Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
East of the Rockies, abnormally warm weather prevailed again, and rainfall was sparse outside of the Great Lakes Region, The Midwest, Florida, and the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Dryness and drought eased in some of the limited regions receiving moderate to locally heavy rain, but persistence or intensification was much more common.
Significant changes were made in areas where the warm, dry pattern has persisted for multiple weeks. D0 was broadly expanded in a broken pattern across the mid-Atlantic, The Northeast, and The Ohio Valley while widespread intensification occurred in most areas of dryness and drought from eastern Texas to western Mississippi…
Northern and Central Plains
As in some other parts of the country, abnormally warm and dry weather over the past 1 to 2 months led to a swath of D0 in the central Plains, primarily across Nebraska, northern and western Kansas, and eastern Colorado. Most of the new D0 region received less than half of normal rainfall in the last 30 days and/or 50% to 75% of normal since early July…
The Rockies, Intermountain West, and Pacific Coast
Moderate to heavy precipitation fell on parts of the Pacific Northwest, central and northern Idaho, and western Montana. Many areas reported 0.5” to 2.0” of precipitation, some sites reporting 3” or more in northwestern Washington and northwestern Montana.
Moderate to locally heavy rain was less extensive across central and southeastern Arizona, but a number of sites reported over 0.5 inch, and isolated amounts reached 2 inches in the central Highlands and near the Mexican border.
Elsewhere, almost the entirety of California, Nevada, and Utah was devoid of measurable precipitation.
In the northern tier of the West and in southern Arizona, rainfall was mildly beneficial, but fell on areas where drought was entrenched or intensifying in recent weeks, and was not enough to bring any categorical improvement. Across the central tier of the West, cooler weather kept conditions from deteriorating despite the dry week. No changes were made anywhere from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean…
For the upcoming 5-day period, September 10-14, 2015, at least moderate rainfall (o.5 inch or more) is expected across most of the South and East. Specifically, from southern and eastern Texas, the Mississippi/Ohio Rivers’ Confluence, and the eastern Great Lakes Region eastward. Between 2 and 3 inches are forecast for coastal and south-central New England, southeastern New York, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and eastern Maryland. Farther west, much of interior West Virginia, the Maryland Panhandle, and southwestern Pennsylvania should also receive 2 inches or more. To the west, eastern Kansas and western Missouri are expected to see 1 to locally 2 inches, but areas to the west and north of the central Great Lakes Region, the central Great Plains, and western Texas can expect less than 0.25 inch, save for scattered locations in the southern Rockies and northwesternmost Washington. A return to above-normal temperatures is expected from the High Plains westward to the Pacific Coast, with temperatures topping out 9oF to 15oF higher than normal from the Great Basin and San Joaquin Valley northward through the Intermountain West. Meanwhile, daily high temperatues will average a few degrees below normal from the central and southern Appalachians to the central Plains.
The odds favor a return to subnormal precipitation for the ensuing 5 days (September 15-19, 2015) from the Appalachians and Ohio Valley eastward to the Atlantic Coast from Georgia northward through New England. There is also a lesser tilt of the odds toward below-normal precipitation in west-central California and across western Texas and the southern High Plains. In contrast, wetter than normal weather is expected throughout Alaska and in the Pacific Northwest, Desert Southwest, Rockies, northern and eastern Great Plains, Mississippi Valley, and southern Florida Peninsula. Warmer-than-normal weather is anticipated from the High Plains eastward to the Atlantic Coast, except near the central Gulf Coast and Tennessee Valley. Meanwhile, cooler weather is expected to settle back into the northwestern quarter of the country.
There’s no danger of Cucharas Dam failing, because it is not storing any water, its owner explained Tuesday.
“The gates are locked open, the ogee crest (a spillway feature) was removed and we lowered the spillway, so the water just passes through,” said John McKowen, CEO of the Two Rivers Water and Farming Co. “There is no water behind the dam. It’s dry as a bone. There is no risk of storing water in it.”
Two Rivers is in a dispute with the Colorado Division of Water Resources over the future of the dam. The state wants it breached, or removed, so there is no possibility to store water. Two Rivers has filed a complaint saying the Huerfano-Cucharas watershed is not being properly administered.
At issue is how calls by the Welton Ditch are affecting upstream water rights, McKowen said.
An analysis of the Welton Ditch administration practices was included as part of the complaint filed in Pueblo water court last month.
“There needs to be a comprehensive discussion, and it may involve a change case. But people upstream are being hurt. That’s why we filed the complaint,” McKow-en said. “We’ve just reached a point where we had to bring it to a head.”
