#AnimasRiver: “We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do” — Rebecca Thomas #GoldKingMine @EPA

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

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Project to clean nearly 30 mines in 5 years has drawn criticism

The Environmental Protection Agency will not release public comments before it makes a final decision on a proposed plan to clean up 26 mine sites over the next five years in the Superfund area near Silverton.

In June, the EPA released the proposed plan, which identified quick action projects the agency wants to take while it comes up with a long-term plan for improving water quality in the upper Animas River. The proposed plan is expected to cost about $10 million.

“We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do,” Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager, said in a previous interview. “These early actions are not intended to be a final remedy. They’re no-brainer activities to help get the water clean and reduce the amount of loading.”

The release of the plan kicked off a 30-day public comment period, which was extended another month in response to requests by the public. The comment period ended Wednesday.

When The Durango Herald asked EPA officials to review public comments, spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the public comments and the EPA’s response won’t be made available for review until the EPA makes a final decision.

“All significant comments, and EPA’s responses to those comments, will be compiled in a responsiveness summary. The responsiveness summary will be included in the final decision document – the Interim Record of Decision. The Interim Record of Decision will be published once the agency has had a chance to review and consider all comments received.”

Withholding of public feedback and the agency’s replies until after a final decision is made is in contrast with other comment periods the EPA has held. In 2015, for example, comments were posted in real time for the listing of the Superfund site.

“In some instances, such as federal rule-makings, comments can be made available in real time,” Peterson wrote. “However, significant comments on a site-specific Record of Decision are released in a responsiveness summary with the decision document.”

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Despite ash flows and mine waste, the river is resilient

It’s been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.

This weekend marks three years since the river, which runs through the heart of Durango, endured a massive mine waste spill from a blowout at the Gold King Mine. The waterway turned an electric orange and gained international attention.

The Aug. 5, 2015, spill brought to the forefront the longstanding issue of toxic metals leeching into the Animas River from legacy mining in its headwaters around Silverton.

This year has been an especially vicious dagger into the Animas.

A winter that never showed up in the San Juan Mountains resulted in one of the lowest snowpack years in recorded history. Then, through spring and early summer, extreme drought tightened its stranglehold on Southwest Colorado.

The Animas River saw its third lowest peak flow in more than 100 years of recorded history, and one of its earliest, hitting a high of about 1,000 cubic feet per second in May. Typically, the river peaks at about 4,700 cfs in early June.

Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when ash runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar came tumbling down north of Durango.

The dark-chocolate colored waters suffocated fish, which desperately washed ashore seeking oxygen. Though an official population survey won’t be conducted until this fall, it’s estimated thousands of fish died.

A raw sewage spill last week at Santa Rita Park was an extra twist of the dagger.

A river without fish
For some perspective, it’s likely aquatic life is either all but gone or dramatically depleted through the entire 126-mile stretch of the river from the headwaters in Silverton, down through Durango to the Animas’ confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington.

In recent years, the river from Silverton to Bakers Bridge (about 15 miles north of Durango) has been basically considered a dead zone because of toxic metal-loading from leeching mines.

The ash flows during the month of July killed most of the fish in the river through Durango. Even the most tolerant species – carp – was found dead along the river’s banks.

Fish in this stretch of the Animas River have been unable to reproduce because of a combination of factors, such as high water temperature and mining pollution. The fish that do live in the river are stocked by Colorado Fish and Wildlife.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to comment about how fish are doing in the Animas through tribal lands. Attempts to reach a biologist with New Mexico Fish and Game were unsuccessful. The Animas, however, has all but dried up before it reaches the San Juan River.

“It’d be unusual if everything was dead, but it’s probably to the point where it’s virtually that way,” said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

But despite the onslaught of doom and gloom, there is reason to be optimistic: Rivers are resilient, and steps are finally being taken to make significant strides in the cleanup of the Animas River.

Improving water, habitat
After the Gold King Mine spill, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (which triggered the blowout while working at the inactive mine) declared a long-awaited Superfund listing, which will clean up nearly 50 mining sites around the Animas River headwaters.

Already, a temporary water-treatment plant built in 2015 has shown improvement in water quality downstream, said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson, though it’s too soon to know its effect on aquatic life…

While ash flows have decimated fish populations, research has shown aquatic species rebound quickly after wildfires, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist for Mountain Studies Institute.

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