R.I.P. Steve Fearn

Steve Fearn via the Colorado Water Congress.

Steve Fearn

From Silverton, in the heart of the San Juan Mountains high on the Animas River,
in between Red Mountain Pass and Molas Pass

flowing through Durango up into Lake Nighthorse

Steve Fearn represented Southwestern Colorado on the Board of the Colorado
Foundation for Water Education 2011 to 2016

bridging the Great Divide tirelessly.

Sure, steady, a wise and patient counselor, he held and served all of Colorado
in the highest respect.

You are with us, Steve!

Greg Hobbs (April 23, 2018)

Steve Fearn. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Longtime Silverton resident wanted to bring back mining

Steve Fearn, one of the founders of the Animas River Stakeholders Group who was involved with multiple water boards, and who at one time owned the Gold King Mine, died last week at his home in Silverton. He was 74.

It is believed he died from a dormant strain of malaria that he caught while working at mines in Indonesia in the 1980s, La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith said Monday. An autopsy is scheduled for Thursday.

“I think one of the main things about Steve is that even though he often disagreed with people, he was always looking for some common ground,” said Peter Butler, another founder of the stakeholders group.

Fearn was raised in Boulder and received a civil engineering degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder, according to Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Eventually, Fearn began his career building power plants, and was one of the lead engineers for the Craig Station Power Plant in Craig and the Hayden Generating Station near Steamboat Springs, Butler said.

Eventually, Fearn found his way to the Western Slope in the 1970s, working for a time at the mill for the Idarado Mine in Telluride, Butler said.

However, Fearn planted roots in Silverton when he moved there in the 1970s.

“He did do some work on several of the different mines,” Butler said. “He’s been underground in a few of those mines up there.”

In the early 1990s, after Silverton’s last mine closed and issues over water quality in the Animas River watershed became a growing concern, Fearn and others formed the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

At the time, many people believed the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado imposed water-quality standards that didn’t take into account natural loading of heavy, potentially toxic metals into the waterways.

The stakeholders group was then tasked with drafting more realistic water-quality goals, and eventually evolved into a group that conducted numerous cleanup projects throughout the watershed.

Butler said there was some level of conflict in the forming of the stakeholders group, as interests were divided among the mining industry and environmentalists.

Former miners even circulated petitions calling for the stakeholders group to get out of town, Butler said.

“He was always the level-headed voice from the mining industry,” Butler said.

Butler credited Fearn with taking the lead on many remediation projects throughout the years, including placing bulkheads on the Kohler Tunnel and the Mogul Mine.

However, critics of the stakeholders group say the group was an attempt to delay an all-out cleanup under the EPA’s Superfund program. While the stakeholders have helped improve water quality in the basin, major pollution sources outside the scope of the group’s purview has held back any major headway in accomplishing goals like restoring aquatic life in the Animas River from Silverton to Durango.

Fearn, over the years, was one of the staunchest opponents to Superfund, arguing the designation would eliminate any chance of mining’s return to Silverton and place a stigma on the town that would hinder tourism.

“He wanted to revive mining … and he didn’t make any bones about it,” said San Juan County Judge Anthony Edwards. “He wanted to bring an economy where people were paid living wages, and he believed mining was the best option for that.”

Fearn himself tried to bring back Silverton’s dying mining industry over the years. In 2000, he purchased the Gold King Mine. He then attempted to get the Pride of the West mill at Howardsville, north of Silverton, back in operation.

Butler said Fearn believed it was better to make mining viable in the U.S., where there is some level of environmental and labor force regulations, rather than other countries without those rules in place.

“He believed you may be doing a lot more damage to the Earth by sending mining to different countries,” Butler said.

However, due to a complex entanglement of lawsuits, Fearn and his mining ventures were foreclosed on around 2004. The Gold King Mine was then purchased by Todd Hennis in 2005.

The EPA in August 2015 caused a mine blowout at the Gold King Mine while working on a cleanup project at the site. The spill released 3 million gallons of mine waste laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.

In fall 2016, the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which encompasses nearly 50 mining-related sites throughout the Animas watershed, was officially declared a Superfund site.

Fearn was named in a lawsuit filed by New Mexico over the spill. He was not considered a “potentially responsible party” – a term the agency uses for people or companies it regards as financially responsible for a cleanup, EPA said Monday.