In a letter earlier this year, State Engineer Dick Wolfe indicated Two Rivers had not followed a 2013 compliance plan to show how rehabilitation would occur. It ordered a draft plan for breaching the dam by the end of June. McKowen’s attorneys said no plan for breaching the dam has been submitted because of the water rights issue.
The dam, located in Huefano County on the Cucharas River southeast of Pueblo, was built in 1906 to serve the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch. McKowen purchased the ditch system, along with the Cucharas Dam and Reservoir in 2010, with the intention of building a new dam just downstream. At the time, the reservoir was under storage restrictions placed on it after a leak occurred in 1987.
On August 27, 2015, the US District Court for the District of North Dakota granted a motion for preliminary injunction to a coalition of 13 states (the States) attempting to block implementation of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule, promulgated by US EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) and set to go into effect the next day. On September 4, 2015, however, in response to questions regarding the scope of the injunction, the district court clarified that the injunction would only apply to the 13 plaintiff States. As such, but for these States, WOTUS will continue to take effect in the rest of the US.
In the motion for preliminary injunction, the States argued that the Rule, which broadens the definition of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act, “provides sweeping changes to the jurisdictional reach of the Clean Water Act (‘CWA’), drastically altering the administration of water quality programs implemented by the States, EPA and the Corps.” The court agreed, holding that US EPA likely violated its Congressional grant of authority and failed to comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act when it promulgated the WOTUS Rule. The court explained that the purpose of the Clean Water Act is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Thus, in order to fall within the jurisdiction of the Act, the waters in question must in fact impact the Nation’s waters. This Rule, the court held, would impermissibly allow US EPA regulation of waters that do not bear any effect on the integrity of the Nations’ waters.
US EPA issued a statement explaining that it considers the district court’s order to apply only to the parties that sought and obtained the preliminary injunction. Thus, plaintiffs Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming are not subject to the new Rule and continue to be subject to the prior regulation. “In all other respects the rule is effective on August 28.”
In an August 28, 2015 Notice of Supplemental Information, the States complained that US EPA’s interpretation regarding the limited scope of the injunction is “contrary to, and in defiance of, the Court’s Order.” The same day, the court issued an Order Setting Briefing Schedule for the parties to address the issue “of whether the injunction applies nationally or in a limited geographic area.” Both sides submitted briefs on September 1, 2015 in support of their respective positions. The States argued that the district court has broad discretion to enjoin the WOTUS Rule application nationwide. However, US EPA and the Corps contend that the scope of the injunction should be limited to the irreparable harm identified by the plaintiff States; “an injunction should be no more burdensome to the defendant than necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs.”
On September 4, 2015, the district court declined to extend the injunction beyond the 13 plaintiff States. The court reasoned that “respect for the decision making authority of the other courts who have ruled on this issue . . . [and] respect for the states who desire the implementation of the [WOTUS Rule],” demand that the court limit the exercise of its discretion. “Under these circumstances, the court declines to extend its decision beyond the entities that are actually parties in this litigation.”
The reservoirs across Colorado are looking good in September despite the drier-than-average August across the state. The drainage basins are at an average of 115 percent for the state.
The South Platte Basin which feeds into the Denver metro area is at 117 percent of average. That puts the water level at Standley Lake at 103 percent. That lake provides drinking water for Westminster, Thornton and Northglenn.
In the southeast part of the state, the Arkansas Basin is at 145 percent.
Out west, every basin except for the Upper Rio Grande Basin is measuring at least 100 percent capacity. The Upper Rio Grande is at 92 percent.
The basin levels are good news considering that Colorado experienced a drier-than-average August with one-half inch less rain than normal.
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the actions of federal and contract workers who accidentally unleashed mining waste into the river at the abandoned Gold King mine near Silverton, Colo. “inexcusable.” The spill polluted waters in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Wednesday’s hearing was the first of several scheduled in Congress.
“The EPA’s negligence is especially inexcusable, since there were known procedures that could have prevented the river’s pollution,” Smith said, adding that the agency has failed to be “transparent” about the spill in the weeks since.
Mathy Stanislaus, the EPA’s assistant administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, described the accident, which resulted in the spill of at least 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River over two days in August, as “tragic and unfortunate.”
Stanislaus rebutted criticism from the Navajo Nation and others affected by the spill that the agency has not been transparent about the cause and effects of the environmental disaster.
“We have been as transparent as we possibly could,” Stanislaus said.
