The #416Fire reminds us there’s no escape from #climatechange — @HighCountryNews

The 416 Fire started at about 10 a.m. on June 1, 2018, approximately 10 miles north of Durango, CO. Rocky Mountain Type 1 Incident Management Team is managing the fire. The fire is burning on the west side of State Highway 550 on some private land and on the San Juan National Forest. The fire is burning in grass, brush, and timber. The Weather conditions remain critical and fuels are ideal for significant fire growth. The fire has been very active and continues to burn in rough and inaccessible terrain. Many homes have been evacuated and structure protection is in place. Map via Inciweb

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

For longtime Southwesterners, this year’s low snowfall and high temperatures bring back memories of 2002, a year that seemed to stand as the region’s come-to-Jesus climate moment. The snow cover was thin to nonexistent, even in the high country. Fields dried up and Lake Powell began its big shrink. Record-breaking fires burned across the region.

But as the warm spring of 2002 moved into a scorching summer, I wasn’t worried. I lived in Silverton, Colorado, at 9,318 feet in elevation, where extreme drought for everyone else just meant a more pleasant summer for us. We could actually barbecue on Memorial Day instead of suffering through a blizzard, ride our bikes up the high passes before July 4, and swim in the Animas River without instantly contracting hypothermia. I believed that Silverton, which at the time was looking for new economic engines after the loss of mining, offered a refuge people would flee to, not from, when climate change manifested elsewhere in the form of drought, fire and desertification.

And so, on an early June afternoon in 2002, while the lowlands broiled, my friends and I sat in the lawn sipping cold beverages and enjoying perfect temperatures in our T-shirts and shorts. It was an uncommon pleasure during any month in Silverton. If this is global warming, I declared, then bring it on.

Just moments later, we noticed what looked like a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke from what would become known as the Missionary Ridge Fire. Over the coming weeks the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak, aspen, ponderosa pine and spruce forest, burn 83 structures, and batter the regional economy.

Flash forward to June 2018. Much like the Missionary Ridge Fire, the 416 Fire has been ripping through forests north of Durango since June 1, sending up roiling clouds of smoke and diminishing the air quality for miles around. The current fire was sparked almost exactly 16 years after the former in similar vegetation. This time, though, the flames were no surprise. We knew that the dry winter of 2018 would usher in an explosive fire season, which is not to say that the region took enough precautions.

During the Missionary Ridge Fire, and in its immediate aftermath, Silverton did not become a destination for refugees fleeing fire, heat and drought. To the contrary, despite the fact that the flames never got anywhere near Silverton, the mining-turned-tourist town’s economy took the biggest blow of all the region’s communities.

This year looks to be no different. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad — the primary artery for delivering tourist dollars to Silverton — has suspended service for the month of June because the coal-fired locomotives are a fire hazard. (In fact, the train is suspected of igniting the 416 Fire, though the official cause remains “unknown.”) One of just two highways connecting Silverton to the outside world has been closed on-and-off due to the fire, further hampering the ability of tourists to get to the town. Now, the Forest Service indefinitely closed the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest, cutting off mountain bike and hiking trails, campgrounds and jeep roads —along with a major revenue stream for the entire region’s outdoor recreation-oriented businesses.

Eventually, the rains will come and the fire danger will diminish and television screens will no longer be alight with images of southwestern Colorado’s forests engulfed by hellish flames. But the pain undoubtedly will resonate through the rest of the summer, just as it did in 2002 after the Missionary Ridge Fire subsided.

Repercussions may still be felt for years to come, too, particularly when it comes to the steam-powered train. In the wake of the 416 Fire, social media has stoked a movement pushing the railroad to switch to diesel locomotives — or not run at all — during times of extreme fire danger, before a blaze can erupt.

Such suggestions spark fervent pushback from train-reliant sectors of the economy and their supporters. Since diesel locomotives lack the authenticity and aesthetic appeal of their steam-powered cousins, they argue, such a switch could result in fewer passengers and less tourism revenue overall. “You must be a complete IDIOT,” says a representative commenter on Facebook. “This town is alive because of that steam train! You must be a transplant trust funder to think we don’t need the train.”

Replace “train” with your local industry of choice — mining, say, or oil and gas drilling — and the exchange repeats one that has resounded around the West for decades. Concerned citizens ask the mining companies to stop polluting the rivers, or the oil companies to plug their methane leaks, or the train to stop spewing sparks, and the industry and its foot soldiers always lash back: Even minor protective measures, they say, could kill the industry and bring down the whole economy with it.

This sort of short-term thinking, of prioritizing today’s bottom line over future environmental or public health, rarely pays off in the long term. Yesterday’s failure to address mining pollution is the Gold King Mine disaster of 2015, and today’s unfettered methane leaks are tomorrow’s climate change-caused water shortage. Today’s yearning for the authenticity of coal-fired locomotives is tomorrow’s economy-obliterating megafire.