Fearn also served on numerous water-related boards. He represented San Juan County on the Southwestern Water Conservation District for 22 years, serving 10 of those years as vice president.

“He was always willing to listen and find solutions,” Whitehead said. “He didn’t just say no, he looked for alternatives and worked hard to do that.”

Butler said Fearn is credited for getting the water conservation district to fund projects that would improve water quality. He also served on the working group that eventually produced the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act.

Fearn was ousted as a representative, however, by San Juan County commissioners in February 2017 after they said Fearn’s representation no longer reflected the county’s values.

“Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests,” county attorney Paul Sunderland said at the time. “But the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

Whitehead said Fearn was named a director emeritus despite being replaced on the board.

“He will be missed greatly,” Whitehead said. “He was a good guy and a friend.”

Edwards said more information will be forthcoming on a memorial service to be held sometime in May.

Gold King Mine Entrance after blow out on August 5, 2015. Photo via EPA.

Down ‘The River Of Lost Souls’ With Jonathan Thompson — Colorado Public Radio

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathan Heffel). Click through to listen to the interview:

A new book puts the Gold King Mine spill within the long history of mining and pollution in Southwest Colorado.

Jonathan Thompson will be at the Book Bar tonight. I wonder if Denver is a bit of a shock to his system even though he’s a sixth-generation Coloradan?

I am so happy to finally get to finally meet Jonathan. His new book, River of Lost Souls, is an important read. Understanding the industrialization of our state over the years will help us chart a less destructive course.

I loved the passages where Jonathan reminisces about spending time around the Four Corners and in the San Juans. He transports you to those times in your life spent next to the river or exploring what sights the land has to offer. He connects you to the Four Corners in a way that only a son of the San Juans could.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

Community groups help ease the anxiety of a superfund listing

One of the many smelters that once operated in the Pueblo area. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The Colorado Smelter processed silver and lead for 25 years before it closed in 1908, leaving behind a toxic footprint that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods of Pueblo in southeastern Colorado.

However, it wasn’t until more than a century later that an inspection found lead and arsenic levels posed a risk to residents. An early study area included more than 1,900 potentially affected homes.

The need for a cleanup project was clear, but the community of Pueblo was torn.

Some residents were truly worried about the health effects from lead and arsenic poisoning, while others felt the problem was overblown and a major cleanup project would further strain the community’s struggling economy.

With seemingly no other options, it became apparent the only true path to cleaning up this legacy of pollution was through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup project – Superfund.

One of the community’s demands from the outset was to have a seat at the table with the EPA and other partners at key moments of decision-making, so the community could guide that process from its perspective.

The people of Pueblo accomplished that by creating, through the EPA’s process, a Community Advisory Group made up of a variety of interested people, residents, landlords, environmental groups and locally elected officials.

‘A need to get diverse interests together’

The situation in Pueblo is eerily similar to Silverton’s and its connection to hard-rock mining, which defined the community a century ago but ultimately left behind a complicated mess.

The small mountain town north of Durango, with a population of about 600, largely opposed a Superfund listing for two decades, fearing it would deter future mining in the region and adversely affect tourism.

However, the path toward a Superfund designation became inevitable after the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill, when an EPA-caused mine blowout released a torrent of waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers, turning them orange.

One of the major selling points in getting Silverton’s support for the Superfund listing was a promise from the EPA that the community, filled with old miners with extensive institutional knowledge, would have a seat at the table.

Scott Fetchenheir, a geologist, former miner and San Juan County commissioner, said that since the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund was declared in fall 2016, the EPA has made good on this promise…

How CAGs work
For a CAG to be formed, a community simply needs to let EPA employees know they are interested in creating a group.

Then, it’s really up to the residents to decide how many people are in the group (the average CAG has about 15 people) and how often they want to meet.

“It’s community driven, and EPA wouldn’t want to influence how a CAG might organize or represent itself,” said Cynthia Peterson, an EPA spokeswoman who works with the Superfund site near Silverton.

Kristi Celico, an organizer and facilitator for CAGs throughout the country, says the groups are usually effective in walking the line of the variety of demands coming from a community.

