The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill (Part 2)

Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.
Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

From Colorado Public Radio (Ann Butler):

A federal criminal investigation into the spill is now underway, and local governments and businesses are frustrated with the slow pace of compensation from the EPA one year later.

Matt Wilson, owner and operator of 4 Corners Whitewater, estimates he lost about $30,000 in revenue last year because of the spill. His was one of about six Colorado rafting companies affected from canceled trips and no customers for over a week.

“So after that it was hard to kind of reboot and get people back on the water after all that publicity,” Wilson said.

Wilson is now one of 68 individuals and businesses across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation that filled out financial claims with the EPA.

Samples show water quality on the Animas River has returned to pre-spill conditions and the 2016 summer rafting season has been strong. But Wilson and others are still waiting to hear back on their claims.

Durango City Council member Dean Brookie said his city’s government is in another holding pattern. It spent over $440,000 responding to the spill. The tab includes everything from water-quality monitoring to “personnel that we assigned to the clean-up effort.”

He said Durango’s budget is strong without those funds, but other smaller communities may not have as much in reserves.

EPA Response

Laura Jenkins, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency continues to work with local governments on reimbursing costs.

“We’re limited by what the regulations allow us to reimburse communities for,” said Jenkins. “They have to meet the requirements that are in the statutes.”

The EPA says laws like the Clean Water Act govern what is reimbursable for communities. Overall it has spent $29 million responding to the spill, with $3.7 million going to local governments to reimburse expenses like overtime pay and local water quality monitoring.

There are other issues that aren’t covered, and in some places like New Mexico, talks have broken down.

“It was just continual failed efforts,” said Tania Maestas, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs in the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

New Mexico sued the EPA this spring and the state has received $1.64 million from the EPA so far. The agency has made another $5.67 million available in unallocated funds to the state, but Maestas said it only covers a fraction of $130 million in estimated damages. The lawsuit covers everything from water quality monitoring to payment to local businesses for their losses.

“It’s our experience that the EPA met all these requests with either challenges, resistance or delays,” Maestas said about local business owners frustrated with the claims process

Maestas said other states could follow New Mexico’s path to court.

The Navajo Nation may be at the front of that line. Last August, it hired the California law firm Hueston Hennigan LLP to represent its claims. Attorney John Hueston said the firm has pursued multiple avenues resulting in some payment, but at the one year mark he said the window for cooperation is closing and the time for legal action is quickly approaching.

Rock cracked Cotter pipeline; contaminants contained at mill site — The Pueblo Chieftain

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

Cotter Corp. Uranium mill officials say a leak that dumped about 7,200 gallons of contaminated water on the mill property was caused by a rock that punctured a hole in a feeder line.

The feeder line connects to the main pumpback pipeline above a Soil Conservation Service dam that helps prevent rainwater runoff from leaving the mill site. The pipeline carries contaminated water that seeps past the earthen dam and returns it to an impoundment.

“When Cotter personnel excavated the area of the leak, a large rock was discovered above the feeder line. The rock had punctured the pipe, causing the leak,” said Stephen Cohen, Cotter Mill manager.

“Because the puncture and associated crack were small, only a relatively minor percentage of the total actually leaked. Most of the flow continued into the pumpback pipeline,” he explained.

Cotter maintains a pressure monitoring system on the pumpback pipeline that deactivates pumps in the event of a sudden, large pressure drop. However, the feeder is isolated from the main pressure monitoring system, Cohen said. The leak could have occurred on Saturday and continued for 48 hours until workers discovered it on Monday.

It is believed that none of the contaminated water seeped off the mill site, according to Warren Smith, a state health department spokesman.

Cotter officials are replacing the broken section of pipe and the feeder line should be reactivated today, Cohen said. The main pumpback system continues to operate, Smith said.

Because leaks formed in the main pipeline on two separate occasions late last year, Cotter and state health officials are working to finalize a proposal to build a new pipeline.

“Cotter’s original plan does not include replacing any feeder lines. Because this line has broken, however, company (officials) plan to replace this entire section of feeder line when they replace the main pipeline,” Smith said.

