Durango wastewater treatment plant on schedule


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.”

Farmington: San Juan Water Commission meeting recap

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

San Juan Water Commission members have expressed concerns about recreation on one of the region’s larger reservoirs. Lake Nighthorse near Durango, Colorado, was built as part of the Animas-La Plata Project to store water for various entities in the region.

“The purpose of the reservoir is for us, not for recreation,” said Cy Cooper, who represents the city of Farmington on the commission.

The city of Durango, which recently annexed the reservoir, has said the lake will be open to recreational activities, including paddleboarding and kayaking, on April 1. The lake is scheduled to open to motorized watercraft on May 15, though city officials are still working on a plan for regulating that.

Russ Howard, the general manager for the Animas-La Plata Operation, Maintenance and Replacement Association, assured members of the San Juan Water Commission on Wednesday that recreation will not be prioritized ahead of water quality.

“The primary purpose for this project is a drinking water supply, and recreation comes secondary,” Russ Howard said. “We are not going to let recreation interfere with the main, primary purpose of this project.”

As of Monday, Lake Nighthorse was 97 percent full with nearly 112,000 acre-feet of water in it. The reservoir is expected to be 100 percent full by the end of June following 49 days of pumping water from the Animas River.

If local water users, such as the city of Farmington or the city of Aztec, need more drinking water, they can ask for water from Lake Nighthorse to be released into the Animas River. San Juan County water users could request water from Lake Nighthorse if drought conditions put a strain on water resources.

“People just need to realize that the lake is a dead pool if we destroy the viability of the water,” said Jim Dunlap, who represents rural San Juan County water users on the San Juan Water Commission.

Howard said the baseline data is in place so changes in water quality can be detected. He said monitoring will be in place for bacteria like E. Coli and for petroleum byproducts. If either of those are detected, recreation activities could be stopped or reduced.

An oil and gas separator has been installed at the boat ramp parking lot, Howard said. He said any oil or gas that leaks onto the asphalt will run into the separator.

“Regardless of how many rules and regulations you put in place, you’re still going to have the idiots that will have to be dealt with,” Howard said. “The city (of Durango) has assured us and the public that they will manage the idiot factor, but it’s going to be a full-time job.”

Members of the commission also received packets on Wednesday that included graphs and updates about water resources, including snowpack and stream flow data. The data was from organizations including the U.S. Geological Service and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

According to the U.S. Geological Service stream flow data, the Animas River’s flow in February was 47 and 63 percent of average, depending on the location of the gauge. The flow was below the 2002 levels, a year that turned out to be one of the driest on record. The Durango Herald reported this week that the Animas River in Colorado had reached record-low levels for this time of year.

As of Tuesday, the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center was reporting snowpack that was 53 percent of the median snowpack from 1981 until 2010 in the Animas Basin and 58 percent of median in the San Juan Basin.

Drought conditions in the Four Corners region have worsened since the beginning of the year, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The monitor also shows that drought conditions in the Four Corners region are worse now than they were at the beginning of March 2002.

#AnimasRiver: U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit says @EPA followed the rules for Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund designation

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Judges say EPA followed rules when including mining sites in cleanup area

The U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit issued the decision Tuesday to deny Sunnyside’s petition, which was filed by the mining company – a “potentially responsible party” in the Superfund cleanup – in December 2016.

Sunnyside had argued that of the 48 mining sites in the upper Animas River watershed the EPA included in the “Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund” site, 29 had not been properly evaluated and should be removed.

Sunnyside owns two of the 29 sites mentioned, including the Sunnyside Mine and the Mayflower tailings.

“We have no objections to there being a Superfund listing,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino previously said. “The petition is only challenging the unlawful listing of sites that were not assessed at all under the EPA’s own Hazard Ranking System.”

Perino did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit decision says the EPA did act lawfully and within its own protocols in the Superfund process.

In determining whether the mining district around Silverton qualified for a Superfund listing, the EPA scored 19 pollution sources under the agency’s Hazard Ranking System.

Each of the sources received a high enough score that indicated pollution was bad enough to be eligible for a Superfund listing. As a result, EPA proposed the entire mining district, scored and unscored sources, should be listed.

The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was declared in September 2016.

Months later, Sunnyside argued the EPA was wrong to create a Superfund site that had unscored sources, claiming the EPA must score each contributing source of contamination before adding it to the broader Bonita Peak site.

But the court said text of the HRS process “alone is enough to refute this assertion,” which says a Superfund “may include multiple sources and may include the area between sources.”

“The BPMD is a site (comprised) of the 19 scored sources and the areas ‘between’ them, as the HRS explicitly permits,” the court said. “Sunnyside’s mine falls into the category of an ‘area between sources’ and therefore did not need to be scored.”

The court said: “Sunnyside’s real concern became apparent at oral argument. It claims its mine has been fully remediated and had no part in the present pollution of the site, but it may nevertheless be required to pay for some or all of the cleanup.”

Sunnyside Gold is considered the largest “potentially responsible party” in the district – a term the EPA uses for entities it considers financially on the hook for cleanup.

