The War for the Roads — Jonathan Thompson (@jonnypeace)

From RiverofLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

This story by Jonathan P. Thompson ran in the Silverton Mountain Journal in winter of 2002. Given the historic avalanche cycle, and the lengthy closure of Red Mountain Pass, it seemed like an opportune time to re-up it. Spoiler: Silverton has been shut off from the world by avalanches many times in the past. In 1932, the roads and railroad were shut down from February until the end of April. Yikes!

Eddie Imel died 10 years ago this March (editor’s note: in March 1992). Imel was a plow driver for the Colorado Department of Transportation on the Ouray side of Red Mountain Pass. Like all the plow drivers between Ouray and Cascade, Imel was part of the infantry; he was a foot soldier in the war to keep Highway 550 into Silverton open and keep the town it feeds alive. Imel was the third soldier to die in that war in 22 years and, like the other two, he was slain by the deadliest enemy of this unending conflict: the East Riverside Slide.

The winter of 1991-1992 was not an especially heavy one in these parts. In fact, after a good start–43″ of snow fell in Silverton in November–the snowfall petered out. December (15″), January (10″), and February (15″) were all unusually dry months for snow in the San Juans. Long periods of sunny days and cold, clear nights between storms served to rot out the early, scant snowpack. In other words, conditions were ripe for a serious avalanche season upon the arrival of the big, spring storms.

And arrive they did: Over 30 inches of snow fell in the San Juan Mountains and the slides were running all over the place. Highway 550 was finally closed, but by the time the gates were shut, it was too late. The CDOT truck that swept the road to make sure all motorists were out of danger dodged big slides before being blocked by a portion of the East Riverside Slide that had hit the road just north of the snowshed. Edie Imel and Danny Jaramillo were piloting a CDOT plow, attempting to clear the road so that the sweep truck and other motorists inside the snowshed could get to safety. The plow came to a stop, the two soldiers got out to adjust the chains, and, as the East Riverside is apt to do, it ran again, burying the plow and the drivers.

Everyone in the snowshed, CDOT officials, and local law enforcement reasonably assumed both victims of the slide were dead. A body recovery effort would have been too risky, so it was delayed. The motorists in the shed were escorted back to safety, the mourning began, and, 18 hours after the slide ran, a call came in from the emergency telephone in the snowshed. Danny Jaramillo had tunneled his way out of the cement-like snow. Imel’s body was recovered not long after.

The system, or rather the lack of a real system, for determining avalanche hazard and deciding when to close the road had failed one too many times. Things had to change.

Silverton’s connection with the outside world has always been vulnerable to snowslides. Before there were plow drivers risking their lives to keep the arteries and veins of San Juan civilization from being blocked, there were mail carriers. Before the railroad arrived in 1882, Silverton’s winter link to the lowlands usually consisted of no more than one man on a set of “snowshoes,” or long, wide, heavy wooden skis. Men with names like Greenhalgh, Aspaas, Bales, Mears, and Nelson skied regularly over Cunningham Pass (south of Stony Pass) with huge, 50- to 60-pound sacks on their backs or dragging sleds full of mail and supplies. It was not a job for the faint at heart — avalanche danger was ignored, at least one froze to death, and others, somehow, survived both snow and cold — but it was a necessary one. Without their efforts, Silverton would have had to shut down come winter.

Newspaper clipping from March 1906, after a huge storm resulted in a deadly St. Patrick’s Day avalanche cycle.

In 1882, the railroad finally reached the heart of the San Juans, but by no means did this signal an end to avalanche troubles. The snowshoe-riding mail carriers of old, as long as they avoided being hit by slides, could simply ski over the top of the slide debris, but the train could not. From Needleton to Silverton, the tracks pass through the depository for dozens of slides, some of significant size. Dramatic photos of the Saguache slide (probably also known as the Snowshed slide north of Elk Park) show a trench dug for the train through a 60 foot pile of snow and debris. Nearly every winter saw at least one avalanche-caused blockade during which the train could not reach Silverton. Sometimes they only lasted a few hours while tens or even hundreds of men cleared the tracks. But there were times when Silverton was cut off from the world for days, weeks, and, in one case, three months. In 1884, Silverton was without a train for 73 days. Food ran short and milk cows were killed for beef.

