The civil complaint states that plaintiffs in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado were forced to stop using water from the San Juan River for crop irrigation, livestock watering and household purposes due to contamination from mine waste released on Aug. 5, 2015.
Group members claim crop harvests were lost due to the lack of irrigation and that livestock were unable to graze or drink water from the river. In addition, several ranchers sold livestock at a reduced price due to a decline in the animals’ quality.
The 114-page complaint was filed Aug. 3 in U.S. District Court of New Mexico. It seeks approximately $75 million in damages.
Along with the federal agency, the complaint lists as defendants Environmental Restoration LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc., Sunnyside Gold Corp., Gold King Mines Corp., Weston Solutions Inc., Salem Minerals Inc. and San Juan Corp., which the document describes as either EPA contractors or mine owners…
Kate Ferlic, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a press release today that farmers and ranchers used various resources to try to save their crops and livestock, but to no avail.
“They trucked in water, they hand-carried gallons of water down long dirt roads, some even tried to use their tap water. The spill was a very real crisis for the Navajo people,” Ferlic said.
She added that while each of the 295 plaintiffs filed administrative claims with the EPA, the agency still has not acted on those requests…
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and tribal council Speaker LoRenzo Bates weighed in on the litigation in the press release.
Begaye said the spill was a disaster for the tribe and tribal members.
“The San Juan River has enormous cultural and spiritual significance for our nation in addition to its practical and economic importance. It is our lifeblood. Most of the farmers and ranchers have lived and farmed on these lands for generations,” the president said.
Bates said the spill resulted in farmers being unable to irrigate crops, causing a loss of the harvest, which is the sole source of income for many people.
While some farmers could save their crops by using other sources of water, a stigma developed about water contamination and crops grown in the area, resulting in people not purchasing produce from farmers, he added.
“Our people endured clear and significant losses, and I look forward to the court doing them justice by ordering the EPA and the other responsible parties to pay up for those losses,” Bates said.
Residents who live in Fountain Valley southeast of Colorado Springs are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the perflourinated compounds which have contaminated their drinking water supplies.
The requests came during a two day “community engagement” event sponsored by the EPA.
“I think this is a big deal,” said Fran Silva-Blayney of the Sierra Club’s Fountain Creek Water Sentinels. “It’s a big deal in terms of bringing public awareness to the issue and in terms of the EPA recognizing that we need to take regulatory action.”
Silva-Blayney said the community wants the EPA to set “maximum contaminant levels.”
The contamination in the public water supplies of Fountain, Security and Widefield came from firefighting foam, which was used for decades at Peterson Air Force Base.
Several residents and former residents raised questions about the health impact of long-term exposure.
“My father died of kidney cancer last year,” said Mark Favors, a member of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
Favors told Denver7 that he was born and raised in the valley, and then moved to New York eight years ago.
“My cousin was here yesterday,” he said. “His grandson, at 14 years of age, had to have a kidney replaced, a transplant last year.”
“We would really like to know, do we have hereditary cancers, or do we have environmental cancers?” said Liz Rosenbaum, who founded the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition.
“Summit was amazing”
Rosenbaum said she is encouraged by what’s going on.
“The community wants to be more actively involved,” she said, adding that it’s a way to stay informed.
“When you’re scared, you get angry,” she said, “and if you know what’s going on, you can develop solutions and ideas.”
State health officials say they don’t know yet how widespread the contamination problem is in Colorado.
So far, contamination has been found during tests of public wells in the Fountain Valley, Commerce City and at a fire station on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Boulder County.
“We’re in the initial stages of identifying potential sources in the state,” said Kristy Richardson, an environmental toxicologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We’re looking at all those sources that have been used in industry and manufacturing.”
The EPA’s advisory limit for Perfluorooctanesulfonic acids (PFOs) and PFAS is 70 parts per trillion.
Residents who attended the EPA’s meetings would like to make it a regulatory standard and much tougher than 70 ppt.
“We have a health advisory for two substances, in a family of 3,000… so we don’t know if we’re removing all of them,” Richardson said. “Residents are very concerned about getting them out (of the water) and making sure they’re not exposed to them anymore.”
The Colorado Springs meeting was the third of four community forums scheduled across the country this summer, each hosted by the EPA, to collect feedback from people on the ground dealing with PFAS contamination.
“Understanding and addressing emerging contaminants such as PFAS is difficult, but critically important,” explained Doug Benevento, administrator of EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado and other western states. “The experiences and perspectives shared by state and local officials as well as community groups today, in addition to the numerous members of the public, will be invaluable as EPA develops a plan to manage PFAS.”