“It helps put all those people in a room to help bridge those interests,” she said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but I’ve set up hundreds of (CAGs), and nine out of 10 times, it has a huge impact over time.”

Southwestern Water Conservation District annual seminar draws ~200 folks

No Name Rapid, Class V, mile 10, Upper Animas River, Mountain Waters Rafting.

From The Durango Herald (Patrick Armijo):

The Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 and the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 brought home just how painful disruptions in the water cycle from drought to human-made hazards can be.

Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Durango, voiced that message Friday before about 200 people at the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s annual Water Seminar at the DoubleTree Hotel.

Both the 72,000-acre fire and the spill that tinted the river orange with mine wastewater put the brakes on the whitewater rafting and river recreation economy, which, she said, was estimated in a 2006 study to bring in $19 million annually to Durango’s economy…

Even after the blaze, which destroyed 56 homes and killed a firefighter, the watersheds got hit again after rains funneled debris from the denuded burn area into streams, creeks and rivers.

She noted the snowpack this year remains dangerously similar to conditions in 2002.

On Friday, snowpack in the Dolores, San Miguel, Animas and San Juan river basins was at 44 percent of the 30-year average, according to Colorado SNOTEL.

In August 2015, the city again suffered a blow to its water economy when an Environmental Protection Agency subcontracted crew breached the Gold King Mine, sending 3 million gallons of mine wastewater laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.

“The thing we learned from the spill,” Metz said, “is that this had been occurring for a hundred years, but we didn’t pay attention to it because it wasn’t obvious to us.”

The spill, painful as it was, led to action to begin cleaning the legacy of 19th-century hard-rock mining in the San Juan Mountains that still threatens Southwest Colorado’s watersheds.

A Superfund site, Bonita Peak Mining District, has been established to begin cleanup of mine waste…

Lake Nighthorse, the latest enhancement to quality of life in Southwest Colorado, also directly depends on the health of the water cycle, Metz said.

Recreation on the reservoir, which is about 2 miles southwest of downtown Durango, is expected to generate $12 million annually for Durango’s economy, she said. On Sunday, opening day, she said, the lake attracted 800 people, overburdening the parking lot.

Federal judge consolidates #GoldKingMine lawsuits

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 Albuquerque Journal (Maggie Shepard):

A federal judge has centralized four of the lawsuits stemming from the Gold King Mine spill for hearing before a federal court in Albuquerque against the wishes of the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

Three of the suits were already seated in New Mexico, including those brought by New Mexico, residents of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. The fourth suit was brought by the state of Utah, which hoped to delay a decision on running all of the lawsuits through the same federal judge.

The New Mexico residents, part of the McDaniel lawsuit, told the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation they supported the centralization, according to the panels order issued Wednesday.

“Given the apparent complexity of the factual issues, as well as the potential for significant tag-along activity” centralization is warranted, federal Judge Sarah Vance, chair of the panel, wrote in the order.

The lawsuits target Environmental Restoration LLC, the company working on contract with the Environmental Protection Agency at the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo., in 2015 when the mine’s containment system burst and flooded the Animas River with more than 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater, including more than 500 tons of heavy metals.

The company sought to have all of the lawsuits streamlined through one jurisdiction.

But New Mexico and the Navajo Nation had hoped “informal coordination and cooperation” would suffice to keep the lawsuits moving…

The order says the four lawsuits will be heard before Chief Judge William P. Johnson’s federal court in Albuquerque in order to streamline the lawsuits by avoiding “duplicative, complex discovery” and “eliminate the potential for inconsistent ruling on sovereign immunity, government-contractor immunity, and other issues.”

Colorado’s legislature has approved legal action against the company and federal government, but an official lawsuit has not been filed.

Durango wastewater treatment plant on schedule

Durango

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

The largest construction project in city history, the Santa Rita Water Reclamation Facility, must improve the quality of water returning to the Animas River by March to meet state regulations…

The multi-million-dollar construction project was designed to remove more nutrient pollution from the water and increase the plant’s capacity, he said. New carbon filters are also planned to eliminate the infamous and sickening smell that sometimes permeates Santa Rita Park.

The city is eight months into a 24-month construction schedule, and, thus far, the project is on time and on budget, he said.

