#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

San Juan National Forest Announces Release of the Final Hermosa Creek Watershed Management Plan

Here’s the release from the San Juan National Forest:

The San Juan National Forest has released the Final Hermosa Creek Watershed Management Plan. This is the “go-to” document for how the Hermosa Special Management Area and Wilderness will be managed. This document is different from the Environmental Analysis because it combines the proposed action with recently-signed decisions. It does not contain alternatives that were not chosen or much background information or rationale, which can be found in the EA.

Two travel-themed maps are posted showing new rules for motorized and mechanized (bicycle) uses in the Hermosa Creek watershed. The maps and Final Plan are available in the “Post-Decision” tab on the webpage: https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=43010

For additional information, please contact the Columbine Ranger District at 970-884-2512.

Animas High School chemistry students take a look at surface water and wastewater

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

From The Durango Herald (Patrick Armijo):

Marilyn Short and Luke Mick are gumshoes of sorts: They’re trying to solve the mystery of why the Animas River near Silverton has more caddisflies than would be expected after the Gold King Mine spill.

Sadie Vance, Abby Allsopp and Faith Mewmaw created an interactive fishing game where anglers using a yardstick converted to a fishing pole can test their luck catching wood cutouts of fish and attendant pollutants and heavy metals found in the Animas River.

Ryan Colley, Chole Walsh and Cole Elliott devised an interactive video game where players can learn how the upgrade to the wastewater-treatment plant at Santa Rita will cleanse the urban waste stream so it can be safely returned to the Animas.

They were among 65 Animas High School juniors in Steve Smith’s chemistry class who plunged into a subject that brings nervous jitters to many a former high-schooler as they delved into the world of ionic and covalent bonds and spectroscopy through the lens of studying water quality.

On Thursday evening at the Powerhouse Science Center, students presented projects from their study of water quality in the Animas River. About 150 people attended.

“Students get exposed to water quality in this town, and this allowed them to look at the issue in a different manner,” Smith said.

The students, he said, spent about two weeks on the projects, and the city of Durango and Mountain Studies Institute partnered with Short during the unit…

Chole, who joined Ryan and Cole in creating a video game based on upgrades to the wastewater-treatment plant at Santa Rita, said the city of Durango helped with research – and even provided a tour.

“We were introduced to how the water-treatment plant works. We were able to ask questions. It really helped me more than a basic lecture,” Chole said of her group’s Santa Rita tour.

The trio’s video game is only in its rudimentary stages, and the students want to develop more levels: As players advance, they gain more knowledge of the chemistry behind processes as wastewater moves through treatment stages before its eventual return to the Animas.

When asked if the trio could, on its own, do the necessary work to complete the video game, Ryan said, “If we had more time, I think we’d get decently close.”

Cole said the chemistry proved relatively easy to understand; the hard part of video game development was getting the game to operate properly on all three members’ laptops.

Marilyn’s study of caddisflies left one big impression: “I was surprised by how much life is in the river that I didn’t even know about.”

“Microinvertebrates are useful in determining water quality,” Luke said, adding he was stumped why the Animas near Silverton has more caddisflies than expected based on its water composition.

“No one really knows what’s up,” he said.

#AnimasRiver: #UT expands lawsuit over the #GoldKingMine spill

Cement Creek photo via the @USGS Twitter feed

From the Associated Press via The Salt Lake Tribune:

Utah has added the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a contractor as defendants in the state’s lawsuit over a mine waste spill in Colorado that polluted rivers in three states.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office said Friday it’s still negotiating with the EPA over damages from the spill but filed suit to preserve the state’s legal rights.

The state didn’t explain why it added the contractor, Weston Solutions Inc. Neither the EPA nor Weston Solutions immediately responded to after-hours emails seeking comment.

Utah sued mine owners and other contractors in August seeking unspecified compensation for the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine.

@USBR Continues Animas-La Plata Project Contract Negotiations with Ute Mountain Ute Tribe

Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

Here’s the release from the US Bureau of Reclamation (Marc Miller):

The Bureau of Reclamation is continuing negotiations on a proposed repayment contract for the Animas-La Plata Project with the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe for the Tribe’s statutory allocation of project water. The second negotiation meeting is scheduled for Thursday, January 11, 2018, at 1:30 p.m. at the Dolores Water Conservancy District office, 60 Cactus Street, Cortez, CO 81321.

The contract to be negotiated will provide for storage and delivery of project water and provisions for payment of operation and maintenance costs of the project.

All negotiations are open to the public as observers, and the public will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer comments pertaining to the contract during a thirty minute comment period following the negotiation session. The proposed contract and other pertinent documents will be available at the negotiation meeting, or can be obtained on our website at: http://www.usbr.gov/uc/wcao/index.html, under Current Focus or by contacting Marc Miller with Reclamation at 185 Suttle Street, Suite 2, Durango, Colorado, 81303, telephone (970) 385-6541 or e-mail mbmiller@usbr.gov.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill claims drop to $420 million

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015, after the Gold King Mine spill. Photo credit Grace Hood

From The Luxora Leader:

Farmers, business owners, residents and others initially said they suffered a staggering $1.2 billion in lost income, property damage and personal injuries from the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine, which tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

But the total now appears to be about $420 million. A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million.

It‘s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.

Under former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, the EPA said it was prohibited by law from doing so.

Now that they‘re in charge, Republicans have vowed to slash spending on the environment, leaving the prospects for compensation in doubt.