PFAS contamination is a growing concern among public health and water management professionals nationwide, with at least 40 states experiencing some form of contamination, according to the Environmental Working Group. The EPA says it has identified the issue as a high priority, and is in the process of developing new rules to regulate contamination levels in drinking water…
“We need regulatory infrastructure in order to, number one, compel investigation and clean up, but also to promote a more consistent approach to addressing PFAS nationwide,” Tracie White of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told EPA officials Wednesday.
Her concern was echoed by members of the public and by those responsible for managing affected drinking water systems, who urged the EPA to establish a legally-binding Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, for the chemicals.
“Health advisories have the same connotations and effect as maximum contaminant levels, but none of the support that an MCL provides,” said Brandon Bernard, water manager for Widefield Water and Sanitation.
For their part, EPA officials didn’t say whether an MCL would be forthcoming, but said the agency is looking at a range of options to regulate the chemicals, including listing them as “Hazardous Substances” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, otherwise known as Superfund. Jennifer McLain, deputy director of the agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water, said she couldn’t give a timeline for any future regulatory decisions, but stressed that the agency is “moving as quickly as possible.”
Over the course of the two day forum, residents of Security, Widefield, and Fountain also shared their experiences with contamination in the area. Liz Rosenbaum, who has lived in Security and Widefield for 15 years, spoke on behalf of the grassroots group, Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition…
Many community members also said that they feel they’ve been left out of important discussions about the future of their drinking water, and haven’t been treated as stakeholders in the process.
Still, Rosenbaum said the community forum was a good first step, and that she was encouraged by the dialogue that took place. Going forward, she said she hopes the conversation can continue, so that the “community feels more connected in decision making processes” as the EPA and other agencies work to address the issue of PFAS contamination here in El Paso County and nationwide.
Over and over, residents and clean water advocates implored the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday evening to set enforceable drinking water standards for the toxic chemicals contaminating their water — and at tighter levels than the agency currently deems acceptable.
Their pleas came during the EPA’s third stop in a nationwide tour meant to help its leaders create a management plan for the toxic chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds. It marked the first opportunity in more than two years for people affected by the toxic chemicals to sound off to the EPA on the contamination of their drinking water.
Many argued that the EPA’s response was past due.
His voice cracking, Mark Favors, 49, listed several family members who drank the water most of their lives and have since died, many from kidney cancer. He read the obituary of one, Shelton Lee King, a retired master sergeant who served in Vietnam and died in 2012 of kidney cancer…
The EPA’s current process for regulating chemicals does not call for instituting any new drinking water standards for perfluorinated compounds until 2021.
Jennifer McLain, the agency’s deputy director in charge of groundwater and drinking water, said the agency is trying to accelerate that process, though she gave no timeline for when that might happen.
“We are working as quickly as we can,” McLain said.
So far, the EPA has only committed to evaluate the need for an enforceable drinking water standard for the two best-known types of perfluorinated compounds: perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.
The EPA also is seeking to propose that those two chemicals be classified as “hazardous substances,” easing the process for seeking Superfund cleanup funding. And it is seeking to develop groundwater cleanup recommendations for both chemicals.
In addition, the agency is working to set toxicity levels for two other types of perfluorinated compounds. Neither was included in a different agency’s recent list of possibly dangerous chemicals.
The EPA’s management plan is due out by the end of the year.
Water managers for the El Paso County communities of Security, Widefield, Stratmore Hills, and Fountain have been working to rid their drinking water systems of Perfluorinated Chemicals since 2016. The contamination, discovered that year, traces back to firefighting foam used at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.
“Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, the Widefield Aquifer will still be contaminated if we don’t figure out a way to clean it,” said Fran Silva-Blayney, chair of the Sierra Club Fountain Creek Water Sentinels. “Is remediation even possible?”
Silva-Blayney was one of a handful of community stakeholders invited to speak at a listening session organized by the Environmental Protection Agency. Her comments and others carried the same message: the EPA isn’t doing enough.
“We are past the point of evaluating, proposing and recommending,” Silva-Balyney said. “People’s lives have been compromised. It’s time to regulate, enforce and remediate.”
In a statement, EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento said the community listening session would “inform our path forward in addressing PFAS in communities here in Colorado Springs and across the country.” Regulations are under consideration that would create an enforceable drinking water standard for two of the most common PFCs — mainly PFOS and PFOA.
Right now, EPA has an advisory in place, which isn’t enforceable. Water districts in the area have chosen, voluntarily, to make sure drinking water has no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals. The agency could also classify certain PFCs as hazardous, and they’re developing groundwater cleanup recommendations if contamination is found.