Thirty years ago, coal trains could run without consequence through the “asbestos forest” of the San Juan Mountain high country. The drought of 2002, however, woke up the railroad’s owners to a changing world, one in which the ravages of climate change can — and will — affect even a quaint little tourist train and the quaint little town that relies on it. The railroad adjusted accordingly, having a firefighting team follow behind each train to extinguish blazes in their infancy. The 416 Fire — particularly if it is found to have been started by the train — will prove an even more brutal moment of reckoning, a grim reminder that yet more adaptation is needed.

I had my own moment of reckoning following that unusually toasty day back in 2002 when Silverton’s economy went up in smoke for the remainder of that summer. I realized then that Silverton will never become the sanctuary from global warming that I dreamed it would. This year the point is being driven home. There is no sanctuary, not really. In one way or another, the climate catastrophe that we have wrought reaches into every corner of our planet and our lives — even at 9,318 feet.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. This article was first published on June 15, 2018 by The High Country News.

From The Farmington Daily Times:

The 416 Fire near Durango, Colorado, reached 30 percent containment [June 18, 2018] as temperatures rose and humidity dropped.

Firefighters don’t expect the fire to grow above the current 34,161 acres today, but say there’s a potential for things to pick up later this week.

“Much of the fire is now in a state of smoldering and creeping, and active flames have been infrequent,” the 416 Fire team reported in Monday morning’s roundup. “Today, however, starts a weather trend that will quickly dry out fuels and re-elevate fire potential as the week goes on.”

The fire team echoed a statement made Sunday at a community meeting in Durango: the blaze that has burned more than 50 square miles is down, but it isn’t over.

#AnimasRiver: @EPA requests comments for interim plan for SW #Colorado mine clean up

The Animas River in Durango, in Apri, 2018. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From The Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

The interim plan concentrates on controlling or removing contaminants at 26 sites including campgrounds, mine waste piles, ponds and rivers. It will cost about $10 million and take up to five years, the agency said.

Five of the locations are recreation sites where people could be exposed to arsenic or lead, the agency said.

“EPA is interested in expediting cleanup so that we can show improvements in water quality wherever possible,” said Christina Progess, manager of the Superfund project…

The Gold King is not on the list of 26 sites chosen for interim work. The EPA said that’s because a temporary treatment plant was installed two months after the spill and is cleaning up wastewater from the mine.

The Superfund cleanup will eventually cover 48 mining sites, but the EPA said it chose 26 for interim work to reduce human and environmental risks while a long-term solution is studied.

The EPA said the 26 sites have elevated levels of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead or zinc.

Two of the recreation sites on the list are campgrounds and three are parking areas or locations where people meet for tours, the EPA said. The plan calls for covering mine waste piles and contaminated soil with gravel or plant growth to reduce human exposure and keep the contaminants from being kicked into the air.

The other work includes dredging contaminated sediment from streams and from ponds near mine openings, and digging ditches and berms to keep water from flushing contaminants out of waste piles and into streams.

The EPA is seeking public comment on the plan. The deadline for comments is July 16.

@COParksWildlife closes some state wildlife areas near #Durango; others and state parks remain open #416Fire #BurroFire

From email from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

To assist federal and local agencies during the current dangerous fire conditions and recently enacted public land closures, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced that some State Wildlife Areas in southwest Colorado are now closed to all public access. But in addition, several other water-based wildlife areas and two state parks remain open to the public.

In and near Durango the Bodo, Perins Peak, Haviland Lake, Devil Creek and Williams Creek state wildlife areas are closed until further notice. In Bayfield the Lion’s Club shooting range, managed by CPW, is also closed.

West of Durango in Dolores and Montezuma Counties, Lone Dome and Fish Creek State Wildlife Areas are also closed.

“We regret having to enact these closures, but we do so in an effort to protect the public and protect natural resources. These measures will also help with compliance to the recent closures enacted by the U.S. Forest Service and La Plata County,” said Adrian Archuleta, a District Wildlife Manager with CPW.

CPW also wants area residents and visitors to know that there are several other State Wildlife Areas and State Parks that remain open for recreation. CPW asks that people comply with any current local fire restrictions so that these areas can remain open for recreation.

The areas that are open include: Echo Canyon SWA in Archuleta County; Pastorious SWA in La Plata County; in Montezuma and Dolores counties — Summit, Puett, Narraguinnep, Totten, Twin Spruce, Dolores River, Joe Moore and Ground Hog Reservoir state wildlife areas.

Also open are Navajo State Park in Archuleta County; and Mancos State Park in Montezuma County. Both parks offer campsites, hiking, fishing and other water recreation.

