On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
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.
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
Judges say EPA followed rules when including mining sites in cleanup area
The U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit issued the decision Tuesday to deny Sunnyside’s petition, which was filed by the mining company – a “potentially responsible party” in the Superfund cleanup – in December 2016.
Sunnyside had argued that of the 48 mining sites in the upper Animas River watershed the EPA included in the “Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund” site, 29 had not been properly evaluated and should be removed.
Sunnyside owns two of the 29 sites mentioned, including the Sunnyside Mine and the Mayflower tailings.
“We have no objections to there being a Superfund listing,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino previously said. “The petition is only challenging the unlawful listing of sites that were not assessed at all under the EPA’s own Hazard Ranking System.”
Perino did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit decision says the EPA did act lawfully and within its own protocols in the Superfund process.
In determining whether the mining district around Silverton qualified for a Superfund listing, the EPA scored 19 pollution sources under the agency’s Hazard Ranking System.
Each of the sources received a high enough score that indicated pollution was bad enough to be eligible for a Superfund listing. As a result, EPA proposed the entire mining district, scored and unscored sources, should be listed.
The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was declared in September 2016.
Months later, Sunnyside argued the EPA was wrong to create a Superfund site that had unscored sources, claiming the EPA must score each contributing source of contamination before adding it to the broader Bonita Peak site.
But the court said text of the HRS process “alone is enough to refute this assertion,” which says a Superfund “may include multiple sources and may include the area between sources.”
“The BPMD is a site (comprised) of the 19 scored sources and the areas ‘between’ them, as the HRS explicitly permits,” the court said. “Sunnyside’s mine falls into the category of an ‘area between sources’ and therefore did not need to be scored.”
The court said: “Sunnyside’s real concern became apparent at oral argument. It claims its mine has been fully remediated and had no part in the present pollution of the site, but it may nevertheless be required to pay for some or all of the cleanup.”
Sunnyside Gold is considered the largest “potentially responsible party” in the district – a term the EPA uses for entities it considers financially on the hook for cleanup.
The worry also is widespread, considering the reach of this winter’s drought is even worse than in 2012, a year that brought the worst drought in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl and cost farmers, ranchers and governments an estimated $30 billion, according to the federal National Centers for Environmental Information.
If things don’t get better, it’ll show in producers’ pocketbooks and on the taxpayers’ dime — a difficult thing to swallow considering the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects farmers’ incomes to be at a 12-year low even if crop yields stay high.
However, it’s only February, which is one of the driest months on the calendar. And, outside of some winter wheat, the lack of moisture won’t impact many crops. There’s still time for spring rains to rehydrate the region.
“If this was July, we’d be hitting the panic button,” according to Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel. “But in the wintertime, it’s always kind of a little odd because droughts develop slowly and you know there’s not much going on out there.”
A few larger rainfall events could bring areas back to normal by the time planting season comes around. That’s what happened in 2013, when the 2012 drought lingered into the new year causing conditions even drier than now…
The West is another story: “California, Arizona, New Mexico, that area is getting drier over time,” he says. “And that’s some of the expectation of how it will move in the future; that we’ll continue to get wetter and they’ll continue to get drier.”
In the southeast corner of Colorado, Gary Melcher says there’s been at least 10 years of winter drought out of the last 13. The region got rain throughout much of 2017, and Melcher, who lives in Holly, says they’ll depend on what’s left over.
“We were blessed last year with some moisture so that’s given us the ability to hold on and wait for a little bit of this spring moisture hopefully,” he says.
But it’s not just crops. Dustin Stein has a cattle ranch in Mancos, located in southwest Colorado. He’s a relatively young farmer, in his 30s, and started out in the midst of the 2012 drought.
He says in the roughest, driest years, farmers have to make sacrifices because there’s not enough grass growing in the fields.
“In a drought year, you’re forced to sell off your asset [cows and heifers] in a way that helps you keep your other assets alive,” Stein says, adding that it doesn’t just affect ranchers that year, but down the line in terms of herd numbers and profits.
Farmers can get protection from these extreme climate events through crop insurance. In years without such events, farmers and private insurance companies cover much of the costs through premiums. But when disastrous storms or a drought strike, the federal government is stuck with most of the bill. In 2012, for example, there were $17 billion in crop insurance payouts, and the government covered $12 billion. That was an unusually high payout (more than twice the cost of recent years), but an illustration of just how much a major climate event affects financials.
