Weeks after 3 million gallons of heavy metals-laden toxic waste from the Gold King Mine in Colorado traveled down the Animas and San Juan rivers, many business leaders in San Juan County say the local economy dodged a bullet — more or less.
Raymond Johnston, owner of the Float ‘N Fish Fly Shop and Guide Service at Navajo Dam, said that aside from an uptick in phone calls from people asking about conditions at the Quality Waters section of the San Juan, his business remained fairly steady.
“I couldn’t really tell any difference, but I did have quite a few phone calls,” Johnston said. “Mostly calls from people back east who had guide trips planned, and they were really freaked out. It didn’t affect us financially, but there was a lot of concern.”
Johnson, a fourth-generation Aztec resident, said he has seen incidents like the Gold King Mine spill before.
“This is the third time in my lifetime,” he said of such river-pollution events. “The other two times, it wasn’t any big tailings. But, you know, Aztec has been drinking polluted Durango sewage for 100 years, so we’re used to something.”
But just three miles downstream on the San Juan River, Larry Johnson tells a different story.
Johnson’s Soaring Eagle Lodge — which is the only private riverfront lodge on the San Juan River and offers lodging, meals, guide services, fly fishing instruction, float trips and private river access for its clients — took a sizeable hit.
That was not so much from the pollution, but, as Johnson explained, from the perception of pollution.
“It’s ironic, (the water in the river) is the clearest I’ve ever seen it right now,” Johnson said after getting back from giving a fishing guide tour for charity on Friday. “No, we haven’t been harmed by the spill, I told people. We’re conservationists, not environmentalists. We’re stewards of the river, and we were disheartened by the (mine spill).”
Swiping at the EPA was easy enough, but context matters in river spills
It was the cheap story, and none less than the Economist ran with it this week in recapping the mine spill into the waterways of Southwestern Colorado. “Arsenic and lost face,” was the headline over a short story about the troubles stirred up after a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency breached a dam holding back the Kool-Aid-looking water in the Gold King Mine above Silverton.
Plenty of people piled on the EPA after the Aug. 5 spill. It seems lots of people hate the EPA—and this was before the Clean Power Plan. “To be accused of unconstitutional overreach is unfortunate,” concluded the Economist. “To give proof of incompetence when faced with such an accusation is unforgivable.”
But the Durango Herald may have been much closer to the truth of the situation when, only a day after the fouled waters reached Durango, it described the EPA as the one “left holding the hot potato.”
Indeed, Silverton and San Juan County had resisted a Superfund designation, afraid of the bad publicity for the community. Instead, there had been what the Herald described as a “piecemeal cleanup effort. …It was a compromise and gamble,” the newspaper went on to say. “It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.”
The lesson along the I-70 corridor in Colorado is that the EPA has managed to achieve cleanups where others have bumbled or done nothing. Consider the Eagle Mine, between Minturn and Red Cliff, just around the corner from Vail. Mining ended there in the late 1970s after a century. The mess was designated a Superfund site. But by the winter of 1989-90, the Eagle River looked much like the Animas River of a couple weeks ago. State officials had signed off on a low-cost gamble of their own, sealing the Eagle Mine. This lower-cost solution didn’t work. Water contaminated by heavy metals in the mine escaped into the river. At one point, snow at the Beaver Creek Resort, manufactured with water drawn from the Eagle River, had a faint orange hue. It wasn’t a year the Denver Broncos were going to the Super Bowl. Then the EPA was called in. Things got fixed—more or less.
That even a well-funded cleanup continues to have problems should be sobering. This week, Todd Fessenden, board president of the Eagle Mine Limited, a group charged with disseminating technical information in ways the layman can understand, sent an e-mail to elected officials in Eagle County assessing the river conditions there, in the wake of the Animals spill.
“What you may not know is that we’ve had more than a dozen spills of heavy metal-laden mine water, or partially treated mine water, in the last 6 years,” he wrote. “Those spills have ranged in magnitude from 0.5 gallons per minute to 428,000 gallons over a 23-hour period. I’ve personally seen the Eagle River run green and the same shade of orange the Animas turned in the last 6 years.”