New Mexico lawmakers – Democratic and Republican – roundly criticized the agency for faulty communication in the days after the spill…
“What we have communicated with state of New Mexico is that the water has returned to pre-incident levels,” Stanislaus said.
The EPA official also rejected claims that the EPA ignored the dangers of a possible spill.
“We raised the issue, and that’s the reason we were there,” Stanislaus said. “There was a cave-in with water seeping, and we were there to address that.”
Stanislaus also noted that the Animas mine and three others nearby – the Mogul, Red and Bonita and American Tunnel mines – collectively discharge about 330 million gallons of water a year, compared with the 3 million discharged in the Animas spill.
Meanwhile, the director of the Navajo Nation’s Environmental Protection Agency, Donald Benn, told the congressional panel that the EPA’s lack of communication after the spill has fostered “a culture of mistrust.” Benn said the Navajo Nation didn’t receive word about the spill until 24 hours after the incident, and that came from New Mexico’s Environment Department, not the EPA. Benn also said the EPA later assured the tribe that the spill site had been plugged, but after Navajo officials went to the site to see for themselves, “it was clear that it wasn’t.”
“It was still mustard,” Benn said, referring to the bright yellow-orange color the river took on during the spill.
Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said the 100-year-plus legacy of hard-rock mining in the Rocky Mountains “is the quiet but real catastrophe that has largely gone unnoticed by the public until now.”
Brookie said long-standing mining activity in the San Juan Mountains around Durango results in a “giant geologic game of whack-a-mole” that often causes the Animas River to run strange colors.
Brookie also sought to deflect at least some of the pressure on the EPA as a result of the spill.
“There is no denying they had their hand on the shovel during this incident, but they did not cause this spill on purpose,” Brookie said. “The EPA was at the Gold King Mine helping to address these long-standing environmental issues.”
Republican committee members complained that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy did not testify on the issue Wednesday.
“Perhaps she doesn’t have good answers,” said Smith, the committee chairman.
Smith and other Republicans also said that if the spill had been caused by a private company, punitive action by the EPA would have been swift and severe.
“There appears to be a double standard,” said Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala. “If this had been a private company, I don’t think EPA would share the same optimism and I don’t think the EPA would have handled them the same way it has handled itself. You would destroy the company.”
Republicans accused the EPA of not scrutinizing its own actions as closely it would a similar incident caused by private enterprise. Committee members were also disappointed EPA Chief Gina McCarthy declined to attend the hearing and expressed skepticism that an investigation by the Obama Administration will be independent enough to detail what happened.
Mathy Stanislaus, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, told the committee the agency has held itself itself accountable. “Most immediately, we’ve worked with the state and local communities to address the response,” Stanislaus said.
“That’s all well and good,” Smith replied. “But still a tragic spill occurred. It looks like to many of us that nobody’s been held accountable.”
The Navajo don’t trust the EPA:
State and federal water tests since the blowout have shown that water quality in the Animas River has returned to pre-spill levels. Still, Donald Benn, Executive Director of Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, told the committee the Navajo Nation didn’t trust the feds
“When [the EPA] did let us know, it wasn’t really them that told us about what happened,” said Benn. “It was actually the state of New Mexico that approached us and told us about all this information.”
The Navajo Nation is doing its own independent water tests from EPA. During Wednesday’s hearing, they asked that the federal government pay for those tests.
The mine leaked before and it still leaks:
It’s not as dramatic as the spill, but wastewater has leaked from the abandoned mine for years, and it still does after the catastrophe. EPA collects that wastewater and treats it before releasing it downstream, but no one thinks this situation is ideal over the long haul.
“The Gold King Mine was draining anywhere from 200 to 500 gallons per minute prior to the blowout,” testified Dean Brookie, mayor of Durango. “If you can, imagine this mountain as a giant geologic whack-a-mole. You plug one mine adit [entrance], and you build up the pressure of water.”
According to the EPA’s testimony, average annual water discharge from Gold King and three nearby mines reach 330 million gallons per year. That dwarfs the three million gallons released on August 5.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who is also a member of the House Science Committee tried to make this point during the hearing.
“There’s no real bad guy,” he said. “We’re trying to fix something that’s been 100 years in the making. And we have a lot of these in Colorado. We need help with treatment plants in Silverton.”
Talk of a revived wastewater treatment plant:
There used to be a water treatment plant in the area that handled mining wastewater. It was shut down after the last active mine in the area closed. The company that ran it, Sunnyside Gold Corp., installed bulkheads to plug the mine and nearby tunnel.
Now Silverton and county leaders are calling for a revival of that water treatment plant with congressional appropriations. But there’s no timeline for when or if that might happen.