#Snowpack news: South Platte Basin drops to 91% of normal despite recent snowfall

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map February 23, 2018 via the NRCS.

From The Independent (Colton Branstetter):

Low snowpack in Southwest Colorado could affect spring runoff and the local economy if levels do not rise.

The Southwest corner of the state’s snow water equivalent is 54 percent of normal, according to recent data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Snow water equivalent measures how much water is in the snowpack and is the standard for keeping track of snowpack, John Andrew Gleason, lecturer of geosciences at Fort Lewis College, said.

A potential downside of the snow water equivalent measurement is that it uses a 30-year moving average, Gleason said. As the years get drier, what is considered normal is drier too.

The Snowpack

The snowpack for 2018 is very low, Gleason said. Currently, the snowpack is lower than in 2002, the driest year on record in southwest Colorado and when the Missionary Ridge Fire happened.

The snow year is already halfway over, Gleason said. However, March and April is when this region generally gets the most snowfall, he said.

“The best thing that could happen is that it’ll snow,” he said

A heavy, wet snow is the best type of snow for the snowpack because it compacts and contains lots of water, he said.

A low snowpack and warm spring can lead to problems during the rest of the year. A colder spring is ideal so that the snow doesn’t melt off too fast, Gleason said.

Warm spring weather has been occurring earlier in the year, Julie Korb, a professor of biology at FLC, said. This dries out vegetation and leads to dangerous wildland fire conditions in the summer and fall, she said.

“In 2002, one of the reasons we had such a bad fire season here was the low snowpack and very little runoff,” Gleason said.

Dust, which decreases the reflectivity of snow, increases the rate of snowmelt in the spring, Gleason said.

As the snow melts and uncovers more exposed ground, there is more potential for wind picking up and carrying dust onto the snow, Gleason said.

Another possible problem is water supply. Reservoirs are currently close to normal, but water managers will drain the reservoirs in preparation for spring run off, Gleason said. It could be a problem if the runoff doesn’t fill the reservoirs back up, he said.

Low snowpack also increases avalanche danger because the snowpack is unstable. This was seen in the January avalanche death of a FLC alumnus, Gleason said.

La Niña

Low snowpack this year can be attributed to the La Niña weather pattern. La Niña years happen when water is cooler in the Pacific Ocean, which sends storms more north of Southwest Colorado, Gleason said.

La Niña years are normal or drier than normal for the Durango area, Gleason said. We are also in the second La Niña year in a row, and the second year tends to be drier, he said.

The perfect storm for this area is a low-pressure storm that sits above us rather than moving east too quickly, Gleason said.

“If you see rains in Los Angeles, and the winds are out of the southwest, that usually will predict a pretty big storm for us,” he said.

Local Economy

The Animas River could see lower flows, impacting rafting and water sport tourism in the summer, Tim Walsworth, Business Improvement District executive director, said.

It is hard to keep track of economic effects of warm winters in real time, Walsworth said. The best indicator of downtown patronage is sales tax, which isn’t immediately available.

Current sales tax figure are only available from last November, he said.

Winter is already a slower time of the year for Durango, Walsworth said.

January and February are usually the slowest tourism months in downtown, Theresa Blake Graven, public relations consultant at the Durango Area Tourism Office, said.

“We’re in a bit of a different situation here in Durango because we’re not like Crested Butte that’s completely dependent on skier tourism,” Graven said. “We have a lot of other stuff going on,” Graven said.

Polar express train bookings were up 10 percent over last year, Christian Robbins, marketing manager at the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad said.

The railroad estimates that 70 percent of the 33,000 passengers come from outside of the area, which leads to money being spent in Durango from lodging and other hospitality, Robbins said.

Downtown Durango’s peak activity occurs in July, and the second-best month is in December, Walsworth said. The winter festival Snowdown can bring needed business to town at the beginning of February, he said.

Snowdown was originally created to bring more more business into town during the slow winter months, Graven said. However, Snowdown tends to bring a more local crowd rather than people from out of town, she said.

From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

[February 20, 2018] A western shift of a high-pressure ridge over the Pacific Ocean is allowing more storms to reach Southwest Colorado, according to the National Weather Service.

The ridge has been blocking winter snowstorms from the northwest from reaching Colorado, but two weeks ago, it moved out of the way, said meteorologist Megan Stackhouse, with the weather service office in Grand Junction…

On Tuesday morning, towns across southwest Colorado woke up to a fresh blanket of snow from Monday’s storm. Dolores registered 4 inches, Cortez had 2 inches, Mancos had 2.7 inches, and Farmington got 1 inch.

Ski areas are celebrating. The Hesperus ski area received 6 inches of fresh powder. In the past 24 hours, 9 inches of snow dumped onto to Telluride, which has seen 2 feet of new snow in the past seven days. Purgatory reported 10 inches yesterday’s storm, with a total of 33 inches of new snow in the past seven days.

Snowpack for the Dolores Basin is gaining ground because of the recent storms, and reached 50 percent of average as of Feb. 20. That is up from 40 percent of average on Feb. 12.

