The removal of 16 million tons of radioactive waste perched on the banks of the Colorado River near Moab is more than halfway complete, but the work has slowed and the project is facing funding cuts.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said any reduction in federal spending to eliminate the “massive hazard” is unacceptable, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Energy’s request for more money to spend on headquarter operations.
“While projects in the field are suffering from budget cuts, headquarter operations in Washington, D.C., were increased nearly 80 percent in 2016 and the department is requesting an additional 8 percent increase for 2017,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Chaffetz’s letter on April 25 noted the radioactive tailings, a legacy of the defunct Atlas uranium ore processing mill, pose a unique threat to downstream Colorado River users.
“Removal of these tailings from the former national defense site will eliminate a massive hazard from the doorsteps of Moab residents and the 25 million downstream water users in places such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles,” he wrote.
Removal of the uranium tailings has already slowed, with 31 of 112 site employees of contractor Portage laid off on April 26 and rail trips to the disposal site cut in half.
Don Metzler, the director of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, said the reduction in the number of employees happened due to the shifting nature of the project.
The second phase of the disposal cell 30 miles north at Crescent Junction is nearing capacity, with little room left to hold additional quantities of the radioactive waste.
“Our capacity to put tailings at Crescent Junction got smaller and smaller,” Metzler said. Excavation for the third phase of the disposal is beginning, he added, but fewer workers are necessary until that capacity grows…
Because of the nature of the radioactive waste, the actual shipping containers are starting to corrode, he said.
“These shipping containers have worked really hard for us,” Metzler said, adding that work has shifted to repair those containers rather than just move tailings.
The project had been shipping 18,400 tons of tailings four times per week into October from the 480-acre site. The slowdown and layoffs of workers reduced those rail trips to twice weekly, hauling 9,200 tons as workers build up storage capacity.
Lee Shenton, Grand County’s community liaison on the project, said it is disappointing that the tailings removal has slowed and workers had to be let go.
“What we are seeing now is the culmination of chronic underfunding since about 2012. The project worked hard, and I saw it, and I can confirm they worked hard to avoid (layoffs) in the past,” Shenton said.
He said community leaders were informed several years ago that the U.S. Department of Energy was going to shift its funding priorities to higher risk projects, and Moab’s tailings pile doesn’t pose the type of severe threat compared to Hanford, Washington, a contaminated nuclear waste site next to the Columbia River.
The Moab project is slated to receive about $3.8 million less in funding, or 10 percent less. The timeline for completion was set for 2025, but that will now have to be reviewed.
Chaffetz is hoping to prevent any delays.
“The government must keep its committment to clean up Cold War era sites and prioritize water safety over headquarter operations in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
At 11 a.m. on August 5, 2015, the icy waters of Cement Creek, just outside the scenic Colorado mountain town of Silverton, began to turn to mustard-colored sludge. By day’s end, three million gallons of acid mine drainage had poured out of the inactive, 120-year-old Gold King Mine. The tainted water coursed downstream into the Animas River where it horrified kayakers in nearby Durango, prompted water treatment plants to shut off their taps, and ignited alarming front-page photos in newspapers nationwide. Within four days, the surface water had cleared and, according to EPA measurements, returned to pre-spill levels of toxic metals. But the conversation started by the Gold King blowout had only just begun.
“This was a wake-up call,” says Linda Figueroa, a Mines professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies mine remediation techniques. “It lit a fire under the abandoned mine lands community, reminded the public that this is an issue, and prompted people to put it back on the front burner.”
As industry and government agencies grapple with what to do about the estimated half-million abandoned mines nationwide, and as the state looks more closely at how to address hundreds of legacy mines fouling thousands of miles of Colorado streams, Mines—with its multi-disciplinary expertise and collaborative relationship with industry and government—is poised to play a key role.