The first two major components of the plant – the aeration basin and the blower and chemical building – are scheduled to be finished in March. Those systems will remove nutrients to keep the city in compliance with state regulations, Boysen said.

Heightened levels of the naturally occurring nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous, can cause algae blooms that reduce oxygen in the water and kill fish, according to the Environmental Protection Agency…

The city contracted Archer Western to upgrade the sewage treatment plant for $54 million and set aside an additional $5 million to cover unforeseen costs, Boysen said in an email.

As of late December, the city had spent about $500,000 of its contingency fund, he said.

“There are always unanticipated issues or unknown conditions that require modifications to the original contract,” Boysen said.

In 2015, voters approved $68 million in debt to fund the plant and additional sewer infrastructure improvements.

To pay off the debt, residents saw three years of double-digit sewer rate increases. In January, rates go up another 3 percent, bringing the average city resident’s monthly sewer bill to $49.94, or about $599 annually. Those who live outside city limits but are connected to the city’s sewer services pay double.

@EPA orders Sunnyside Gold Corporation to conduct groundwater investigation at Bonita Peak Mining District 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

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Andrew Mutter/Libby Faulk):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today issued a unilateral administrative order to Sunnyside Gold Corporation to conduct groundwater investigation activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site (BPMD) in San Juan County, Colo. Sunnyside Gold is a current owner and past operator of the Sunnyside Mine in the BPMD.

“EPA remains committed to advancing the investigation and cleanup of historic mining impacts in the Bonita Peak Mining District,” said EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento. “The assessment of groundwater in the area is a fundamental step in identifying effective cleanup options for the site and improving water quality in the upper Animas River watershed.”

EPA issued the order to Sunnyside Gold Corporation to conduct a remedial investigation of the Bonita Peak Groundwater System, designated as Operable Unit 3, within the larger BPMD. EPA is ordering the company to complete this work so the agency can identify surface water impacts from the groundwater system, assess the condition of existing bulkheads associated with the groundwater system, determine the hydrological interconnection of the various underground mine workings, and evaluate potential cleanup options at this portion of the site.

It is anticipated that the RI will be conducted as an iterative fashion using adaptive management principles to identify opportunities for early or interim response actions as information and data is developed during the RI.

EPA’s order requires this work to begin in 2018, with some identified items being completed by the end of the year. The company has an opportunity to request a conference with the EPA to discuss the order before it becomes effective.

Additional background:

The BPMD became a Superfund site on Sept. 9, 2016, when it was added to the National Priorities List. The site consists of historic and ongoing releases from mining operations in three drainages: Mineral Creek, Cement Creek and Upper Animas, which converge into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado. The site includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings impoundments and two study areas where additional information is needed to evaluate environmental and human health concerns.

On Dec. 8, 2017, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt named the BPMD to a list of 21 Superfund sites across the nation which are receiving his immediate and intense attention.

For more information, please visit: http://epa.gov/superfund/bonita-peak.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Figuring out where contaminated water flows through a maze of mining tunnels and natural cracks has emerged as a primary challenge for moving forward in one of the most ambitious toxic mining clean ups attempted in the West.

Sunnyside’s properties are included in the 48-site Bonita Peak Mining District cleanup launched in 2016 after the Gold King Mine spill that was accidentally triggered on Aug. 5, 2015 by EPA contractors investigating a collapsed portal…

Local officials have raised concerns that EPA officials are studying the problem to death without getting the actual clean up done.

The EPA on Thursday issued “a unilateral order” to Sunnyside, owned by Canada-based Kinross Corp., “to begin investigation of the Bonita Peak groundwater system,” said Rebecca Thomas, the Superfund project manager.

“We need to understand how water moves through the mining system — not only the man-made structures, the adits and stopes, but also how it moves through natural faults and fissures,” she said. “This is so we can understand how best to improve water quality in the tributaries of the Animas River.”

Sunnyside Gold Corp. will review the order, reclamation operations director Kevin Roach said.

“Sunnyside is not the cause of water quality issues in the Animas River and its activities in the area, including spending $30 million on reclamation over the past 30 years, have resulted in less metals in the Animas basin than would have otherwise been the case,” Roach said. “We are hoping that our remaining assets can be efficiently utilized in timely, proven and effective solutions to improve water quality rather than pointless studies or litigation.”