There’s also a need to adapt, Stein says, though he knows young farmers may not have the experience to understand how their fields stand up to prolonged drought.
“So we’re constructing a barley fodder house right now to grow hydroponically grown barley,” he says. “And so that will allow me to not have to sell any animals and be able to keep them healthy and alive through the summer, even though I can’t grow any grass on the acreage that we own or lease.”
But sometimes even adaptations can’t stand up Mother Nature. Stein says he’ll be hoping for the best. If he doesn’t see the grass coming back to life in spring, though, he knows the drought is starting to impact his region.
Angel says his agency will likely know whether the Midwest is in for a bad drought by late spring.
“On this map, orange indicates D2 or serve drought and the bad news, we are even starting to see some in the red which means extreme areas,” said Ken Water of the National Weather Service in Phoenix.
Arizona has had an incredibly dry winter. Conditions show the drought is back.
“If we go back and look at the last six months or so we’ll see we are way, way below average,” said Waters.
Figures show we’re 30 percent below normal precipitation and it’s not just our rainfall.
“Snowpack across Arizona has been extremely low this year, too,” said Waters…
According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, our meager snowfall has ranked the past year right up there with our driest years 2000 and 2006.
“Really bad news is the bulls-eye is kinda concentrated right over Arizona,” said Waters.
sWaters is referring to the current prediction map for Arizona for the month of March. It shows a brown area that covers all of Arizona and parts of California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico, showing these areas to have a higher chance of below average precipitation.
And our current weather pattern predictions beyond March are showing the worst possible scenarios.
“All signals are pretty much pointing to a very dry condition right up until monsoon,” said Waters.
And history shows there is a correlation between drought and powerful dust storms…
When we look at weather patterns for winter of 2018, we look for El Niño and La Niña. Right now, it looks neutral but is leaning towards La Niña, which would mean another dry winter for Arizona.
Steamboat Ski Area in February received close to average snowfall.
The ski area measured 59.75 inches of snow at mid-mountain over the month. Over the past 20 years, the ski area, on average, has received 66.85 inches of snow during February.
The most notable day this past month was Feb. 16 when 9.5 inches was measured at 5 a.m. for the previous 24-hour period.
So far during the 2017-18 season, 191.5 inches of snow has fallen at mid-mountain.
Looking ahead to March, the ski area traditionally receives an average of 48.39 inches of snow during the month.
Skiers will be hoping for better conditions than March 2017 when a mere 11.25 inches of snow fell at mid-mountain during the entire month.
At nearby Buffalo Mountain, the automated Tower weather station at 10,500 feet elevation was measuring 86 inches of settled snow Wednesday with the equivalent of 27.1 inches of water.
The snow water equivalent at Tower stood at 76 percent of average while the entire Yampa and White River basins were at 81 percent of average.
The Rabbit Ears weather station was reporting snow water equivalent that was 70 percent of average.
River basins in southern Colorado were reporting snow water equivalents between 55 and 63 percent of average.
Nick Barlow with the Colorado Avalanche Information wrote that with the snowiest months already past, it was looking unlikely that snow water equivalents would recover to average levels.
“Unfortunately, low snowpack levels have consequences well beyond winter recreation,” Barlow wrote. “State commerce and tourism can suffer significantly during and directly following a dry winter. We also depend on a healthy snowpack for water supply and agriculture during the drier months.”
A dry winter can also lead to increased wildfire danger.
About 70 percent of Colorado is experiencing at least moderate drought conditions, and southwestern portions of the state are still seeing severe drought as hope springs eternal that the snow will come in March, traditionally Colorado’s snowiest month.
Ninety percent of the state is abnormally dry, according to the latest models from the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday. Just 10 percent of the state – primarily north-central Colorado and northeastern Colorado – is drought-free.
Denver sits on the edge between abnormally dry and moderate drought, as does much of the Front Range. But the further south and southwest one travels in Colorado at the moment, the drier things get.
Portions of eight southwestern Colorado counties are experiencing extreme drought, and most of southwest Colorado is in a severe drought period.
A year ago, half of the state was experiencing no drought, and just 37 percent of the state was seeing moderate drought.
The state’s snowpack is also only at 71 percent of its normal levels, and just 52 percent of where it sat on March 1 last year. The Natural Resources Conservation Services, which tracks the snowpack, says the state would need 221 percent of its normal snowfall to reach the peak levels, which normally hit around April 9.