#AnimasRiver: Federal Judge denies contractor’s motion in #GoldKingMine spill

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

A federal judge in Albuquerque ruled Monday that certain claims can proceed in consolidated civil lawsuits filed against a contractor for the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill.

U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo dismissed part of a motion filed by Environmental Restoration LLC, one of the companies contracted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct environmental remediation at the mine.

The St. Louis-based company was among those named in separate lawsuits filed in 2016 by the state of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

The state and the tribe claim environmental and economic damages have occurred due to the EPA and its contractors releasing more than three million gallons of acid mine drainage and 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas River watershed as the result of a breach at the mine.

The state and the tribe are seeking compensation for the claims filed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA.

Environmental Restoration sought to dismiss the complaints and argued it was not liable for damages because it was not an operator, arranger or transporter as defined under CERCLA.

Armijo ruled Environmental Restoration cannot be released from the lawsuit, and the state and the tribe’s claims can proceed.

She also denied the company’s motion to strike the tribe’s request for punitive damages…

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Butch Tongate issued a joint statement on Wednesday regarding the court decision.

“We are pleased that our lawsuit against EPA’s contractor, Environmental Restoration LLC, will proceed and we look forward to continuing to work alongside the Navajo Nation to recoup the damages done to our environment, cultural sites and our economy,” the statement said.

The tribe called the decision “victorious” in its press release on Wednesday.

@EPA is considering deploying robotic explorers to ascertain conditions in troublesome mines

Explorer: This robot may have made a momentous discovery in a 2,000-year-old tunnel in Mexico. Photo credit: DailyMail.com.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Detroit News:

the EPA is considering using robots and other sophisticated technology to help prevent these types of “blowouts” or clean them up if they happen. But first the agency has to find out what’s inside the mines, some of which date to Colorado’s gold rush in the 1860s.

Wastewater containing toxic heavy metals has been spewing from hundreds of inactive mines nationwide for decades, the product of complicated and sometimes poorly understood subterranean flows.

Mining creates tainted water in steps: Blasting out tunnels and processing ore exposes long-buried, sulfur-bearing rocks to oxygen. The sulfur and oxygen mix with natural underground water flows to create sulfuric acid. The acidic water then leaches heavy metals out of the rocks.

To manage and treat the wastewater, the EPA needs a clear idea of what’s inside the mines, some of which penetrate thousands of feet into the mountains. But many old mines are poorly documented.

Investigating with robots would be cheaper, faster and safer than humans.

“You can send a robot into an area that doesn’t have good air quality. You can send a robot into an area that doesn’t have much space,” said Rebecca Thomas, project manager for the EPA’s newly created Gold King Superfund site, officially known as the Bonita Peak Mining District.

Instruments on the robots could map the mines and analyze pollutants in the water.

They would look more like golf carts than the personable robots from “Star Wars” movies. Hao Zhang, an assistant professor of computer science at the Colorado School of Mines, envisions a battery-powered robot about 5 feet long with wheels or tracks to get through collapsing, rubble-strewn tunnels.

Zhang and a team of students demonstrated a smaller robot in a mine west of Denver recently. It purred smoothly along flat tunnel floors but toppled over trying to negotiate a cluttered passage…

A commercial robot modified to explore abandoned mines – including those swamped with acidic wastewater – could cost about $90,000 and take three to four years to develop, Zhang said.

Significant obstacles remain, including finding a way to operate remotely while deep inside a mine, beyond the reach of radio signals. One option is dropping signal-relay devices along the way so the robot stays in touch with operators. Another is designing an autonomous robot that could find its own way.

Researchers also are developing sophisticated computerized maps showing mines in three dimensions. The maps illustrate where the shafts intersect with natural faults and provide clues about how water courses through the mountains.

“It really helps us understand where we have certainty and where we have a lot of uncertainty about what we think’s happening in the subsurface,” said Ian Bowen, an EPA hydrologist. “So it’s a wonderful, wonderful tool.”

The EPA also plans to drill into mines from the surface and lower instruments into the bore holes, measuring the depth, pressure and direction of underground water currents.

Tracing the currents is a challenge because they flow through multiple mines and surface debris. Many tunnels and faults are connected, so blocking one might send water out another.

“You put your finger in the dike here, where’s the water going to come out?” Thomas said.

Once the EPA finishes investigating, it will look at technologies for cleansing the wastewater.

Options range from traditional lime neutralization – which causes the heavy metals dissolved in the water to form particles and drop out – to more unusual techniques that involve introducing microbes.

The choice has consequences for taxpayers. If no company is found financially responsible, the EPA pays the bill for about 10 years and then turns it over to the state. Colorado currently pays about $1 million a year to operate a treatment plant at one Superfund mine. By 2028, it will pay about $5.7 million annually to operate plants at three mines, not including anything at the Bonita Peak site.

The EPA views the Colorado project as a chance for the government and entrepreneurs to take risks and try technology that might be useful elsewhere.

But the agency – already dealing with a distrustful public and critical politicians after triggering the Gold King spill – said any technology deployed in Colorado will be tested first, and the public will have a chance to comment before decisions are made.

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