The winter of 1906 will long be remembered as the most tragic, avalanche-wise, in the San Juans. Big January storms pounded the region following a relatively dry November and December, and the slides came down. Five men were killed at the mouth of the tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine near Eureka when they were engulfed by a slide. Eleven avalanches were reported between Silverton and Elk Park that ranged from seven to 30 feet deep and 50 to 450 feet long; the train was kept at bay for 18 days.

All of that was minor compared to what followed in March when an enormous storm sat over the region for about a week, relentlessly pounding the San Juans. Slides swept away the Shenandoah boarding house, killing twelve men, and ravaged a number of other structures in the area, often killing their inhabitants and making that the most deadly avalanche season ever in the San Juans. Twenty-four people lost their lives to snowslides in San Juan County that winter.

Transportation in and out of Silverton came to a standstill. Two-hundred men of Japanese descent worked to clear 50-foot deep piles of debris that at least 15 slides had deposited on the tracks between Needleton and Elk Park. It took 33 days for them to break through. Local newspaper editors blamed the Railroad, not the snowslides, for the delay in opening the tracks, a sentiment that would echo throughout the years, even after the highway became the main link between Silverton and everywhere else.

Perhaps the worst winter, in terms of Silverton being cut off from the outside, was 1931-1932. By then the highways to Ouray and Durango were gaining importance as supply routes through the San Juans. That gave the newspapers someone else, the highway department, to blame for closures. After a December storm, the editor of the Silverton Standard wrote: “Now during the recent storm it was not deemed expedient for men to attempt to keep the highway open, but after the storm settled it was clearly the duty of the maintenance department of Colorado to open the roads, or at least determine that they should not be opened. What was done? Nothing. How long in our case did the situation continue? For at least one week.”

Silverton continued that year to be pummeled by storm after storm. In February, following a devastating “San Juaner,” all highways were closed, including those to Howardsville and Gladstone; a slide wrecked the Iowa-Tiger boarding house at Silver Lake; all telephone lines in and out of Silverton were down; and the train crashed near Rockwood while attempting to reach Silverton. One couple hiked out to Ouray in order to escape the confines of Baker’s Park, some snowshoed to Rockwood in order to catch the train, and a 350-pound load of butter, eggs, and meat was brought by toboggan from Ouray. In April, it was reported that the Riverside Slide had deposited a pile of snow 300 feet long and 60 feet deep. The road to Durango (which at that time traveled down avalanche-riddled Lime Creek, not over Coal Bank Pass) was opened on April 30, and the Ouray side was cleared shortly thereafter.

Only four years later Silverton was shut off again by slides for weeks, prompting a team made up of Louis Dalla, E.F. Sutherland, James Baudino, John Turner, and Carl Larson to snowshoe down the canyon to Needleton to fetch the mail.

By the time one of the biggest winters in San Juan history hit in 1951, the railroad’s importance had been diminished somewhat by the improved highways, especially to the south. But in the San Juans even good highways, which traveled through slightly less avalanche-prone areas, are liable to be shut down, and that’s exactly what happened that year. There was so much snow that people had trouble getting around town, not to mention over the passes. The Highland Mary Mill in Cunningham Gulch was wrecked by a slide, killing one. The highway to the north opened after six days, and it took several more days of around-the-clock effort, to break through the dozens of slides that covered the road to the south.

