#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]

Study will look at mining pollution at #LakePowell — The Deseret News #ColoradoRiver #COriver

San Juan Mountains March, 2016 photo credit Greg Hobbs.

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

The sediment study will begin this month to collect historical and recent data on metal concentrations.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Geological Society, the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are all part of the collaborative effort.

According to the agencies, the monthlong project will extract cylindrical, long-core samples at multiple locations along the river deltas entering Lake Powell.

Scientists say the cores should reveal how flash floods, historic mining in the Upper Animas River, mine remediation activities, and spring runoff affects the timing, mass and concentration of metals deposited into the lake.

“This study will help us understand whether human activities such as mining in the San Juan River watershed have impacted or pose a risk to the important recreational, aquatic life, and cultural resources of the San Juan River and Lake Powell,” said Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. “This project is a great example of applying science to inform water resources management.”

The survey will assess the concentration and distribution of metals at Lake Powell, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, mercury and lead.

Concentrations could affect water quality, human health and aquatic life, especially as drought continues to drag down the level of the lake. The lake is a critical component of a system that provides drinking water to 40 million people in the Southwest.

“This is the first study to collect and characterize sediment through the full thickness of the San Juan and Colorado river deltas,” said Scott Hynek, a scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Drilling long cores of sediment will allow USGS scientists to analyze metal concentrations from before the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed through the present day.”

@EPA asks courts to toss #NavajoNation’s lawsuit over #GoldKingMine spill — The Durango Herald #AnimasRiver

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, has asked that a federal court dismiss a lawsuit filed by members of the Navajo Nation seeking repayment of damages associated with the 2015 Gold King Mine spill…

While the EPA initially encouraged people and businesses to file claims for financial losses, the agency backtracked in January 2017, saying it was legally protected from any damages associated from the spill.

The states of New Mexico and Utah, as well as the Navajo Nation, filed lawsuits seeking compensation. New Mexico is seeking $130 million, Utah is seeking $1.9 billion, and the Navajo Nation is seeking $130 million.

Over the summer, the EPA, through the Department of Justice, filed similar requests to dismiss the claims, arguing the agency is protected from litigation under federal law.

The motion filed Thursday argues the same point in seeking to dismiss a lawsuit that represents about 300 individual members of the Navajo Nation who claim a cumulative of $75 million in damages…

The Department of Justice’s motion argues the EPA is protected under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which gives federal agencies a “discretionary function exemption.”

The EPA was acting according to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act by evaluating the mine for remediation and preventing environmental pollution of the Animas River watershed when the inadvertent release occurred, the motion states.

The motion states that so far, the EPA has spent $29 million on past and continuing efforts to address mine pollution in the Animas River watershed, including building a temporary water treatment plant and designating the area as a Superfund site.

The stage was set for a blowout at the Gold King Mine years before the EPA became involved in the situation.

With the plugging of the American Tunnel, many researchers and experts of the mine district around Silverton believe the waters of the Sunnyside Mine pool backed up, causing the Gold King Mine to discharge mine wastewater…

The lawsuit on behalf of Navajo members says the spill, which carried arsenic and lead, prevented them from using water for their crops and care for their animals, as well as personal use…

Ferlic said a hearing Monday will brings together her clients, the states of Utah and New Mexico, as well as the Navajo Nation, to set a date to discuss the motions to dismiss.

#AnimasRiver: Which was worse for water quality: #GoldKingMine spill or #416Fire floods? — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Study compared metal loading in both events; results surprised researchers

A new report shows that runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar this summer dumped higher concentrations of potentially toxic metals into the Animas River than the Gold King Mine spill three years ago…

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

In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally caused the Gold King Mine, near Silverton, to blow out, sending 3 million gallons of toxic waste down the Animas River, turning it orange.

Then, this July, heavy rain fell over the 416 Fire burn scar in the Hermosa Creek drainage, just north of Durango, and sent a torrent of black mud, rocks and other debris down the Animas River.