Federal and state health officials also are working with Cotter representatives to come up with a plan to clean up and decommission the now-defunct uranium mill site.

The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill

Click here to read the first Coyote Gulch post about the spill.

Click here to view a video retrospective from the The Durango Herald.

Here’s a photo gallery from The Denver Post.

Ann Butler’s article in The Durango Herald explains that the, “Gold King Mine spill recovery better in some areas than others.” Here’s an excerpt:

The full impact of the Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5, 2015, may not be known for years on any front, and recovery is far from over. And some of that isn’t environmental, governmental or economic – it’s healing invisible trauma in the people and communities affected…

“If there’s good news to a bad news story, awareness of the river, the river basins and how it all works is through the roof,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. “Not only from a local level or a Colorado level, but the whole western U.S. level. That is really going to pay some dividends because none of us understood the spillage was ongoing.”


Real-life lessons
If there was another silver lining to the spill, it was the material it provided for teachers and professors. Several Durango School District 9-R schools, including Durango and Big Picture high schools and Escalante Middle School, Animas High and Mountain Middle charter schools and Fort Lewis College incorporated the spill in science, math and humanities courses.

“As an educator, the event of it inspired me to localize my curriculum, and it was more meaningful to them,” said Jessica McCallum, junior humanities teacher at Animas High. “The students, on reflection, said, ‘Wow, this is really complex.’ Some students are very deeply affected still.”

McCallum’s students interviewed more than 70 people, including second-graders, decision makers and tourism employees, about the spill for Story Corps and met with high school students in Silverton to understand the spill from a different point of view. The interviews are available online, and they tell the story from many perspectives.

Some common themes were: Distrust of and anger at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose workers caused the spill; fear, whether it’s financial, safety or concern for other community members; and, as Kunkel put it, an awareness of the river and the watershed in a bigger picture way.

‘Technological’ disaster
Sad. Betrayed. Devastated. Scared. Grief. Blame. Anger. Hostility.

“There’s a uniqueness to what happened in Durango, but there’s also a pattern,” Fort Lewis College sociology associate professor Rebecca Clausen said. “My experience after the Exxon (Valdez) spill (in Alaska) gave me a good context for not seeing this as an isolated event.”

Social science has identified two kinds of disasters: natural – such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, and technological or environmental – and human-made disasters such as Chernobyl, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gold King Mine spill, Clausen said. Communities tend to pull together and heal more quickly from the “acts of God,” she said, but technological disasters can rip them apart and have impacts that last generations…

A group of volunteers, including Clausen and hydrologist Jack Turner, without funding from any governmental agency or nonprofit, took on the task of addressing the mental health stresses on the communities impacted by the spill. Calling themselves the Animas Community Listening and Empowerment Project, they held listening sessions in Durango and Farmington.

“People tend not to go seek out a counselor for this kind of grief or anxiety,” Clausen said. “They’re hesitant to talk about it at the supermarket. We gave them an opportunity and permission to talk.”


River businesses
“From a tourism standpoint, it’s over,” Kunkel said. “For tourists, it ended like somebody pulled the shade down as soon as the river reopened. They essentially said, ‘All I want to do is get my family on the river, I don’t care about your local hooha.’”

The most affected, Kunkel said, were the river rafting companies.

“We’ll have a better answer in a year or so about how much it impacted us,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep. “I expect it to have an impact for three to five years before it’s totally gone from people’s consciousness, but not catastrophic, not enough to put us out of business, and probably quite small in the third year.”

Two factors helped his rafting business get through, Mickel said, adding that his business is up slightly in June and up in July this year over 2015.

“We were having a really good season before the spill,” he said. “And I’m glad we have a clean and safe river to recreate in this summer, not just for the business but because our kids play in the river, and it’s just part of our lives.”

The big question is what would this summer’s business have been without the spill?

