaminated water is piped out of the mine and treated at a site at Maloit Park in Minturn. About 250 gallons of water per minute comes out of the mine and is pumped into a facility that allows heavy metals to settle out. About 250 pounds of metallic sludge per day comes out of the water.

Eagle River Basin
Eagle River Basin


The Eagle River Watershed Council was created out of that environmental disaster. The group, which today looks at the entire length of the river, remains intimately involved in the continuing work at the mine.

“There’s been a lot of progress,” council director Holly Loff said. “But there could always be more.”

The biggest issue today is the age of the equipment, particularly the pipelines carrying contaminated water to the treatment plant. That pipeline, which is above ground in a harsh winter environment, sprung a handful of notable leaks a few years ago. One, in 2009, turned the river orange again for a brief period. Another, bigger spill in 2012 put 428,000 gallons of contaminated water into the river, turning it green.

When word came about those spills, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District shut off the intake to its Avon water treatment plant.

The district’s Todd Fessenden, who is in charge of drinking water treatment and supplies, said the Avon plant was built to accommodate and treat the metals in the river, but not in the concentrations seen when there’s a spill. That’s why the intakes were shut down.


Given the complexity of the mine’s treatment system, Loff said it’s important to have more and better monitoring on the pipeline and pumps, since humans can’t have their eyes on the system all the time.

“They’re moving toward real-time remote monitoring,” Loff said.

Eagle River Water & Sanitation District community affairs director Diane Johnson said the district uses remote monitors at many of its facilities, and they work well. One monitor, in a remote area without cell phone service, is linked to a satellite.

At the moment, though, sometimes the district gets some notifications the old-fashioned way — someone in town will notice something about the river and make a call.

Utes bless the Animas River — The Durango Herald

“Water is life; water is sacred,” said Southern Ute Sun Dance Chief Kenny Frost, who led a ceremony to heal the Animas River on Sunday at sunrise at Santa Rita Park in Durango
“Water is life; water is sacred,” said Southern Ute Sun Dance Chief Kenny Frost, who led a ceremony to heal the Animas River on Sunday at sunrise at Santa Rita Park in Durango

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

As the Animas River reflected the golden Sunday sunrise, Kenny Frost and Lyndreth Wall, prayed that the waterway would heal from recent heavy-metal pollution.

“Water is life; water is sacred,” said Frost, a Southern Ute Sun Dance Chief.

A heron soared over the river, as Frost and Wall, a Ute Mountain Ute, sang and prayed in Ute for the river.

About 20 people from all over the region came to be a part of the blessing at Santa Rita Park. At the same time, groups in other parts of the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada also prayed for the health of local and global waterways.

Frost hopes the blessing of the river can lead to an annual Indigenous Water Prayer Day, which would be held on the third Sunday of August. Internationally, it would draw attention to rivers and other waterways at risk from pollution. Locally, it would be a reminder of how the river ran orange this month and the potential for it to happen again.

“The danger is still there,” he said…

“We’re not going to blame anyone because we want to keep everything positive,” Frost said.

However, he did express skepticism about the safety of the river water, noting ongoing health advisories. Everyone is still advised to wash with soap and water after coming in contact with discolored river sediment.

He also highlighted the hardship that the pollution caused for those in New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation, where communities temporarily lost their water source for crops and livestock after the spill…

After songs and prayer, Frost closed the ceremony by inviting everyone to bless the river by pouring in bottles of pure water and sprinkling handfuls of crushed corn over it.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has $3 million over 3 years to fund small hydropower projects

Micro-hydroelectric plant
Micro-hydroelectric plant

From KCNF (Laura Palmisano):

Sam Anderson, an energy specialist with the department, explains how the program works.

“This entails converting existing irrigated lands to pressurized irrigation such as a center pivot,” Anderson says. “It would include installing hydropower equipment to power that equipment or provide electricity to the grid that would offset their energy costs for their agricultural operations.”

He says right now there’s $100,000 available for two projects, but more funding will be offered in the future.

“Our program has a budget of $3 million over the next four years,” Anderson says. “And, we plan to do 30 of these projects. So on average there will be about $80,000 per project available to the farmers for technical assistance and financial assistance.”

He says the goal of the program is to help farmers use water more efficiently and reduce their energy costs.

Earlier this year, the state received $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for the initiative.

Anderson says people interested in applying should contact their local NRCS office.

The deadline for applications for the first round of funding is Aug. 17th.

Some Larimer County post-September 2013 flood permanent road repairs still 2-2.5 years out

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Nick Coltrain):

Nearly two years after the September 2013 floods, permanent repairs are still ongoing — and in some cases just starting — on mountain roads scoured by roiling waters.

Gov. John Hickenlooper famously promised to reopen highways washed away within three months of the floods, a promise kept by the Colorado Department of Transportation. Hundreds of millions of dollars, most coming from the federal government, have poured into the mountain roads west of Fort Collins since then, making construction cones seem like permanent fixtures to those venturing above the foothills.

On Tuesday, another section of road was added to the to-do list of Northern Colorado road crews when the Larimer County Commission voted to repave an 800-foot stretch of road in Drake to grant more permanent access to a CDOT repair shop. It’s part of more than a dozen sites being handled by a contractor at a cost of about $700,000 — a drop in the bucket of $120 million in road repairs being overseen by Larimer County.

The county is on the hook for $10 million of those costs, with the majority covered by various federal agencies. The state is matching the county’s contribution.