After both events, Mountain Studies Institute, an environmental research and education nonprofit, extensively monitored and researched the impacts on aquatic life and water quality in the Animas River.

Though only a few months removed from the July floods, the preliminary data show the impacts of the Gold King Mine spill pale in comparison to the mudslides and debris flows from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said that point was made clear when the 416 Fire runoff caused nearly all the fish in the Animas River to die.

By comparison, there has never been any evidence that the tainted Gold King Mine water caused any die-off of aquatic life.

Roberts’ study backs this with data.

The study took samples at the height of the 416 Fire debris flows on July 17 and July 24 on the Animas River, near Rotary Park, and compared it to samples taken during the mine spill as it passed through the same spot Aug. 6 to Aug. 9, 2015.

@USBR releases draft Environmental Assessment for the #AnimasRiver Water Quality and Resilience Improvement Project, comments due by October 22, 2018

Animas River photo via Greg Hobbs.

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Justyn Liff, Ernie Rheaume):

The Bureau of Reclamation has released a draft Finding of No Significant Impact and Environmental Assessment for the Animas Water Quality and Resilience Improvement Project. The proposed project would implement riparian and streambank restoration activities at three sites identified in the Lower Animas River Watershed Based Plan, including the Flora Vista River and Riparian Restoration; Ruins Road Riparian Pasture Improvement; and Road 3133 Riparian Revegetation.

The project would improve water quality and resilience of the river. The project includes: river bank restoration, removal of Russian olive, reestablishment of native riparian species, river bank re-sloping to decrease sedimentation and fencing to exclude livestock access.

The draft FONSI and EA is available by contacting Reclamation at jliff@usbr.gov or erheaume@usbr.gov.

Reclamation will consider all comments received by Monday, October 22, 2018. Submit comments by email to erheaume@usbr.gov or to: Ed Warner, Area Manager, Bureau of Reclamation, 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, CO 81303.

@USFSRockyMtns: #416Fire contained 3:00PM Friday, October 5, 2018

The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, ignited on June 1, 2018. By June 21, the wildfire covered more than 34,000 acres and was 37 percent contained. Photo credit USFS via The High Country News

From the USFS via the The Cortez Journal:

The U.S. Forest Service declared the 416 Fire “controlled” at 3 p.m. Friday.

Remnants of Hurricane Rosa helped douse lingering flames burning within the 416 Fire containment lines, according to a news release issued Friday afternoon by the U.S. Forest Service.

The 54,000-acre fire started June 1 about 10 miles north of Durango and was declared fully contained 61 days later on July 31, meaning fire crews had the blaze contained within a certain boundary. Controlled means there is no active fire within containment lines and no hot spots near the containment lines.

But the Forest Service said the fire continues to smolder in spots, and smoke could occasionally rise from the burn area, according to the release.

It may be months before the fire is completely extinguished.

Snow, freezing temperatures or consecutive days of heavy rain may be needed to completely extinguish the fire.

Much of the 416 Fire burn area is closed and will remain closed for months to come, according to the news release.

The Forest Service, which is responsible for investigating the cause of the 416 Fire, has not determined what started the blaze. The agency intends to issue a ruling in late fall or early winter.

#Drought news: Record low streamflow on the #AnimasRiver at Durango

The Animas River in Durango, in Apri, 2018. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

For the past week or so, the river in Durango has registered the lowest flows ever recorded at a water-level gauge, which has been in operation for 107 years, located behind the Powerhouse Science Center, according to data maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Around Sept. 26, the Animas River dipped below 100 cubic feet per second – the measurement used for waterways.

According to a review of the water-level gauge’s data, the Animas River has never dropped below 100 cfs.

Robert Kimbrough with the USGS in Denver said although the gauge shows the Animas below 100 cfs, the information needs to be confirmed before it can be considered an official record. He did not have a timeline for when that would be finished.