“We’ve had people call and not go because of it or cancel because of it,” Mickel said about this year’s bookings, with tourists concerned about the safety of the river. “But the hardest number to pin down is the people who are not calling. Our business really ties into how the state’s tourism goes, and Colorado is having a banner year. How much of that growth have we missed because of this?”

One indicator is how many people stayed in Durango’s hotels and motels during August 2015. Lodgers tax declined by about 5 percent, but the drop may not be attributable to the spill, Tim Walsworth of the Durango Business Improvement District said when the numbers came out in October 2015. Some of that was because the Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest of the year for visitors, fell totally in September.

Lodgers tax numbers for this summer will not be available until fall, but it has been a good season, Kunkel said…

Ongoing monitoring
Many organizations continue to monitor the river for water quality and health of fish and insects that call it home.

Nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute is collaborating with the city of Durango on Animas River monitoring. One big concern was whether spring runoff would re-suspend the sediment lining the riverbed.

“Our monitoring program aims to understand whether water quality this spring is any different than previous years,” said Marcie Bidwell, institute director, “and if metal concentrations in the river pose any threat to human health, agriculture or aquatic life. Results from the spring samples are encouraging.”

At least twice during the spring runoff, concentrations of manganese and lead, some of the metals contained in the spill sediment still lining the riverbed, surpassed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality standards of the Animas River as a source for domestic drinking water. All other results for all other purposes fell below screening levels.

The science is one part of the puzzle, Turner said. Another, individual use of the river, is something unmeasureable, but he believes it is down significantly.

“To see the river like that was piercing, and it made me feel insignificant, really small and helpless, in shock,” he said. “I’m waiting to see the river go down to see if the yellow ‘bathtub’ stain is still there. I don’t know if I’ve put my feet in the river yet, and I keep asking what’s happening to this community if we’re not going to the river?”

The EPA has proposed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in the aftermath of the spill and superfund status is warranted according the EPA project manager. From The Durango Herald:

Rebecca Thomas told more than 100 participants at the 2016 San Juan Mining Conference that she expects the Superfund designation to be finalized by this fall.

The sixth annual mining conference, which brings together people involved in mining in the Animas, Rio Grande, San Miguel and Uncompahgre watersheds, was held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango

The events of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King spill, in which an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew caused a release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River, dominated the discussions.

“Just 363 days ago we were bracing ourselves for a river disaster with a lot of concern,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt in her opening statements. “The color orange now has a whole new meaning for me. Yes, it was a lesson about our mining legacy, but it was also a lesson about our river’s health.”

Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle, too, acknowledged that the anniversary of the spill was a fitting backdrop to the conference, and a chance to provide insight on how communities affected by the event responded…

Speaking around noon, the EPA’s Thomas made the case for Superfund.

Thomas, based in Denver, said she worked in the highly-mineralized mountains around San Juan County about a week each month this summer, with crews sampling on a regular basis.

“Even though the (Superfund) site is just proposed, that hasn’t stopped us from beginning our work,” she said.

Thomas said that although there was resistance to federal intervention for years, she believes the only viable step toward improved water quality in the Animas River is through a Superfund designation.

She argued the federal listing would allow potentially responsible parties, such as mining companies, to be held financially liable for cleanup, and given the scope of the project, only the EPA could provide the funds necessary.

Thomas tried to quell frustrations that it can take more than 20 years for a Superfund to finish.

“This process … is one of the main criticisms of Superfund,” she said. “But we don’t want to wait 20 years to see improved water quality in the Animas, and we’ll take every opportunity we can to fast-track some of this stuff.”

The conference also showed how the spill affected communities around the region, all with a legacy of mining.

Randy Barnes with the San Miguel Watershed Coalition said the EPA recently steered away from remediating a draining mine near Ophir.

“They are not super enthusiastic about going and poking fingers into mines right now,” he said.

Barnes added that the project led by Griswold, which would clean up a mill tailings pile beneath the mine entrance, was canceled for undisclosed reasons.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

Silverton is staging “Super FunDays” this weekend, a play on the Superfund cleanup expected to get underway in the distant future.