In spite of the huge winters, the series of avalanches that hit the roads with regularity, and the lack of any avalanche policy governing Highway 550 at the time, not one motorist had been killed by an avalanche on the highway by the middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, following the huge winter of 1952, the Colorado Highway Department implemented an official policy dealing with road closures and avalanche hazard. The policy said that if avalanche danger was determined to be high, the road would be closed, control work would be done, the debris would be cleared, and the road re-opened.

At first glance, the system seems identical to the current one. In practice, however, the road was usually kept open until the slides were coming down so big, and with such frequency, that the plows were simply unable to punch through them anymore. It was a policy that, at best, was unscientific. Louie Dalla, road supervisor for the Silverton district, who was known as a man who almost always kept the roads open, described the non-policy policy in a 1963 interview with Allen Nossaman: “About the only good rule is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed. The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough.”

In other words, it was up to the motorist, not the highway department, to ultimately assess the danger and make the decision about whether to travel the road or not. It is a noble sentiment, and one from another time before liability and lawsuits were the norm. Up until 1991, the only avalanche forecasters were the plow drivers themselves, their command centers the cabs of their plows. The policy was imperfect, at best and, in 1963, its fatal flaws were first revealed.

On March 3, 1963, Reverend Marvin Hudson made his usual trip over Red Mountain Pass to preside over services at the Silverton Congregational Church. He had his daughters Amelia and Pauline in the car with him. A large storm had hit and the East Riverside Slide had already run once. His car was slip-sliding across the road as he passed under the ominous East Riverside slide, so the Reverend stopped to install his chains. That is when the Riverside ran again. It took rescuers a week to find the Reverend’s body and another to find Amelia’s. Pauline was not recovered until May 30.

The tragedy inspired a Colorado Highway Department Engineer to recommend the construction of a snowshed under the Riverside, a suggestion made by a Swiss avalanche expert two years earlier. The shed was not built, the road closure policy remained the same, and, in 1970, plow driver Robert Miller was killed by the Riverside’s infamous second release.

Angered citizens demanded the construction of a snowshed but Highway 550, which is still one of the last places to get funding from the state transportation coffers, would get no protection. Nothing was done.

It took yet another fatality, under similar circumstances, to motivate the state to finally build the snowshed. This time it was plow driver Terry Kishbaugh who was taken by the East Riverside on February 10, 1978. Seven years later, the snowshed was built. At least one expert recommended the snowshed be 1,200 feet long; others said that the absolute minimum length for it to be effective was 400 feet. When all was said and done, the snowshed only covered 180 feet of highway (as it does today), leaving cars, and plow drivers, and Eddie Imel and Danny Jaramillo exposed to the deadly torrent known as the East Riverside slide.

Those were the fatalities. Then there were the close calls. According to CDOT statistics, 68 cars were hit by slides between 1951 and 1991 between Coal Bank and Ouray. These included a Trailways bus that was knocked off Molas Pass by the Champion slide and a bus bashed by the Brooklyns filled with miners coming home to Silverton from their shift at the Idarado Mine. Injuries were relatively minor. Finally, when the San Juans had to say goodbye to a third plow driver in 22 years, things changed.

In July 1992, CDOT announced its new Highway 550 Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Weather and snowpack evaluation stations would be installed under the plan; avalanche control equipment such as Howitzers would be implemented; CDOT workers would all be trained in avalanche awareness; and fixed control-gun towers would be installed. Most significantly, however, the avalanche forecasting job would go to two Colorado Avalanche Information Center professionals based in Silverton (plow drivers, however, continue to serve an important role, communicating their on the road observations to forecasters).

Silverton’s forecasters are devoted, full-time, to assessing the avalanche hazard on the passes. Even during long periods between storms, they patrol the passes and analyze the snowpack, its structure, and its stability, allowing them to know approximately how much snow, and at what density, the current snowpack can hold in the event of a storm. When a storm does hit, the forecasters are out on the highway alongside the plow drivers, constantly monitoring conditions and passing recommendations on to the local road supervisor in Durango or Ridgway. Ultimately, it is the road supervisor, not the forecaster, that makes the decision to close the road.