“Our primary objective is to build knowledge, not make money, so we can give problems longer-term attention at lower cost while educating the workforce of the future,” says Priscilla Nelson, head of the Department of Mining Engineering. Already, the school has a long history of supporting research that has advanced the way mines are operated and reclaimed. And with a growing focus on the environmental and humanitarian aspects of mining, the school hopes to cultivate a new generation of miners who see themselves as “stewards of the earth’s resources,” Nelson says.
As a neutral party, Mines also hopes to facilitate a stakeholder-wide conversation about what happens next. “What do we know and what do we not know? What new technologies need to be developed?” asks Nelson, who hopes to host a symposium on the subject this year. “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”
Mining, Then and Now
While much media attention has been paid to the number of abandoned, historic mines that riddle hillsides across the West, one positive development is often overlooked: Industry practices have changed dramatically since those mines were built. “There really is no comparison,” says Ronald Cohen, a Mines professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied the history of Western mining. “The demands on industry are so much greater than they were back then.”
As early as 1870, a few vague guidelines existed for mine operators, but there was no agency to enforce them and no political will to strengthen them. Even in the mid-20th century, many Western companies still “viewed gravity as their friend,” says Cohen. They dumped their waste downstream while operating, and when it was time to close up shop, they left their tailings and rock piles behind and walked away.
“It’s not as if they were devils out to destroy the environment,” Cohen says, recalling a conversation with an old-time miner. “They felt they were supporting the economic development of their country and, during World War I and II, supporting the war effort. They thought they were doing something very positive.”
With the 1970 passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act (which regulates pollutant discharges into U.S. waters), things began to change. But even before those laws fully went into effect, a few forward-thinking companies were making
environmental sustainability a priority.
As it prepared to open the Henderson Mine near Empire, Colorado, in 1975, AMAX Inc. worked with Mines ecology professor Beatrice Willard to select a site that would be the least visible to tourists on their way to Winter Park to ski and have minimal impact on the Clear Creek Watershed. Instead of placing the tailings next to the mine, as was common practice, AMAX went so far as to build a nine-mile underground tunnel from the mine to the nearby Williams Fork Valley, where waste products could be disposed of with the least impact on the environment.
“They were 30 years ahead of their time,” says Bill Cobb ’81, MS ’89 who, as one of Willard’s students, visited the Henderson Mine frequently and had test plots for one of his classes at the site. Cobb is now vice president of environmental affairs and sustainable development for Freeport-McMoRan, which owns the Henderson Mine.
Today, a company wanting to develop a brand new, or greenfield, mine in the United States can expect to spend a decade and tens of millions of dollars navigating the regulatory process. In order to get their needed government permits, mine operators must thoroughly assess the potential impact they’ll have on air and water, design systems for mitigating these impacts, develop a detailed closure plan (including land revegetation), and put up millions of dollars of financial assurance that they will be able to pay for that plan when the time comes.
Even resurrecting a shuttered mine is a colossal undertaking. When Freeport-McMoRan reopened the Climax Mine near Leadville, Colorado, in 2011, it spent $250 million on a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. The multinational company also invests in equipment made with durable, cutting edge materials throughout its supply-chain and recycles machinery when it breaks, says Michael Kendrick ’84, president of the Climax Molybdenum Company, a subsidiary of Freeport. “At Freeport, we have not purchased a new piece of haulage mining equipment in the world since 2008. As trucks wear out, we rebuild them; we don’t buy new ones,” he says. “Not only does that have tremendous financial benefit, but big picture, it’s also good for the environment.”
Heightened attention to sustainability, combined with tougher regulations, means the mining industry footprint of the future can be far lighter than it was in the past. “Going forward, we should not end up with a legacy of even more problems” (from newer mines), says Bruce Stover, director of inactive and abandoned mine programs for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS).
That said, there is still a big mess to clean up.
