#AnimasRiver: Whither runoff and pollutants?

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via WRAL.com:

More than two dozen state, tribal and local agencies said they will monitor the Animas and San Juan rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah at about 18 sites.

It isn’t clear yet what effect the spring and summer runoff will have on any metals that settled to the bottom of the rivers after the spill.

Snowpack in the Colorado mountains that feed the Animas — which joins the San Juan in New Mexico — was 81 percent of the long-term average Thursday. Kevin Houck of the Colorado Water Conservation Board said he didn’t expect a higher-than-normal runoff.

That could change if spring snows are heavy, Houck said, adding that the outlook will become clearer next month.

A crew led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inadvertently triggered the 3 million-gallon spill at the inactive Gold King Mine Aug. 5 during preliminary cleanup work.

The EPA estimates the spill sent 880,000 pounds of metals into the rivers, and some settled into the sediment on the bottom.

The metals included arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. Water utilities briefly shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers. The EPA says the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.

Colorado, New Mexico and Utah joined with the Navajo, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes — whose land is crossed by the rivers — to compile a plan to monitor the waterways and some wells. They will also test the sediment in the delta where the San Juan empties into Lake Powell, the massive reservoir in southern Utah and northern Arizona.

They said they will share their data and will train first-responders and water users about what to do in the event of a flood or other emergency.

Cities, counties, health departments and water districts along the rivers are also participating in the preparations.

Separately, the EPA released an updated plan Thursday for its own water-quality monitoring to last at least through August.

The agency said it planned to monitor 30 river locations in the three states. At least some of those sites appeared to be the same ones the states will monitor.

Meanwhile the Democrats in Congress are pushing for reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. Here’s a report from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

“While voluntary and philanthropic efforts may provide relief in certain instances, they cannot come close to truly addressing the vast scale of the problem,” said a letter from the lawmakers, including Natural Resources Committee ranking member Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Colorado Rep. Jared Polis and four others.

They sent the letter to committee chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee chairman Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and are requesting a hearing on two bills aimed at tackling the inactive mines problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are 500,000 inactive mines around the West and that tens of thousands are leaking, contaminating water with acidic, metals-laced drainage from mines.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act would create a fund from fees on industry to clean up abandoned hardrock mines…

Lawmakers also are considering legislation to encourage voluntary cleanups by reducing liability under the Clean Water Act when well-intentioned work causes more harm…

And the EPA aims to stabilize the first 60 feet of the collapsed Gold King Mine portal and install a structure to control drainage, Grantham said.

“Operations at the Gold King Mine will resume as early as possible in the late spring, early summer, depending upon road conditions and any remaining avalanche hazards around the mine,” she said.

Finally, the EPA has released their final monitoring plan in the aftermath of the Gold Kind Mine spill. Here’s a report from Peter Marcus writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

The Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to examine water and sediment quality, biological communities and fish tissue at 30 locations under a variety of flow and seasonal river conditions along the Animas and San Juan rivers.

After the first year, “the need for additional monitoring and assessment and the entities best suited to undertake further monitoring will be determined,” according to the plan…

The EPA on Thursday also announced that it would make $2 million available for additional monitoring needs designed to complement the yearlong effort.

Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation will monitor the spring runoff.

Spring 2016 is the first snowmelt season in the Animas and San Juan watershed since the spill. There is concern that heavy metal concentrations in the river may rise as flows increase, posing a risk to downstream communities and aquatic life. A large spring snowpack has increased those concerns.

The preparedness plan includes sensors providing real-time data, including turbidity and flow levels. The plan also calls for water quality sampling at regular intervals to track river conditions.

The San Juan Basin Health Department will rely on the real-time data, beyond the periodic sampling performed by the EPA.

“Based on currently available data, San Juan Basin Health believes that use of the river this year poses no additional health risks as compared to previous years, but as conditions change over the course of the monitoring program, we will assess data from all sources in order to improve our decision-making and keep the public safe,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of the San Juan Basin Health Department.

“EPA’s comparison of current and historic data at long-term monitoring sites will be essential for determining if the August incident has changed river conditions,” she added.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie questioned whether the EPA should commit to more than a year of sampling, suggesting that a more permanent monitoring plan could come as part of Superfund efforts.

Local communities and the state have expressed support for a Superfund designation, which would inject large amounts of dollars into treatment.

“To me, that’s not long term, that’s a start, and sets up the basis for long-term monitoring,” Brookie said.

San Juan County Administrator William Tookey pointed out that monitoring is not as critical to his community because it does not use the Animas for drinking or agriculture.

“Our concern is that there’s adequate monitoring in there so that our downstream partners get the protection and notice they need so it doesn’t put them in a bind,” Tookey said.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt added: “I’m pleased with the cooperation amongst the downstream entities to monitor the spring runoff in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill. With the winter snowpack and ongoing acid mine drainage in the Animas watershed, it’s critical we have this level of cooperation not only this year but throughout the Superfund cleanup process.”

Fall data, also released on Thursday, showed that sampling from 27 locations were below “risk-based recreational screening levels,” according to the EPA. Officials added that the data were consistent with pre-event conditions.

Data are compared to recreational screening levels for long-term exposure. The analysis takes into account such things as how a person would contact the river and for how long.

An EPA spring sampling event is underway, which will be followed by additional sampling in June and again in the fall.

After collecting data for a year, the EPA will assess it, consult with partners and decide what further monitoring or other actions are needed.

The goal is to consistently evaluate river conditions over time to assess impacts to public health and the environment. Researchers will examine fluctuations over time and location based on seasonal factors, such as precipitation and snowmelt.

The sampling locations will span Cement Creek, the Animas and San Juan rivers, and the upper section of the San Juan arm of Lake Powell.

Here’s a photo gallery about the spill from The Durango Herald.

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