It includes “Environmental Pork Agency” sandwiches and a locally brewed India pale ale — or IPA — called EPA IPA.

Here’s where things stand in the aftermath of the spill:


Bars and restaurants are serving up “EPA Fungi” ravioli, “Orange Creek-sicle” fruit smoothies and other specials for Super FunDays.

Silverton’s Golden Block Brewery brewed 10 gallons of spill-colored EPA IPA.

“It’s unclarified, so it looks kind of muddy, and we added a tiny bit of blood orange,” brewery co-owner Molly Barela said.

A fun run and community party are also planned.

Asked about the jovial tone, town spokeswoman Blair Runion said Silverton went through a long and serious debate before endorsing a Superfund cleanup.

“We need to turn it into something positive that we can embrace,” she said.

The EPA declined to comment, but it will have an information booth at the party Saturday.

Shane Benjamin (The Durango Herald) asks the question, “Who profited from the Gold King Mine Spill? Here’s an excerpt:

…the environmental mishap wasn’t all bad news for La Plata County businesses; in fact, several companies, including motels and restaurants, profited as government agencies opened their pocketbooks to help manage the disaster.

In the two months after the spill, La Plata County government spent $115,000 on goods and services related to the spill, much of which went to local businesses, according to receipts obtained through an open records request.

Several other agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has authorized $23.3 million in spending as of July 15, including reimbursement to local communities but not including payroll or travel expenses. The agency, which triggered the spill, was not able to provide a detailed accounting of its expenses in time for this story, but county expenses provide a snapshot of how local businesses profited during the spill.

The county has received reimbursement for some expenses and is seeking compensation for others.

The county’s first expense occurred on Aug. 6, 2015 – the same day the mustard-yellow water snaked its way through the county – to purchase a case of copy paper for $27.65 from Office Depot. The county made several return trips that month to Office Depot, purchasing $2,020 worth of supplies, including six easels, 12 easel pads, sticky notes, ink cartridges, a wall clock and much more. The county is seeking reimbursement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The county also purchased hundreds of meals for government employees. They were fed at at least a dozen different restaurants, including Macho’s, J. Bo’s, Carvers, Doughworks, Steamworks, Raider Ridge Café, Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, Rice Monkeys and Hot Tomatoes Café, to name a few. Many of the purchases fed dozens of people, including tabs for $305 at Domino’s Pizza, $517 at Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, $325 at Raider Ridge Café, $400 at Schlotsky’s, and $1,309 for a “thank you lunch” for city of Durango and La Plata County employees catered by Zia Taqueria. The county is seeking reimbursement for the food, including the thank you lunch, from the EPA.

Dozens of snacks and meals were purchased from area grocery stores, including Albertsons, Walmart, City Market and Nature’s Oasis. Receipts suggest some less-than-healthy eating habits, including large quantities of Lays potato chips, candy, doughnuts and soda pop.

The county also picked up several hotel bills, but it appears most employees sought reimbursement from their individual agencies rather than the county, because the county paid only $4,533 to house eight people, according to the open records request. The bills range from $79 a night at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton to $720 for six nights at the Super 8 in Durango.

Several other businesses profited as a result of the Gold King Mine blowout, including:

  • Fast Signs, which charged about $1,125 to make vinyl signs used to close the river.
  • Best Cleaning, which billed $2,522 to clean the La Plata County Fairgrounds after the EPA used it as a headquarters.
  • Durango Party Rental, which charged $746 for a temporary room divider.
  • Durango Joe’s, which charged $45.75 to serve 45 people coffee.
  • But the company that profited the most is Wright Water Engineers, which raked in about $70,000 to provide consulting and water sampling on behalf of the county.

Overall, charges appear to be fairly well spread out between businesses, without a preference for specific vendors, restaurants or grocery stores.

Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said that is a good thing, but it’s likely a result of luck, preference and necessity rather than policy. Most people don’t want to eat the same meal every day, she noted, so multiple restaurants were visited.

“This was an emergency situation, so I think those decisions were made in the moment by the folks who were needing to acquire whatever the goods or services were,” Spina said.