“The Gold King [mine] was discharging pollutants before the spill and continues after the spill. That is a well-documented situation,” said Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator in Colorado for the conservation group Trout Unlimited…
“Most draining mines just drain,” Churchwell said in an interview. “Thousands and thousands of these draining mines all over the United States.”
Though the true scope of the abandoned mine problem around the United States is unknown, groups such as mining watchdog Earthworks and the Western Governors’ Association and agencies including EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have some rough estimates.
The USGS database includes more than 260,000 sites labeled as past producers. Earthworks has the number closer to 500,000, mostly in the western United States.
The Government Accountability Office released a report on the issue in 2011, which said the public watchdog had developed a uniform definition of abandoned hardrock mines in 2008.
GAO said it had determined there were at least 161,000 abandoned hardrock mine sites in 12 Western states and Alaska. The agency said 33,000 of the sites had degraded the environment by contaminating waters or leaving “arsenic-contaminated” waste piles…
Alan Septoff, spokesman for Earthworks, likewise faulted the agency. “The EPA screwed up, there’s no doubt about it. But why they screwed up is instructive.”
Septoff also said the spill was inevitable even without the agency’s mistake. “Because it was draining pollution into the Animas River already and threatened to do more, it was going to happen sooner or later. If they left it alone, same thing was going to happen.”
Earthworks has long been lobbying for reform of the 1872 mining law, including charging mining companies a fee for cleaning up mines that were abandoned before modern environmental laws.
Gold King started operating in the late 1800s and ran through the early 1920s. EPA works on a polluter-pays principle, but like other such sites, Gold King has a complicated ownership and liability history.
At one point, Sunnyside Gold Corp., the owner of a nearby mine that shut down in 1991, agreed to plug its site and clean up operations in the area. But water started building up, and a treatment system ran into legal and financial troubles, EPA said. The agency was left holding the bag to prevent disaster.
Septoff said the spill has raised the alarm on the wider problem. “The Animas is shaking stuff lose, politically speaking,” he said.
He added, “There’s no dedicated funding source to clean up abandoned hardrock mines. There isn’t even money to get a good handle of how bad the problem is.”
Debate over solution
Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has already introduced mining reform legislation (Greenwire, Feb. 12). Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) has said he will, too, once Congress reconvenes.
The National Mining Association has opposed current mining reform legislation, saying it would add too much red tape and hurt resource independence. The group has called the cleanup fee a dirt tax.
NMA spokesman Luke Popovich recently expressed support for good Samaritan legislation, which would provide groups with liability protections for pitching in to clean up water pollution from old mines.
Late in 2012, EPA released a memo meant to appease concerns. It said groups don’t need a permit for certain discharges connected with abandoned hardrock mine cleanups under the Superfund law. Former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) was a main proponent.
But groups like Trout Unlimited and local regulators, who often help clean up contamination and hazards from abandoned mines, say the document was not enough to clear worries about getting involved with point source pollution.
“They’re the only ones that can work within the current legal framework to address the problem,” Churchwell said about the “underfunded and understaffed” EPA.
“We need to provide and find some mechanism to increase the capacity of those willing to join in the fight of cleaning up those abandoned mines,” he said, noting that there have been at least two other wastewater releases into the Animas in recent decades.
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have expressed their intention of introducing good Samaritan cleanup legislation in the near future. Plans were underway even before the spill (E&E Daily, June 9). But details remain unclear.
Despite bipartisan support, such a bill is by no means guaranteed passage. Some Democrats are wary of reopening discussions surrounding the Clean Water Act and sapping support from broader reform.
“It doesn’t address the funding issue,” Septoff said. “That is the real problem. It may suck the political air out of efforts to really address the problem.”
Arizona State University law professor Rhett Larson suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that states create credits to encourage mining companies to clean up abandoned mines.
But groups like Earthworks have expressed opposition to companies getting liability protections. Septoff wonders what a private company would do if it had caused the Animas spill.
“There’s a historic problem, and then there’s the fact that we’re not learning from this mistake,” said Septoff. “That is the preferred solution to this.”
Beyond abandoned mines, groups, tribes and communities petitioned the administration last month to initiate rulemaking to prevent future spills from mine sites (Greenwire, Aug. 25, 2015). They also called for reform after the Mount Polley mine tailings spill in Canada, which released more than 1 billion gallons of waste.
Popovich called the rulemaking petition “transparent opportunism on the part of mining’s critics to distract policymakers away from adopting practical measures.” He said, “U.S. mines don’t need a poorer permit policy; they already have one of the most inefficient in all the world’s mining regions.”