A Challenging Clean-up
In the early 1980s, state surveys pegged the number of legacy “hazardous mine features”—such as mine shafts and openings—at 23,000 across Colorado. (Stover suspects that number could be up to 30 percent higher.) Thus far, the state has safeguarded 9,700 of these features. Meanwhile, about 500 inactive Colorado mines are currently causing “measurable degradation” to stream water quality. In some areas, that degradation results from storm water flowing through waste piles and tailings. To address that, DRMS sometimes removes or buries waste piles.
But in 230 cases, contaminated water flows directly from underground mine tunnels. Of these, 47 are already being addressed with active treatment efforts (such as water treatment facilities and storage ponds), and 35 are being remediated in some way, Stover says. The other 148 are “still out there draining” into state waterways. But installing a water treatment plant at all of them is impossible. “It costs millions of dollars to build one, and then you have to pay to operate and maintain it until the sun burns out,” says Stover. Alternative technologies are critically needed, and that’s where Mines comes in.
As far back as the 1980s, Mines researchers have been exploring the idea of putting resident microbes to work to help chew up and detoxify waste at legacy mine sites. Today, pilot microbial bioreactor projects are in place in several locations in Colorado and Arizona.
Figueroa, who designs and researches bioreactors, cautions that at this point, they wouldn’t be a good fit for sites with higher water flow rates (Gold King can discharge hundreds of gallons per minute). For those, an active treatment facility works best. But at sites with lots of land to build a microbial system on and a slow, steady flow of acid-rock drainage, bioreactors could provide a cheaper alternative that requires less maintenance. “We could make the money go farther and attack more sites,” she says.
Bioreactors aside, Figueroa envisions other ways Mines could partner with the state and industry to move the dial forward on legacy mine cleanups: Rather than relying on boots-on-the-ground surveys to locate troublesome mines, agencies could work with Mines students and researchers to devise ways to use drones, satellite imaging, or remote sensing technologies like LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging). Instead of focusing on surface water, stakeholders could collaborate with Mines to research how water flows across the land and through the tunnels and what changes occur en route. With that knowledge, they could devise better clean-up strategies.
“So far, most of the emphasis is on surface water. At that point, you can’t do anything but treat what’s coming out,” Figueroa says. “My first remediation strategy is not to do a treatment process at all, but to divert the water so it doesn’t come into contact with the minerals that can make water quality worse.”
A Solvable Problem
Several sources interviewed for this story say another key piece of solving Colorado’s legacy mine problem is for lawmakers to tinker with provisions in the Clean Water Act that currently keep “good Samaritans”—including mining companies, state agencies, universities, and environmental nonprofits—from trying to partially tackle the problem. In essence, if they cannot clean the water completely, they are at risk of being sued for leaving it polluted, says Stover. “Any good Samaritan, after they finish their 70 percent cleanup, could be sued by a third party under the Clean Water Act and be required to address the other 30 percent of the problem. So, if we can’t do a 100 percent cleanup, we don’t touch the water,” he says. In Pennsylvania, which has a state Good Samaritan law to protect nonprofits, more than 50 mine clean-up projects have been completed. Lawmakers are currently mulling a similar federal bill.
Money is also an issue. In recent years, several government agencies have cut their funding for legacy mine reclamation. In November, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and others introduced a bill that would require mining companies to pay into a federal hard-rock reclamation fund reserved for cleaning up legacy mines—a fund that could amount to as much as $100 million per year. But that idea could be a hard sell at a time when, due to falling commodity prices, mining companies are taking a huge economic hit.
Mines professor Rod Eggert, who teaches natural resource economics, notes that some companies are already cutting back on capital investments as they work to “survive the current economic storm.” But he rejects the notion that lean times will dampen enthusiasm, and funding, for sustainable mining efforts overall. “Challenging times reward those who are most efficient,” he says. “Those with a long-term commitment to the industry are keeping their eye on the ball and working day in and day out to improve the way they mine and the way they interact with the community.”
As far as legacy mines go, Stover sees them as a “solvable problem” with—thanks to the Gold King Mine spill—unprecedented attention on it. “If we can’t come up with funding and resolve some of the legal issues now, we never will.”