Still, the river is much better now. Vail seems to have survived just fine, despite the presence of the EPA.
In Summit County, the Pennsylvania Mine was a long-time mess. It’s in Peru Gulch, not far from the A-Basin ski area, and upstream from Keystone. The original miners had been gone many decades. A couple had purchased the property for back taxes but, realizing the problems, couldn’t unload it. Nobody else would touch it either, because of the liability if something went wrong.
But progress has been made in recent years. The mine less than a decade ago was running red downstream to Keystone and into Dillon Reservoir. It was, as the Summit Daily News noted in a story last week, long one of the most toxic abandoned mines in the state.
Again, the EPA’s involvement was crucial for making progress. By stepping in, explained Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-site coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine, the EPA takes on liability. With the EPA involved, the state will step in and do work, too. “When bad things happen, it becomes the EPA’s fault,” he explained.
And things can go wrong. “It’s like working on the bomb squad. You have a set of techniques, but, every now and then, the bomb goes off,” he said.
Jeff Graves, the senior project manager for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the potential for a “catastrophic release, surge event, whatever you want to call it, will be significantly reduced if not eliminated” by late September.
The Pennsylvania Mine currently puts 12,000 pounds annually of zinc into Peru Creek. No fish can be found in the creek nor in the Snake River downstream as far as Keystone, where the pollution is diluted. But if not as bad as the Pennsylvania Mine, more than 100 abandoned mines remains in the Snake and Blue River watersheds.
Reviewing the Animas pollution, Wyatt laments the “finger-pointing without putting what happened (at Silverton) into context.” The mining history above Silverton was difficult, with the mines interconnected and covering a broad area.
Lynn Padgett, a geologist, has been studying abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains since 1990. Elected a Ouray County commissioner in 2009, but has kept after her interest, most recently appearing before a committee of Club 20 meeting in Lake City in support of Good Samaritan legislation.
Good Samaritan legislation would allow third parties to step in and clean up a mine site without incurring liability if something goes wrong, such as occurred at the Gold King Mine, as specified by the Clean Water Act. By Padgett’s rough count, there have been 15 different pieces of legislation have been introduced into Congress over the years—and all have foundered.
“The Clean Water Act is ironically a barrier to having clean water,” she says.
Padgett remembers going to the Gold King Mine in 2012 with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who had worked to move Good Samaritan legislation. As had several other congressional representatives. The problem always ends up being a concern about potentially responsible individuals being allowed to get duck their responsibilities.
The current proposal is being pushed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton. The legislation would create pilot projects. Other counties have been asked to lend support, and a letter from Pitkin County Commissioner Rachael Richards asks that the pilot be broadened to include the hard-rock mineral belt of Colorado, specifically including Eagle, Gunnison, Pitkin and Summit counties.
Padgett says the Gold King Mine doesn’t provide a good argument against mining. It and most of the other old mines pre-date modern laws that govern mining. “Our problem is these very old, historic mines,” she says.
Did the EPA truly mess up, as critics say, or was it, as the Durango Herald said, the party left holding the hot potato? Padgett says she’s waiting to get more information.
But like Wyatt and many others, she’s worried that too many will draw the wrong less from Gold King and the Animas, calling for reduced funding of the EPA by Congress. “That would be the wrong answer,” she says.
Last year at this time, the toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie caused nearly half a million people in and around Toledo, Ohio, to be without safe drinking water. Clean water from our taps is something that many of us take for granted, but if we don’t protect our water sources — like the residents of Toledo discovered — we won’t be able to take it for granted anymore.
Last year’s bloom was not a new occurrence in Lake Erie, and wasn’t even as bad as 2011’s record-breaking bloom, but it’s the first time on record the lake’s algae caused a Do-Not-Drink-the-Water advisory on that scale.
And the outlook for this year doesn’t look good either, as scientists from the National Oceanic at Atmospheric Administration predict this summer’s bloom “will be among the most severe in recent years.” And on Tuesday, Toledo’s mayor announced that microcystin was detected in Lake Erie near the city’s drinking water intake.