“Everyone has access, so now it’s all about bringing those roads back up to pre-flood conditions, or close to it,” Assistant County Engineer Rusty McDaniel said.

McDaniel expects the permanent rebuild process, which will leave roads suitable for long-term use, to last about another two or two-and-a-half years — a similar timeline to when CDOT hopes to repair state highways that wind west of the Front Range. It’s a timeline CDOT more than defends; spokesman Jared Fiel highlighted it as ambitious.

Most projects like rebuilding U.S. Highway 34, which cuts from Loveland to Estes Park, would operate on a seven-to-10 year timeline, Fiel said.

“Obviously, you’re looking at a state highway going through a canyon where you have environmental concerns, concerns for both natural resources as well as wildlife in the area and all those things, plus you’re trying to get traffic up and down,” Fiel said.”So the whole process is actually quite daunting.”[…]

Fiel expects the permanent rebuild process to start at the end of this year, with off-road work being done in the eastern entrance to the canyon, where sheer rock walls loom over the road. That should have “very, very minimal impact” on travelers, Fiel said. More apparent — and potentially painful, to motorists at least — work could start once the winter weather clears in spring of next year.

#AnimasRiver spill: only the latest in 150 years of pollution

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

When the Tang-orange plume of acidic water and heavy metal-laden slime blasted out of a mine in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains on Aug. 5, tore through Cement Creek in Silverton, ran into the Animas River and, finally, the San Juan River some 100 miles downstream, it may have seemed like a pristine mountain stream was forever sullied.

That’s not really the case. The Animas River, as clear and clean as it may have looked just prior to the spill, lost its pristine status many years ago, soon after Anglo settlers converged on the region in the 1870s and started tearing up its mountains in search of gold and silver. Since then, the Animas and the San Juan, into which it runs, have been repeatedly battered and abused by the humans who rely on them.

The mining industry was probably the most persistent abuser of the watershed. First, there were the tailings dumped in the river, then the billions of gallons of acid mine drainage that have poured from mine adits into streams and, ultimately, into the Animas over the decades. Even after it left the region, the industry continues its abuse: Before the Gold King mine blew 3 million gallons of orange spooge into the watershed this month, it had been discharging similarly tainted water at a rate of 50 to 250 gallons per minute, or more than 100 million gallons per year, into Cement Creek.

But hardrock mining is only one of the watershed’s abusers. The Animas runs right through one of the nation’s most prolific natural gas fields, and coalbed methane wells are common on its shores. The San Juan’s muddy waters flow between two gargantuan coal-fired power plants before passing through uranium mining country and the Aneth oil field. As Dan Olson, director of the conservationist group San Juan Citizens Alliance, told journalists as they flew over the river a few days after the spill: “This is an industrialized landscape.”

It’s not just industry, either. This landscape has also been farmed, grazed and urbanized. More and more people move here every year and put more demands on the rivers, and more stuff into them. In fact, nutrient loading and bacteria levels are so high on the Animas and San Juan in northwestern New Mexico, that Dave Tomko, with the San Juan Watershed Group, was downright blasé about the orange plume moving towards his community. He figured that naturally high pH levels in the San Juan, along with extra releases from Navajo Reservoir upstream, would buffer the impacts of the acidic plume. Tomko’s major concern was for crops that would go thirsty as irrigation intakes were shut down. As far as the plume’s toxic impact, though, he said: “We’ve got bigger issues than this.”

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Both state and federal health officials say Animas water quality has returned to pre-event conditions after an estimated 3 million gallons of mining wastewater poured into the river after an error by an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew on Aug. 5. The latest water-quality data released Tuesday and Wednesday show heavy-metal and pH concentrations have returned to levels similar to before the incident.

But outstanding questions remain about the nature of sediment in the river. While water quality may have returned to normal, sediment at the bottom and along the river could still contain unhealthy levels of heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum.

“We are waiting for the results,” EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said Thursday of the sediment sampling. “When the data are available, they will be analyzed, and an assessment of longer-term risks will be made.”

State health officials are awaiting similar sediment test results.

Sampling results from the EPA released Thursday show high levels of toxic heavy metals in river water hours after last week’s spill.

The test results show water samples taken from the Animas River in the hours after the spill contained lead levels more than 200 times the acute exposure limit for aquatic life and more than 3,500 times the limit for human ingestion.

The agency stressed that contamination levels peaked after the spill but have since fallen as the pollution moved downstream and the toxic metals settled to the bottom.

The company that the EPA contracted to do the work at Gold King Mine is Environmental Restoration L.L.C., based in St. Louis, Missouri. The company declined comment. In a news release, it said it is the prime contractor for EPA’s Region 8. It acknowledged it was on site when the incident took place.

“ER honors our contractual confidentiality obligations to all of our clients, and cannot provide any additional information,” the press release said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday night it will implement a commercial water treatment system at the Gold King Mine in the wake of a spill of 3 million gallons of wastewater this month that left the agency facing immense criticism.

Many conservationists and those angered by the spill have called for some kind of water treatment in the Upper Animas Mining District, where the disaster began. Officials did not say when the system would be in place.

Leeching contaminants from several area mines have long polluted Cement Creek above Silverton and are blamed for sullying the Animas River downstream.

The district has been identified as one of the most polluted former mining areas in Colorado.

“Planning is in place for a treatment solution that includes piping discharge to a lower mine site with a better location for water treatment to continue into the fall,” the EPA said in a statement to The Denver Post. “Longer-term treatment needs and options are being evaluated.”