The days of waiting for several big slides to come down before deeming the hazard high are over, according to Silverton Avalanche Forecaster Andy Gleason. This has sometimes caused impatience in Silverton, where people still remember the old days and where mail, supplies, and commuter routes are shut down along with the roads. And, of course, when the road is closed it means the precious few winter tourists and their money are kept out, an issue that may even get more urgent when the new ski area opens. Many citizens, especially those that have been around for a while, feel that it is premature to close the roads before any slides have come down.

Gleason disagrees. “When I recommend closure I’m always asked: ‘What slides hit the road,” said Gleason. “If we were doing our job really well we would answer that nothing hit the road, but this is what is about to hit the road.” Gleason concedes that, partly because of the importance of the roads to Silverton, the road is usually not closed until smaller “indicator” slides such as the Blue Point have run. Or, he says, if two inches of snow fall in one hour or less in the Uncompahgre Gorge, then it is time to lock the gates with or without indicator slides. “It will avalanche,” said Gleason.

The ultimate goal of the avalanche reduction program, according to Gleason, is to create more avalanches of smaller size. “Our perfect avalanche control day would be if every slide ran small to the edge of the road so that there is no clean-up necessary,” said Gleason.

Although this policy may mean more frequent and earlier closures, ultimately it could result in cumulative closures of fewer hours during a winter than under the old policy. Most importantly, of course, it means that everyone — the plow drivers, the motorists, the law enforcement people patrolling the roads — are safer.

Its first decade of existence has been a successful one for the Avalanche Hazard Reduction Plan. Imel’s was the last avalanche-related fatality on Highway 550, close calls are rare, and during the past five years, long, sustained closures have been kept to a minimum. In 1998-1999 Red Mountain Pass was closed for a total of 110 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 17 hours; in 1999-2000, the road to the north was only out of service for a total of 33 hours and Molas was closed for a paltry 6.5 hours; and last year, an average snow year, Red Mountain was down for 83 hours and Molas/Coal Bank for 30 hours. These numbers are not small, but in earlier years it was not unheard of for the road to be closed in both directions for 83 hours at one time.

Improvements during the last five years have helped the forecasters and controllers immensely. Snow measurement stakes have been placed in the starting zones of the West Lime Creek and Mother Cline slides; Howitzers have returned to their traditional place in avalanche control work, making helicopters less necessary and allowing for more efficiency and quicker control work; and the forecasters learn more about the snowpack each year.

Still, the new plan is not perfect. Gleason would like to see more forecasters here (two, Silverton-based forecasters cover Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Passes in addition to Lizard Head Pass, which is two hours away by CDOT truck); more passive control measures such as snowsheds, snow fences, and snow defense structures; better automated weather stations; and a remote avalanche detection system (one is being researched here but Gleason signed a waiver promising not to talk about it).

John Greenell (a.k.a. Greenhalgh) and his trusty pair of snowshoes was one of the mail carriers that provided Silverton a link with the outside world in its earliest winters of existence. He was known as a man that could make the trip up Cunningham Gulch, over Cunningham Pass, into the Rio Grande Country and to Del Norte and back in any type of weather.

On Monday, November 27, 1876, Greenell set out from Carr’s Cabin on the other side of the divide on the return trip (over Stony Pass this time) to Silverton. He never arrived. A group of searchers found his body a few days later, frozen to death near the top of Stony Pass, his hand rigidly clutching his mailbag.

We have changed a great deal since Greenell’s days, but the mountains are just about the same. Winters are still hard, avalanches still rush down mountainsides, and Silverton is still, occasionally, isolated from the outside world.

A heavy duty snow blower punches a hole through the snow that came down the West Riverside slide triggered yesterday, Monday, March 4, on north Red Mountain Pass, US 550. The snow shed which protects the traveling public from natural slide activity is seen in the background.