@EPA finds place near Silverton to store #GoldKingMine sludge #AnimasRiver

The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

EPA officials announced last week that the agency has entered an agreement with a property owner who owns the Kittimac Tailings, a historic mine waste pile about six miles northeast of Silverton along County Road 2.

The EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant north of Silverton in October, three months after the agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent a torrent of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Since, the water-treatment plant has been treating and removing potentially toxic metals out of water that continues to discharge from the Gold King Mine. In April, the EPA said the mine was still leaking 450 gallons a minute.

The water treatment plant adds lime to the mine wastewater to raise the pH of the water so that dissolved metals become solid and can settle in settling ponds – a highly effective process.

The process, however, generates a lot of sludge. EPA has said an estimated 4,600 cubic yards of sludge is generated a year.

The agency had been storing this sludge waste product – which is considered non-hazardous – at the site of the water treatment plant in an area known as Gladstone, about six miles north of Silverton along County Road 110.

The EPA announced this spring, however, room was running out at Gladstone for the sludge…

Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said Wednesday local residents are pleased to learn the EPA found a better solution to the sludge waste issue.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s almost like this big experiment.”

The EPA has said it will mix the Gold King Mine sludge with mine tailings located at Kittimac.

The EPA believes this will reduce high water content of the sludge, and will allow more efficient management, while at the same time immobilize heavy metals found in the tailings pile…

The EPA said it is conducting a bench-scale testing of the sludge and tailings mixture to ensure the maximum reduction of metals leaching from the tailings. The agency plans to conduct a pilot test of this transfer process for one week in mid-June.

The Kittimac tailings pile for years has been used illegally by dirt bikers and ATVers who have disregarded “no trespassing” signs to ride on the mine waste that looks like a pile of sand. Now that the EPA is using the site, access will be more guarded, Tookey said…

While the short-term problem of where to put the sludge is temporarily solved, Fetchenheir said there remains the larger, more complicated matter at hand: what to do for long-term treatment of the mines draining into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River considered the worst polluter in the headwaters.

While lime treatment plants are effective, they are also expensive to operate ($1 million a year) and have to be run in perpetuity. The EPA has yet to release its plan for long-term treatment options.

“It’s hugely open-ended,” Fetchenheir said. “The true hope is some new technology arrives that removes metals without generating a huge amount of sludge. But I haven’t seen anything like it.”

For now, the EPA said it will transfer the sludge via truck using the County Road 110 bypass. The agency said it hopes to reduce negative impacts, such as noise and dust suppression.

After the pilot test in June, the EPA will resume transferring the sludge to the Kittimac tailings after the tourist season, around early fall, for a duration of about five weeks.

The 416 Fire and memories of 2002 — and 1879 — @JonnyPeace

From Jonathan P. Thompson:

Someone noticed a puffy cumulonimbus cloud rising up in the gap formed by the Animas River gorge and gave a little cheer. Winter and spring had been freakishly dry and warm, and we really could have used the rain. Something was off about the cloud, however, and we all grew quiet. It wasn’t a cloud at all, but a billowing tower of smoke.

That was 2002 and the smoke was from the Missionary Ridge Fire, ignited that afternoon on a slope about 35 miles south of where we sat. Over the coming weeks, the blaze would eat through 73,000 acres of parched scrub oak and aspen and conifer forest along with 83 structures. The local tourism economy, already dampened by the Dotcom bust and the 9/11 attacks of the previous year, was battered. It would be remembered as southwest Colorado’s summer of discontent.

Memories of and comparisons to that summer emerged last week when the 416 Fire broke out just across the valley from where the Missionary Ridge Fire was sparked 16 years earlier. The comparisons, unfortunately, are apt. Precipitation for the 2018 water year (which started Oct. 1, 2017) has thus far mostly mirrored 2002. Flows on the Animas River are slightly better than they were 16 years ago, but only slightly (see accompanying graphs). The conditions are therefore in place for a rerun of that smoky summer.

At this point, however, the 416 Fire does not appear to be a Missionary Ridge repeat, at least in terms of severity. The 2002 blaze was started by an errant spark, possibly from a car’s exhaust pipe, in the early afternoon of June 9, and it had blown up to 6,500 acres within hours. As I write this, the 416 Fire is spreading much more slowly, having charred 2,400 acres — and no homes — after four days of burning. High winds and hot temperatures could change all of that, of course.

The cause of the 416 Fire remains unknown. Embers from the coal-fired narrow gauge train that travels between Durango and Silverton are a fire hazard, yet the US Forest Service has reported the ignition point as being in the right of way of Highway 550, meaning the fire just as easily could have been started by a motorist’s tossed cigarette butt. In any event, the railroad and the tourism economy that depends on it will be affected. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR officials say they won’t run the train until June 10 at the earliest, and after that will use a diesel locomotive — to the displeasure of authenticity-seeking passengers. (UPDATE 6/6: InciWeb continues to list fire cause as “unknown,” but the coordinates it gives for the fire, and witness accounts, indicate that the fire started near the railroad tracks, not long after the train passed, far from Hwy 550. Also, the D&SNGRR announced on 6/5 that train service will be suspended until at least June 17.)…

It’s certainly too early to guess how big of a blow the 416 Fire — and any other fires to follow — will have on the regional economy. Still, it’s a tough break coming after a thin ski season and at the beginning of what will surely turn out to be a rough one for commercial rafters, with or without any more fires. It’s also a potent reminder that climate change is bad for a lot of things, including the local economy.