Microcystins are a type of toxin commonly found in algae blooms that can cause nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as liver damage in rare cases. Along with warming temperatures attributed to climate change that exacerbate the problem, algae blooms are often caused by the chemical process known as eutophication, or the oversupply of nutrients.
The record-breaking bloom of 2011 in Lake Erie was the impetus for a detailed report that includes strategies on how to keep it from happening again, focusing on reducing nutrient pollution in the form of phosphorus into the lake. A task force also found that Lake Erie received the most phosphorus of any of the Great Lakes – nearly 50 percent of the total for all of the lakes, with two-thirds of that phosphorus from farm land.
The two reports also note that algal blooms were a massive problem in Lake Erie in the 60s and 70s, but were curtailed by reducing and regulating phosphorous use. That seemed to basically fix the problem with an occasional flair-up into the 80s and early 90s, only to reappear this decade worse than ever.
Toxic algae blooms are not an isolated problem to Ohio. Whether its blue-green algae in Lake Erie or the recent phenomenon of golden algae blooms in Texas, algal blooms should be a concern for everyone that cares about clean water. Along with concerns over drinking water contamination, harmful algal blooms can also create “dead zones” that kill aquatic life, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and hurt businesses and jobs that depend on clean water.
It doesn’t take a scientist to realize that algal blooms can be tough on fishing and tourism. No one wants to swim, fish, or otherwise recreate in potentially toxic water that looks like pea soup, or around a bunch of rotting fish carcasses.
Ultimately though, the threat to clean drinking water is the primary concern, and increased incidents of blooms contaminating drinking water prompted the Environmental Protection Agency in May to issue “health advisories to protect Americans from algal toxins in drinking water.”
The EPA estimates that between 30 and 48 million people use drinking water from lakes and reservoirs that may be vulnerable to algae toxin contamination. “Nutrient pollution and harmful algal blooms are among America’s most serious and growing environmental challenges,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
So how do we address this problem?
Clearly, we need stronger laws to crack down on pollution runoff from factory farms, and we also need to curb the carbon pollution that’s causing climate change. The new Clean Water Rule is also a large part of the solution, as it restores protections to wetlands that help filter runoff pollutants from rivers and streams before they get to our drinking water sources, like Lake Erie.
Arkansas River Basin Water Forum to Give Away Two Scholarships
The Arkansas River Basin Water Forum (ARBWF) is excited to relaunch our scholarship program and would like your help in distributing the application to graduate students (or others as you see fit). The application materials can be found on the main page of the ARBWF website.
The scholarship application package will be due September 1st, 2015.
In general, the applicant must demonstrate how their work may potentially have a positive impact on a water issue facing the Arkansas River basin. However, the students work does not need to be taking place within the basin, but simply must demonstrate its application to an Arkansas basin issue.
Please contact Blake Osborn at (719) 545-1845 with any questions. Completed application materials can be sent to 830 N. Main St. Suite 200 Pueblo, CO 81003 or emailed to email@example.com.
The series for this season looks great and they are screening “The Great Divide” in November. I’ve attended many of the events over the past few years and I’ve learned a lot from the speakers — highly recommended.
Click here for all the inside skinny for this season. Click here to go to the State of the Rockies home page to learn more about this important work.
Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:
<blockquoteThe Northern Water Board of Directors set 2016 water assessments during an Aug. 6, 2015 public hearing. Assessments for open-rate irrigation contracts increased from $10.90 per acre-foot unit to $17.60, and assessments for open-rate municipal, industrial and multipurpose contracts increased from $30.50 per acre-foot unit to $35.90.
The Board followed its general rate-setting objectives, which are outlined in its 2014 forward guidance resolution. Among other objectives, the resolution proposed a 2-year step increase in assessments beginning in 2016, and moving irrigation assessments towards a cost-of-service based rate. Both of these objectives are represented in the 2016 assessments.
The Board will consider forward guidance that provides an estimated range for 2017 and 2018 water assessments at its Sept. 3 Planning and Action meeting.
For information on water assessments, please contact Sherri Rasmussen at 970-622-2217.