San Juan #Snowpack 2019: Big, but not the biggest (yet) — Jonathan Thompson (@jonnypeace) #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

From RiverOfLostSouls.com (Jonathan Thompson):

Photo credit: http://riveroflostsouls.com

Let there be no doubt: It has been a snowy winter in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, along with the rest of the state and much of the nation. Six people have been killed in Colorado avalanches, three of them in the San Juans. The highways leading into Silverton have been closed multiple times this winter due to avalanches, and Red Mountain Pass remains shut and buried with miles of slide debris as I write this early on March 7. Skiing, by all accounts, has been fantastic. If someone were to have gone into hibernation a year ago in the San Juans, and had just woken up today, they’d probably think they had been transported into a completely different world.

A CDOT driver clears debris from the East Riverside slide south of Red Mountain Pass in early March. This slide is the deadliest on Hwy 550 between Durango and Ouray. In the ’60s a reverend and his two daughters were killed here, and plow drivers were killed by the Riverside in ’78 and ’92, not long after the (too-short) snowshed was built. Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation.

And yet, according to data from a sampling of SNOTEL stations across the San Juans, the March 1 snowpack still did not crack the top three highest levels on record, even though the SNOTEL records only go back less than four decades. Yeah, I know, those of you who have spent much of the winter shoveling out or catching sweet face shots are probably wondering what kind of Bulgarian weed this guy’s smoking. But I’m just the messenger, here, delivering data gathered by remote, automated, and perfectly sober stations, specifically those located near Molas Lake, on Red Mountain Pass, and in Columbus Basin in the La Plata Mountains.

The graphs below show this water year’s snow water equivalent for the first of each month so far, average level for the period of record, 2018 levels, and the two highest snowpacks on March 1 during the period of record.

Red Mountain Pass is so far seeing its 8th heaviest snowpack for 3/1 since 1981.
We’re not sure what’s going on at Molas, where the SNOTEL station showed the March 1 snowpack sitting at average levels. This year is at 14th biggest snows since 1987.
While the snowpack is sitting well above average at Columbus Basin, it remains far below previous years, sitting in sixth place since 1995.

The main takeaways: • The snowpack, i.e. the snow water equivalent, is sitting well above average for the period of record for each station. • The snow water equivalent for each station is currently about two times what it was a year ago. • A lot more snow will have to fall in order to make this the biggest winter on record.

And now for some caveats: • These graphs show snowpack levels at the first of the month, and all three of the sample stations have received two to three more inches of SWE since then in massive early March storms, which could have boosted this year’s ranking a bit. • I chose these three stations because they sit at a high altitude (and had values > 0 last year), and because they are geographically diverse. It’s possible that lower elevation stations have more snow this year than they ever have. I’ll look into that for a future post. • These data are merely for the amount of water in the snow at a specific point of time. They do not necessarily reflect total snow accumulation for the water year. It’s possible that more snow has fallen than in “bigger” years, but that warmer temperatures have melted it. I’ll also look into how this winter’s temperatures compare to previous years in a future post.

Judge denies @EPA motion to dismiss #GoldKingMine spill lawsuit — The Farmington Daily Times #AnimasRiver

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

A federal judge has denied a motion to dismiss claims brought by state, federal and local governments and private entities related to damages caused by the Gold King Mine spill.

U.S. District Court Judge William P. Johnson denied the motion on Feb. 28 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, its contractors and mining companies…

New Mexico, Navajo Nation and Utah, along with residents in Aztec and on the Navajo Nation, have filed lawsuits for environmental damages and tort claims against the federal agency and its contractors and mining companies since May 2016.

The defendants requested that the court dismiss claims, arguing sovereign immunity barred the litigation.

The two states and the tribe are seeking to recover the costs of their responses to the spill under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

New Mexico officials commended the latest court decision.

James Kenney, secretary for the environment department, said the state will continue to hold the defendants responsible for the environmental and economic harms caused by the spill.