From the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology:
Today, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing on the August 5th spill of contaminated mine wastewater from the Gold King mine into the Animas River. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a team of contractors accidentally caused the release of 3 million gallons of wastewater during an exploratory effort to find solutions for remediating the flow of toxic mine wastewater into the Animas River Watershed.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, “I believe it is important to understand what happened on August 5th and why, and explore what lessons we can learn from this event. However, we should also take this opportunity to highlight the inherently dirty, dangerous, and environmentally damaging process of metal mining.”
She continued, “I am not discounting the significance of the August 5th event at the Gold King mine or its potential environmental impact, but it is important to understand that the issue of mine drainage into the Animas Watershed did not begin last month. The EPA was acting as an environmental firefighter when they went to the Gold King mine. They were attempting to damp down a raging environmental hazard that had endangered the Animas Watershed for decades.”
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) said, “The release at Gold King Mine was terrible and impacted communities in Colorado as well as New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. I am glad the EPA is taking responsibility for the mistakes and will work with all these communities impacted by these events. But it’s important to keep this release in perspective and understand this incident points to a much larger problem that’s been 100 years in the making. Each year, the Gold King, Mogul, American Tunnel, and Red & Bonita Mines release over 330 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River. Instead of trying to assign blame to an agency working to clean up and prevent these releases, Congress needs to help states and local communities assess the dangers of similar mines and how we can provide the resources and tools necessary to speed up remediation work to minimize the impact to our communities and our environment.”
After the hearing, Ranking Member Johnson stressed the political nature of the Majority’s interest in this spill. She said, “It is unfortunate that the Majority’s interest in the accidental release of wastewater from the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado, seems to be driven almost solely by EPA’s involvement in the August 5th accident. It would be refreshing if the Majority would extend the same zeal it has shown in investigating EPA’s actions in the Silverton release to a comparable effort to hold mining corporations accountable for a long standing pattern of violating federal environmental regulations.
“In the past three years 761 U.S. metal mining facilities violated federal environmental regulations. This industry is a bigger contributor of toxic chemical releases to the environment than any other. In 2013 alone, the metal mining industry accounted for 47%–that is, almost half—of all toxic chemical releases by all industries in the United States, releasing or disposing of nearly four billion pounds of toxic chemicals.
“I suspect that the Majority’s sudden interest in investigating the environmental consequences of the Gold King Mine accident will soon fade away and we will leave unexamined the far larger environmental impact of the metal mining industry. In the meantime, local leaders like Mayor Brookie and his constituents will continue to have to cope with the environmental legacy and public health consequences of metal mining’s decades of damage to the environment.”
From the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish via The Farmington Daily Times:
A statement from Game and Fish states the department consulted with the New Mexico Environment Department and New Mexico Department of Health before lifting the catch-and-release recommendation made following the release of more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater from the mine located north of Silverton, Colo., on Aug. 5 into the Animas River.
Seventeen fish from affected areas were tested, and results showed trace amounts of metals in the fishes’ tissue that are acceptable for human consumption, Mike Sloane, chief of fisheries for Game and Fish, said in the statement.
Karl Moffatt, state Game and Fish spokesman, said the department could not respond to questions from The Daily Times by Wednesday.
The tissue samples from the fish were tested for arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury and selenium.
Cory Styron, director of the city of Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department, said the announcement means the rivers are returning to normal.
“I think it clears up any misconceptions about fish in the river,” Styron said.
When the EPA crew breached the debris dam inside the Gold King Mine, it did more than cause the spill. It also made the first rounds of the blame game relatively easy.
The Clean Water Act and environmental rules usually protect the agency from liability. But those protections don’t apply in instances of negligence or if the agency triggers a spill. That means the EPA — and the taxpayers funding it — are on the hook for damages resulting from the release.
It’s a responsibility the agency has so far embraced. The EPA opened a claims process to compensate individuals for any losses resulting from the spill. They also agreed to reimburse states and other local governments. New Mexico has already set aside $1.25 million for cleanup. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says she expects to reclaim every penny from the EPA.
Those promises might seem unfair to the American taxpayer. If a company had been responsible for the incident, the EPA might have levied fines or other penalties to cover the cost of the cleanup. But because the cop in this case committed the crime, everybody pays the price. However, given the region’s history of mining pollution, it’s clear the EPA is far from the only liable party. They are only the most obviously liable. When the EPA triggered the spill, it was playing its role in a decades-long effort to clean up after corporate mining.
Click here to go to the EPA website for the spill.