On Aug. 5, 2015, Environmental Protection Agency workers at the long-abandoned Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, accidentally released 3 million gallons of acidic water. The orange plume, laden with iron, zinc, cadmium and arsenic, flowed into the Animas River, then on into New Mexico and Utah (“Silverton’s Gold King Reckoning,” HCN, 5/2/16). Those two states and the Navajo Nation filed lawsuits seeking to recoup millions of dollars in cleanup costs from the EPA.
In late July, the EPA filed a motion to dismiss the combined lawsuits. The agency says that court intervention is unnecessary because it’s already working on cleaning up the mess — the Gold King and 47 other mine sites got Superfund status in 2016. The EPA ran out of room for storing the sludge waste from water treatment, and in mid-June, workers began moving it to a controversial new site northeast of Silverton. Critics say that location endangers fish, and in early July, a sludge truck crashed, spilling 9 cubic yards into a creek. The EPA is still working on a long-term cleanup plan for the Superfund sites in the Upper Animas watershed.
Building a pipeline from Lake Nighthorse to Farmington could cost between $83 million and $173 million without calculating the cost of acquiring right of way access, a consultant to the San Juan Water Commission told the group today.
Rick Cox, a senior engineer for the engineering firm AECOM who also serves as a consultant for the San Juan Water Commission, targeted that figure while delivering a presentation for the water commission during its monthly meeting here.
The commission spent about $20,000 on a study to look at three alternatives that could help local water users if another mine spill occurred in Colorado and dumped toxic material in the Animas River. Those alternatives included building a small-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse, building a large-diameter pipeline from Lake Nighthorse and building additional storage reservoirs.
The lake is a storage facility located in a recently annexed portion of the city of Durango, Colorado. It stores water from the Animas River for several member entities including the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Tribe, the city of Durango and the San Juan Water Commission.
Building shallow ponds to increase the storage capacity by 50 million gallons at the lake was the least expensive of the three options cited during today’s meeting. Cox said it would cost about $18 million. The additional 50 million gallons of storage would last about 14 days.
The San Juan Water Commission represents Aztec, Bloomfield, Farmington and rural water users in San Juan County. Cox said not all of those water utilities would require additional storage capacity if another mine spill takes place.
He explained that some water utilities, such as the Lower Valley Water Users, already have enough storage capacity. Other water users, such as the city of Bloomfield, could benefit from additional storage capacity, Cox said.
Pipeline could provide water during drought
While the additional water storage capacity would help local water users if another mishap like the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015 occurs, it would not provide much help during drought conditions, Cox said.
A large-diameter pipeline could provide the water users with water for up to 114 days during drought, Cox said.
The commission is considering having a more extensive feasibility study conducted on the three alternatives presented by Cox. San Juan Water Commission executive director Aaron Chavez said that would cost about $250,000…
The San Juan Water Commission has rights to 20,800 acre-feet of water stored in Lake Nighthorse. During a drought, the water commission can call upon the Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association, which oversees Lake Nighthorse operations, to release water for San Juan County water users. Currently, the only way to get that water from Lake Nighthorse to the water users in New Mexico is to release it back into the Animas River. A pipeline would ensure all the water released from Lake Nighthorse reaches water users in San Juan County.
Animas-La Plata Operations, Maintenance and Replacement Association general manager Russ Howard warned commissioners not to rely on Lake Nighthorse. Howard said it could take years to refill the reservoir after water is withdrawn. He warned if there was a multiple-year drought, Lake Nighthorse could only be an option for one year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants a federal court to toss a lawsuit filed by Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation seeking the repayment of cleanup costs for a mine spill in Colorado that polluted rivers in three states.
The EPA said in a motion Wednesday that the court doesn’t need to intervene because crews are already working on the cleanup of water contaminated with heavy metals that was accidentally released from an EPA-monitored mine.
“Granting any relief in New Mexico, within the Navajo Nation, or in Utah would conflict and interfere with EPA’s exclusive jurisdiction over its on-going response action activities and cleanup remedies,” the federal government said in court documents filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
Utah is seeking for $1.9 billion in damages from the EPA. The Navajo Nation filed a claim for $162 million, and the state of New Mexico is seeking $130 million.
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife via The Pagosa Daily Post:
Drought, hot weather… and ash and debris flows from the 416 Fire… are meeting in an unfortunate sequence of events to hit the Animas River this summer, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials.
Because of the river’s low flow, the water temperature has been higher than normal and on some afternoons has risen above 70 degrees. Water temperature that high can cause fish to die. Consequently, CPW is requesting that anglers cooperate with a voluntary closure on fishing from noon to 7pm when the water temperature reaches 70 degrees.