Among damages the state is seeking on its behalf and for agricultural and recreational operations is more than $130 million in lost income, taxes, fees and revenues…

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the tribe is pleased with the judge’s decision.

#AnimasRiver: Sunnyside Gold wants @EPA out of the #GoldKingMine cleanup

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]

Good luck with that.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Is it a conflict of interest for the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for the Gold King Mine spill, to lead the Superfund cleanup of mine pollution around Silverton? The last company to operate a mine in Silverton, which is also possibly on the hook for cleanup costs, seems to think so.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. on Monday sent a letter to the acting inspector general for the EPA, Charles Sheehan, asking the EPA be investigated for its part in the Superfund site and ultimately be recused as the lead agency in the cleanup.

“The conflict of interest is clear,” Kevin Roach, director of reclamation for Sunnyside Gold, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “EPA caused the Gold King spill, which led to the Superfund listing, and resulted in the EPA being a defendant in multiple lawsuits.”

[…]

Roach said the “conflict” has made the EPA incapable of cleaning up the site in an “even-handed” manner.

The Southwestern Water Conservation District’s Annual Water Seminar, April 5, 2019

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

Click here for all the inside skinny:

Register here.

Since 1981, the Southwestern Water Conservation District has coordinated the Annual Water Seminar to bring together individuals who are passionate about water resources to hear expert speakers from around the state and region. Mark your calendars for this year’s event: Friday, April 5 in Durango…

Excited? You can reserve your seat early. Registration includes catered breakfast and lunch. Click the button below or call 970-247-1302.

#AnimasRiver: @EPA to use “adaptive management” strategy for Bonita Peak Superfund site

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):

The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which includes 48 mining-related sites around Silverton, is one of six Superfunds nationwide to be part of the study, referred to as an “adaptive management” strategy.

“We are really excited about this for Bonita Peak,” said Christina Progess, Superfund remedial project manager.

In May 2017, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt formed a task force to think about ways to speed up Superfund cleanups, which in some cases can take decades to complete.

A month later, the task force recommended an “adaptive management” strategy that would improve and accelerate the process. Government agencies have used adaptive management since at least the 1970s, but the task force’s move made it formal for EPA.

Kate Garufi, an environmental engineer for EPA who is also chairwoman of the adaptive management task work force, said that some Superfund sites are large and complex, and it can take years to formulate a long-term cleanup plan.

“When you look at Superfund, it’s historically been very linear with a site investigation, evaluating alternatives, selecting a decision and implementing it, which can take a very long time,” she said.

Adaptive management, however, allows the EPA to target quicker projects year to year while a comprehensive solution is investigated, Garufi said.

“We’ll be able to take early actions and see those benefits while we continue to evaluate the entire basin,” she said.

The strategy made perfect sense for Bonita Peak, Progess said, which at 48 individual mining sites across the entire headwaters of the Animas River Basin is one of the larger and more complicated Superfund sites in the country.

As part of the adaptive management, Bonita Peak will be part of the 12-month study, which will set various goals and engage the local community.

“Because we are so early in the investigative process at Bonita Peak, adaptive management will help us set those goals and how to achieve them,” Progess said…

In June 2018, the EPA released a “quick action” plan for cleanup work at 26 mining sites over the next five years to be conducted while the agency comes up with a more long-term, comprehensive strategy to address mine pollution around Silverton.

The plan met resistance from local groups and individuals who say the plan fails to first quantify the benefits and goals that would result from the action plan, which would cost millions of dollars to clean up sites considered smaller contributors of pollution.

Thomas said the adaptive management will help refine that plan. She said a final decision, called an interim Record of Decision, could be issued within the next month or so.

On Wednesday, Thomas also addressed the concern that the partial government shutdown, which lasted 35 days, would cause the EPA to lose a summer season’s worth of work at Bonita Peak.

