@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.

#AnimasRiver: Wildfire (#416fire) runoff has severely impacted fish populations #ActOnClimate

Debris flow from 416 Fire. Photo credit: Twitter #416Fire hash tag

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

A fish count in the Animas River on Tuesday found populations have been drastically affected by deadly runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Fish kills because of ash and dirt washing into the river started in mid-July, but a massive rain event around July 17 likely killed most of the fish in the waterway, wildlife officials said at the time.

The dirty runoff lowers the oxygen content in water, suffocating fish, which have been further stressed by abnormally low flows and high water temperatures.

For the first time since the 416 Fire runoff events, wildlife managers with Colorado Parks and Wildlife conducted a fish survey to better understand the extent of the fish kill.

Usually, CPW will use an electrofishing device from a raft to stun fish to survey two 1,000-foot sections of the Animas River: from Durango High School to the Ninth Street Bridge and from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.

This year, low flows forced wildlife managers to use an electrofishing device from the banks and from in the river.

Jim White, an aquatic biologist for CPW, said in a normal year, a survey will find somewhere around 40 brown trout and 40 rainbow trout in the stretch from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge.

This year, CPW found one brown trout and one rainbow trout in that stretch and no molted sculpin, a small native species of fish that’s a key food source for trout.

In the stretch of river between Durango High School and the Ninth Street Bridge, CPW found four brown trout and two rainbow trout, as well as some molted sculpin, bluehead suckers and speckled dace.

“Normally, we’d catch 10 times that,” White said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife fish count Animas River August 2018: Photo credit: Joe Lewandnowski

From Neon Orange To Chocolate Brown: The West’s Unluckiest River Takes A Beating — KUNC

Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

From KUNC (Luke Runyon):

The mine spill temporarily closed down recreation in the river and forced farmers to shut off irrigation to their crops. But life in the river? It didn’t change much. The bugs and fish survived and showed no signs of short-term harm. The fish had been living with heavy mineralization of the water for decades.

Crisis averted — until this year…

The Animas began the summer with record low water because of drought and a warm winter. That primed the nearby mountains for a big wildfire. The 416 Fire ended up burning about 55,000 acres around the drainage basin for Hermosa Creek, a tributary of the Animas. Now when it rains over the burn area, a thick sludge washes into the river.

Horn says official surveys haven’t been conducted, but it’s likely the first few ash-laden runoff events killed 100 percent of the fish in a 30 mile stretch of the river.

“You could literally see the fish coming to the banks gasping for air. It physically smothered their gills and their ability to breathe,” Horn says. “So there it was, it didn’t look as bad. It came from a, you could argue, natural source and did way more damage.”

Many western rivers are stressed. They’re pressured by drought, pollution, overuse by cities and farmers and runoff from wildfires. The Animas acts as the perfect poster child.

“It certainly is unlucky,” says Scott Roberts, a researcher with the Mountain Studies Institute, a non profit research group based in nearby Silverton. “It’s unlucky now. And it’s been unlucky for throughout time really.”

The river’s facing problems that show themselves, Roberts says, like a vibrant orange smear or a chocolate brown sludge. Or like earlier this summer when the river’s water all but disappeared within Durango’s city limits, recording its record lowest flow in 107 years of data.

But there are many others that don’t draw intense public attention. Before the Gold King Mine spill, and even now, the river receives acidic water laden with heavy metals from the region’s numerous abandoned mines. Adding insult to injury, in July 2018 a truck carrying waste material from the mine site crashed into Cement Creek, another Animas tributary.

“It’s being stressed by drought, being stressed by warmer temperatures. It’s being stressed by runoff from wildfires, being stressed by elevated metal concentrations, being stressed by bacteria, by nutrients,” he says.

Roberts points to studies that showed samples of the river’s water with high levels of bacteria commonly found in humans, likely leached from underground septic tanks.

“I don’t think that the problems that are plaguing the Animas today are unique to the Animas,” says Trout Unlimited’s Ty Churchwell, based in Durango…

In fact, Churchwell says, all these issues are increasingly common throughout the West. Drought, ash-laden runoff and mine pollution are often the norm in western watersheds. The Animas has just experienced the extremes of all three in a short period of time…

But it could be another five to ten years before the Animas is back to its former self, according to water quality specialist Barb Horn.