In the meantime, some companies are already stepping up to the plate, very carefully, to help. For instance, Freeport-McMoRan contributes $500,000 per year to Colorado’s inactive mine reclamation program, helping the state to fund the removal of solid waste materials from legacy mines left behind by someone else. “We did not create these situations, and we are under no legal obligation to clean them up,” says Cobb. “But given our place in the hard-rock sector of Colorado, we feel like we need to contribute to environmental improvement of the state, and this is one thing we can do.”
The company also funds restoration projects through the nonprofit Trout Unlimited, and it supports Denver-based Environmental Learning for Kids, an education group that recently participated in a tree planting at the London Mine site above the town of Alma, where Freeport funds were used by the state to clean up the site.
Going forward, Cobb would like to see Mines students get even more involved in solving the problem of legacy mines, perhaps helping to survey abandoned sites and come up with designs to clean them up. “Who knows,” he says, “a few years down the road these students could be running an environmental group for a mining company.”
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
A strong upper-level low pressure system moved through the central and eastern United States during the week. In the Rocky Mountains, wet snow was recorded; on the Plains and eastward, many areas had rain. The greatest amounts were over east Texas, eastern Oklahoma, Arkansas and into the Ohio River Valley, where up to 5 inches of rain was measured at several locations. As the system tracked east, areas of the Mid-Atlantic to southern New England recorded 2-3 inches of rain, with locally greater amounts. During this time, much of the West, the northern Plains, much of the Southeast, the upper Midwest, and northern New England remained dry. Those areas that received the precipitation were also cooler than normal for the week, with departures of up to 12 degrees below normal over the High Plains and Rocky Mountains. Warmer than normal temperatures were recorded over much of the Pacific Northwest and the Southeast…
High Plains and South
Dryness continued over much of North Dakota, but no additional degradations were made this week. It was a wet week over much of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle. Cooler than normal conditions and slow-moving rain events allowed for improvements in the region. A full category improvement was made to the moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions for much of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and central Arkansas. Improvements were made in Oklahoma, where most areas saw a full category improvement and severe drought was eliminated. Much of the Texas Panhandle also had a full category improvement. Abnormally dry conditions were expanded slightly in west Texas and several areas of Texas were identified as areas to watch in the next several weeks for degradation if rains don’t materialize…
As the storm that impacted much of the eastern half of the United States formed in the Four Corners region, it brought widespread precipitation over much of eastern Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. Abnormally dry conditions were improved over eastern Nevada and Utah this week. A reanalysis of the data available in northwest Utah allowed for an improvement to the conditions there by a full category as well. Abnormally dry conditions were improved upon in southern Wyoming as well as northeastern New Mexico. Dryness returned to portions of the Pacific Northwest over the last several weeks, and this allowed for abnormally dry conditions to be introduced over central and northeast Oregon. In California, some moderate drought was removed in the northern portion of the state…
Over the next 5-7 days, temperatures are expected to be above normal over the eastern half of the United States with departures of 6-9 degrees above normal over the Southeast. The Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains also should see above-normal temperatures with departures of up to 12 degrees above normal. Cooler than normal temperatures are projected over the central Rocky Mountains into the Southwest with departures of 3-6 degrees below normal. Another active week appears likely as several storm systems develop over the West and eject out onto the Plains and move into the Northeast. Precipitation amounts are forecast to be greatest over the northern Rocky Mountains with amounts up to 5 inches over Wyoming. On the Plains, up to 3 inches are projected in portions of Missouri and east Texas while amounts of over 3 inches are expected in portions of the Mid-Atlantic. Most of the Great Basin, New England, and the Florida peninsula are forecast to receive widespread precipitation as well.