Historical records for the river show that in mid-summer the Animas River averages 58 degrees.
“The temperature of the water does drop at night, so when the water clears we suggest fishing in the morning hours until noon,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region. “The fish are already stressed because of the warm water and their stress level only goes up when they start fighting a hook and line. Anglers can also go to high-elevation creeks where the water stays cool.”
Besides the water temperature, ash and debris flow increased this week; the river is running brown and fish are dying.
On July 10, after a local family reported dead fish in the river north of Durango, CPW determined that forest-fire ash flushed by heavy rain off the charred slopes killed the fish. Since then people are reporting seeing dead fish in the river from north of Durango all the way through town. The ash and debris flow came from the Hermosa Creek drainage which meets the Animas River about 10 miles north of Durango.
“We inspected the fish and found their gills were coated in ash, which caused them to suffocate,” Alves said. “In burned areas, the absence of vegetation and the presence of hydrophobic soils can lead to flash flooding and debris or ash flows even after small thunderstorms.”
The family that made the initial report collected 21 dead fish, 15 of them were brown trout. Those fish ranged in size from 16 inches to an inch or less.
Alves said that ash flows and sediment run-off are likely to continue throughout the summer as monsoon rains settle in; but some ash and sediment could continue to run off steep slopes for more than a year. The river, as of July 17, was running at about 300 cubic feet per second, compared to an average for this time of year of about 1,000 cfs.
“The water in the Animas River is so low that it can’t dilute the ash and sediment flow,” Alves said.
Trout are also stressed by all the float-craft on the river. When trout see something above they will seek cover in deep pools, behind rocks and under banks. When they’re forced to move they must use extra energy to stay safe; and because there is so little water in the river there are fewer places for fish to hide.
For anglers, CPW offers these suggestions to reduce stress on fish:
Buy a small thermometer and take the temperature of the water. If the temperature is 70 degrees or above, stop fishing.
Fish in the morning when the water temperature is cool.
Fish high-elevation streams which usually stay cool.
Use heavier tippet and land the fish quickly. Don’t “play” or tire fish.
Use barbless hooks which allow a quick release. Those using spinning gear – who don’t intend to keep fish – should press down the barbs of metal lures.
Release fish as fast as possible; minimize handling of fish and the amount of time they’re out of the water. Skip the photos for now.
Be sure to know the regulations for the river you’re fishing.
“Monsoon rains and, hopefully, snow next winter will help the river and fish recover,” Alves said. “But we can all do a little now to reduce stress on fish and on the river.”
CPW is an enterprise agency, relying primarily on license sales, state parks fees and registration fees to support its operations, including: 41 state parks and more than 350 wildlife areas covering approximately 900,000 acres, management of fishing and hunting, wildlife watching, camping, motorized and non-motorized trails, boating and outdoor education. CPW’s work contributes approximately $6 billion in total economic impact annually throughout Colorado.
Ash and debris carried by heavy rains from the 416 fire burn scar into the Animas River north of Durango suffocated thousands of fish, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said.
“We’re seeing thousands of fish struggle for their last gasp of air on the river 10 to 15 miles north of Durango, likely down into New Mexico,” said the spokesman for the Southwest Region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife Southwest, Joe Lewandowski. “We can’t even get an exact number because the river is so dark and brown, and we can’t do much about it until the runoff flushes out.”
Lewandowski added that the Animas River has not seen such a massive die-off from wildfire debris runoff in recent memory, though the Missionary Ridge fire wiped out the fish population in the Florida River northeast of Durango in 2002.
The hardest rains hit areas of the 54,129-acre burn scar about 5 p.m. Tuesday, the Durango Herald reported. The flooding and debris flows forced the closure of U.S. 550 and halted the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train. About 400 passengers were shuttled off the train, and about 200 campers at the KOA near East Animas Road were bused to the La Plata County Fairgrounds.
Wildlife officials and members of the public are primarily finding dead rainbow and brown trout as well as flannel mouth and bluehead suckers. The flannelmouth and bluehead suckers are of particular concern, since the two species are native and endemic to the Colorado River basin.
“They’re very hearty fish that have endured huge runoffs, low water levels, high temperatures and a variety of other pressures,” Lewandowski said. “But we’re not sure how they’re going to do with this type of ash and debris runoff because we’ve never seen anything like this.”
Parks and Wildlife’s first gauge on the severity of the fish kill will likely come in September.
Biologists plan to conduct a fish survey in 6 miles of the Animas River that run through downtown Durango in which they electroshock the fish and record their numbers, weight, size, species and other observations.