“Of course everyone here at EPA was dismayed about government shutdown, and it’s good to get back to work,” Thomas said. “Clearly there have been some impacts to the work we were all doing, but we’re doing our best to make sure we can take advantage of a full summer season.”

#AnimasRiver: No immediate long-term effects from #GoldKingMine spill according to @EPA

Click here to read the report. Here’s the executive summary:

Executive Summary

In response to the Gold King Mine (GKM) release on August 5, 2015, EPA mobilized field crews to sample water, sediment, and biological data from river segments impacted by the plume. Rivers downstream of the GKM release included the Animas River near Silverton, CO to its confluence with the San Juan River in Farmington NM, and the San Juan River from the Animas confluence to Lake Powell in Utah. A detailed examination of the water chemistry and sediment data collected from the Animas and San Juan rivers is presented in the EPA ORD report Analysis of the Transport and Fate of Metals Released from the Gold King Mine in the Animas and San Juan Rivers (EPA/600/R-16/296).
In this report, EPA presents its analysis of available biological data collected from the Animas and San Juan rivers to assess how the aquatic life responded to the GKM release. Biological communities provide a measure of water quality and aquatic habitat quality by responding to extreme events, such as the GKM release, and integrating stressors over time. Data gathered for this analysis include the EPA near-term (post-GKM release fall 2015) and long-term (fall 2016) biological monitoring of 30 locations, as well as biological data collected by federal, state, and tribal partners. The sampling and analysis approach was designed to evaluate potential changes in the species compositions, population abundance, and the concentration of metals in the tissue by comparing the post-GKM release data to the pre- release conditions.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

The upper Animas River immediately below the confluence with Cement Creek experienced the highest metal concentrations, the greatest number of water quality standards excursions, and the greatest deposition of GKM sediment, during and immediately following the GKM release. A significant increase in copper and decreases in manganese concentration were observed in benthic macroinvertebrate tissue in the near-term 2015 samples. Although these conditions existed, the pre- and post-GKM release analyses did not reveal any clear changes in the aquatic community. The lack of a biological response is largely because the aquatic life in this section of the river has been impacted for decades by legacy contamination from historic mine ore processing and ongoing acid mine drainage contamination. The sensitive macroinvertebrate and fish species that would be expected to respond to the GKM release were already extirpated from the upper reaches of the Animas River.

In the middle Animas River, we also did not observe a clear loss of, or change in the more sensitive macroinvertebrate and fish taxa that start to appear as one moves away from the concentrated historic mining operations in the headwaters. Our review of the Animas River adult fish population data collected by Colorado Parks and Wildlife near Durango agrees with existing state analyses, reports, and press releases that concluded fish were not exposed to acutely toxic concentrations in 2015. Naturally reproducing fish species (suckers and sculpin) and trout fry continue to be found in the Animas River at pre-release abundance levels weeks after and a year following the GKM release, however small bluehead suckers less than <200 mm were not observed in the 2016 data. The lack of a substantial biological response in this section of the river can be attributed to dilution of the plume, the dominant form of the metals was particulate rather than dissolved, and exposure duration was short, which resulted in fewer excursions of water quality standards.

Our analysis of fish tissue data collected by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish showed that many metals were significantly elevated in bluehead sucker and flannelmouth sucker liver and speckled dace muscle tissue samples collected in weeks after the GKM release in the lower Animas River. The degree of metal accumulation in liver differed by species, sampling location, and among the metals, with aluminum, cadmium, lead and manganese exhibiting the greatest concentrations. Cadmium and mercury in liver tissue and selenium in muscle were greater in the San Juan than in the Animas. When fish were sampled the following spring and fall in 2016, the concentration of metals in muscle/filet samples were similar to pre- release concentrations and were low throughout both rivers. For the most part, the elevated liver concentrations in 2015 did not translate to elevated muscle concentrations. Metal concentrations in muscle tissue never triggered human health consumption advisories. There were no fish population data available from this section of the Animas River to help us understand if the metal concentrations in fish tissue were sufficiently high to adversely affect the fish populations.