The 6-10 day outlooks show that the chances for above-normal temperatures are greatest over the East Coast, West Coast, and Great Basin as well as Alaska, while the best chances for below-normal temperatures will be over the northern and southern Plains. Forecasts show that the best chances for above-normal precipitation will be from the central and southern Plains to the East Coast. Chances for below-normal precipitation are best over the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
A documentary screening about the Dolores River was followed by a lively forum about the issue of low flows below McPhee Dam.
“River of Sorrows” was commissioned by the Dolores River Boating Advocates to highlight the plight of the Lower Dolores River.
The new film, which is for sale on the DRBA website for $10, had several showings April 30 at the Sunflower Theatre.
A panel answered questions from a moderator and from the audience. The panel included Josh Munson of the DRBA; Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District; Eric White of the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch; Mike Japhet, a retired aquatic biologist with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife; and Amber Clark, of the Dolores River Dialogue.
What are the major challenges facing the Dolores River and what are the solutions for addressing those challenges?
Munson said the challenge is for people to see there are beneficial uses to Dolores River water other than just farming, such as for fishery health and boating. Changing the water rights system to allow individuals to sell or lease their water allocation so it stays in the river is one solution.
“Other uses helps to diversify the economy,” he said.
Preston said a major challenge is managing the reservoir in drought conditions. He said the goal is maximizing efficiencies in order to improve carryover in the reservoir year to year.
“High storage lifts all boats, including for recreation,” he said.
White said the film missed the compromises the Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made regarding water rights.
“Our allocation has dropped,” he said. “The tribe has fought for our water rights for a long time.”
Japhet said low flows below the dam are threatening three native fish: the flannelhead sucker, bluehead sucker, and roundtail chub.
“They have been declining precipitously,” he said.
Japhet called for more flexibility in how water reserved for fish and wildlife is managed out of McPhee. For example, 850 acre-feet diverted to the Simon Draw wetlands could be used to augment low flows on the Lower Dolores to help fish.
Clark said the big picture solution need to be collaborative and local, “or somebody from outside will find a solution for us.”
The group revealed the difficulty in finding a compromise that improves the downstream fishery and recreation boating but does not threaten the local agricultural economy.
“Use if or lose it water doctrine is a waste of water resources for farmers and conservationists,” Munson said. “The system does not allow for an individual to lease their water” for instream purposes.
Preston pointed out that in the last eight years, there has been four years where there was a release from the dam. The last one was in 2011, and this year a spill is uncertain.
“We are four for four. When we have excess water we release for boating and the fishery,” he said.
Japhet said the “elephant in the room” is if one of the three native fish species is petitioned for listing on the endangered species list.
“It would cause the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to take a very close look at what is going on with the water and fish resource,” he said. “The best solution is to be proactive and work something out locally to avoid a federal mandate telling us what to do.”
An audience member asked if the river itself has a right to water. Preston said the state instream flow program designates minimum flows for the river, including a 900 cfs below the confluence with the San Miguel. Below the dam the instream flow designation is 78 cfs.
“The river has a right to water, the fact that it was once wild should stay in people’s minds,” Munson replied. “The place itself has a beneficial use for fish, birds, otters. It’s recreation provides a way to make a living.”
Betty Ann Kohlner expressed concerns about McPhee water being used for hydraulic fracturing used for drilling natural gas.
Preston said about 4,000 acre-feet is available in McPhee for municipal and industrial purposes, including for fracking. But, he said, There has been limited use of the water for that purpose.
“If you can lease water to frack, why can’t water be leased for recreation and fish needs downstream from willing owners?” responded one man. “There is a contradiction in how we apply our understanding of how we should use water.”
Don Schwindt, of the DWCD board, pointed out that the Dolores River is part of the Colorado River compact that divides the state’s river water with several downstream states.
“Two thirds of the state’s water is required to leave by compact, and as it leaves it is available in the streams,” he said. “That two-thirds is more dominate than agricultural use.”
The major water bodies around Summit County and throughout most of the state are in strong shape after a slightly above-average winter season. However, the region is far from out of the woods on the matter of water in the West.
That was the thrust of speakers at Summit’s 23rd annual State of the River meeting on Wednesday evening, May 4 at the Silverthorne Pavilion — the first of six such meetings along the Colorado River Basin. With the Western Slope encompassing an average of 28 percent of the state’s water and spanning 15 counties, including Summit, this meeting of water wonks often sets the tone on consumption strategy and planning for rest of the year.
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth,” Troy Wineland, Summit County’s water commissioner, told the congested room, “there are only crewmembers. We’re all in this together.”
Wineland stressed that despite snowpack totals currently at about 115 percent of average above Dillon Reservoir — and with peak flows still to come around the first or second week of June once meltoff takes hold — circumstances are not as favorable. Other states in the country that also primarily rely on the Colorado River remain at near-critical shortages.
“While things are nice and rosy and wet and looking great here in the county,” he said, “you look throughout the entire Colorado river basin … not quite as rosy. The Lower Basin states right now are facing some very serious problems with access to water and need.”
Both Wineland and Denver Water’s Bob Steger were sure to discuss the present levels at Lake Powell during their respective presentations. Each noted how vital the resource is to every state along the Colorado Basin, even though water has already passed by many of them to arrive to Powell.
Aside from Powell functioning as the chief water supply for drinking, crop irrigation and recreation for 30-to-40 million residents in the region, the Glen Canyon Dam there also provides hydroelectric power. Besides contractual obligations of an annual average of 7.5 million acre-feet at Powell through that basin compact, of course, when water there gets below necessary levels, that has an impact back up to the Upper Basin states with increased electrical bills…
“(Lake Powell) is our bank account against accounts payable to the Lower Basin states,” re-iterated Wineland. “We’re probably within 20 feet of the critical threshold, at which point, Arizona and Nevada are going to have to make some hard decisions and really cut back on their water use.”
Despite the challenges even in what seems a healthy water year locally, all hope is not lost. The overall tenor of the meeting was mostly positive, with emphasis on how collaborative efforts across Colorado, as well as through such multi-state interdependence and agreements, proper attention on this limited resource is increasing.
Steger, Denver Water’s manager of raw water supply, brought encouraging news that the water from snowpack averages just a couple days ago are not only well above both the 20-year average on Dillon Reservoir (14.6 inches), but also ahead of 2015 (16.5 inches) as well. Current measures are 19.5 inches from this winter’s snowfalls.
On top of that, snowpacks on the South Platte River are also above normal for this time of year. That means Denver Water can most likely avoid pulling much water from Dillon Reservoir through one of its primary transmountain water diversion, Roberts Tunnel, this season for the South Platte and Denver’s consumption needs.
In fact, if that happens, that will continue a beneficial trend where 2014 and 2015 were actually the two lowest years within a 50-plus-year span for how much water has had to be removed from Dillon Reservoir through Roberts for the Platte and North Fork rivers.
“I attribute that partly to Mother Nature,” explained Steger to the audience, “because we’ve had good water supplies on the South Platte, but also our customers are doing a better and better job every year I think of conserving water. When our Eastern Slope supplies are good, that means we don’t have to take as much water from the Western Slope to the other side of the divide. That indirectly helps Lake Powell.”
Wineland also discussed how momentous the unveiling of Colorado’s statewide water plan — years in the making — in November is for the general conservation movement. To boot, regional endeavors like the recent $32,000 Colorado Water Conservation Board grant awarded to the Frisco-based High Country Conservation Center (HC3) for development and execution of a countywide water efficiency program are additional steps in the right direction. His parting words were of encouragement and optimism for the Colorado River Basin’s future.
“I just want to bring it back to the bigger picture,” he said. “We have leaders who are putting forth all this legislation and these cooperative efforts. But what we’re lacking are champions, and those champions, really, are you and I — everyone in this room. We need to take this legislation and work to the next level and implement these changes.”