By the time the GKM plume reached its confluence with the San Juan River, total metal concentrations had declined by three orders of magnitude from what they were when the plume entered the Animas because of the combined effects of the dilution, chemical reactions, and deposition. The excursions of aquatic life water quality criteria in the San Juan were limited to metals that are also naturally high in the sediment and water.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish population data for the San Juan River show that fish abundance in 2015 and 2016 was generally within pre-release levels. The exception to this was the abundance of bluehead sucker, flannelmouth sucker, and speckled dace in the middle reaches of the San Juan River. These species had historically low abundance in this area in both 2015 and 2016. The razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow and channel catfish, however, had high abundance in 2015 and 2016, which are potential predator/competitor species. We cannot conclude that changes in the physical (i.e., release from the Navajo dam resulting in a short duration of increased flow) and chemical conditions in the San Juan River during and after the plume contributed to changes in species abundance as, the aquatic life water quality criteria excursions were limited and the flow increase was similar to a moderate-sized storm event. It is as plausible that a combination of ecological (increase of predator/competitor species) and physical interactions, and/or fisheries management actions (stocking of razorback and pikeminnow), contributed to the observed changes.

With respect to metals accumulated in biota one-year post-GKM release, metal concentrations measured in benthic macroinvertebrate tissue and fish tissue generally track the gradient of concentrations measured in sediment and water through the watershed. The highest metal concentrations in tissue were typically observed in the upper Animas and the lowest concentrations were observed in the San Juan. Localized high metal concentrations were observed in the post-release tissue data; however, the location at which the high concentrations were observed was not consistent among years highlighting the high intra- and inter- site variability in tissue concentrations. In fall 2016, many metals were elevated in benthic macroinvertebrate tissue when compared to the pre-release concentration; however, the high concentrations were also observed in the upstream and tributary samples suggesting that something other than the GKM release contributed to the concentration change. Likely explanations include differences in sample collection methodologies between years and taxonomic differences between sampling locations. A comparison of pre- and post-GKM fish muscle data among data provider showed similar concentrations that did not exceed human health consumption screening advisory levels.

The EPA 2016 sampling was the first effort to obtain biological data that covered the entire Animas and San Juan rivers in a single sampling event with consistent sampling methods. Our ability to conduct a watershed-scale analysis of data collected by all partners was limited by the different sampling and analytical methods and revealed the need for a consistent sampling approach. This was especially true for studies focusing on bioaccumulation of metals. Future watershed-scale monitoring efforts should include the development of consistent sampling methods when an objective is to compare results to data collected from other areas of the watershed.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The EPA last week released a “Biological Response Report” that shows the agency’s analysis of the Gold King Mine spill…

Based on data from before and after the spill, the EPA “concluded there was no measurable changes to fish populations and bottom-dwelling organisms” after the Gold King Mine blowout.

The EPA said aquatic life in the river near Silverton had already been killed off from decades of legacy contamination from historic mine ore processing and ongoing acid mine drainage contamination.

In Durango, where aquatic life does exist, populations were not affected because the spill had been diluted, the metals were not toxic and the time of exposure was relatively short, the EPA said.

The EPA said that while some fish accumulated metals after the mine release, water quality returned to normal when samples were taken the next spring.

The study highlights what many researchers in the watershed have known for some time: The Gold King Mine spill’s tangible effect on the environment has been relatively small.

Just days after the Aug. 5, 2015, spill, Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed more than 100 hatchery fish along the Animas River. None of the fish died.

In August, San Juan Basin Public Health released the results of a three-year water-quality study, also finding the Gold King Mine spill had no lasting impacts.

Mountain Studies Institute, which has extensively monitored the river since the spill, has long maintained aquatic life had not been seriously affected. Recently, the group released a study that showed the 416 Fire runoff was by far more impactful.

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]