While 2018 is shaping up to mirror 2002, it also closely resembles another dry and disastrous time — the summer of 1879. No one was keeping official tabs on the weather or snowpack or streamflows back then, but from anecdotal and newspaper reports, we can gather that the 1878-79 winter was just as dry and warm as 2017-18. And the results were equally smoky: In early June of that year, a blaze broke out a few miles north of where the current 416 Fire is burning. It ended up charring 26,000 acres of relatively high-altitude forests.

To read more about the Lime Creek Burn, and the way it was used in anti-Ute propaganda; the local community’s love/hate relationship with the tourist train; and a heck of a lot more, get a copy of my book, River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

From The Durango Herald (Shane Benjamin) via The Cortez Journal:

Federal firefighters have not released the cause of the 416 Fire. A federal wildfire information database, InciWeb, lists the cause as “unknown.” A longitude and latitude entered into the database pinpoints the fire just west of the train tracks in an area where nothing else is around. Chione confirmed that is about where the fire started.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is not taking responsibility for the fire, but that could change based on the outcome of local and federal fire investigations, General Manager John Harper told The Durango Herald on Tuesday…

The U.S. Forest Service in conjunction with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Land Management are conducting the investigation, according to an email sent Tuesday from Cam Hooley, acting spokeswoman for San Juan National Forest.

“A team of trained investigators was on scene as soon as Friday night, the day of ignition,” she wrote in the email to the Herald. “USFS investigators include both local and regional personnel. Because of the size of the fire, the cost of suppression and the impact on the community, the investigation team will take the time needed to conduct a comprehensive and thorough investigation before any determinations are released. No timeline has been given for release of information.”

Chione and his neighbors often spot fires started by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The Meadowridge subdivision, with eight houses, sits only a couple hundred feet east of the train tracks and is located on a steep grade between Hermosa and Rockwood – an area known locally as Shalona Hill.

Locomotives work hard to power up the mountain, and some hot cinders from the coal-fired engine land on the ground and start little fires. A pop car typically follows each train three to five minutes behind the train to look for fires. Five minutes behind the pop car is a water tender that can douse flames, if necessary.

It is not unusual for the train to start spot fires through this section of track, Chione said. In fact, residents are so aware of the fire danger that they converted an old insecticide spray truck into a brush truck that can spray water to help douse the spot fires.

When he sees a fire, Chione typically calls his neighbor, Cres Fleming, who either walks down to the tracks to help extinguish flames, or if the fire is more serious, drives the water truck to the tracks to help douse the blaze.

“I got a call on Friday morning after the second train had come by that there was a small fire at the bend in the tracks,” Fleming said. “I high-tailed it over there with the truck, and as I came up on the railroad tracks, I saw the fire was probably 35 feet up the hill from the tracks. The railroad patrolman was there on his radio, I guess letting dispatch know what was going on. The fire at that point was really too much for his small sprayer that he had on that first pop car.”

Flemming unraveled the hose on his make-shift water truck, but he had a water-pressure problem. By the time the hose was working, the fire had advanced 80 or 90 feet up the hill – beyond the reach of his sprayer.

“It was moving incredibly fast,” Fleming said. “I fired a stream of water and dragged a hose up the hill, which is hard for me because I’m not exactly young any more.

“I feel sort of heartbroken that I just missed putting that fire out because I know it has really caused a lot of problems for a lot of people,” Fleming said. “If I had been there a minute earlier, I think I could have gotten it.”

Native Waters at Risk: Learning to Listen

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

From Stanford University: Water in the West (Sibyl Diver):

In 2015, 3 million gallons of drainage water came rushing out of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, spewing 190 tons of heavy metals and other contaminants into a tributary of the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had been doing some excavation of the passage leading into the mine during an investigation at the site, had triggered pressurized water stored behind a plug at the mine portal. The damage was significant, taking a heavy toll on one community in particular: the Navajo Nation.

“When the spill occurred, it was economically devastating to the region, which is the bread basket of the Navajo Nation,” said Karletta Chief, Assistant Professor of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. “It also had a traumatic impact on people. They view the river as the male deity of the Navajo homeland. Seeing it turn yellow really devastated the people.”

Indigenous Knowledge and Water Science

Chief, a hydrologist and a member of the Navajo Nation herself, has spent her career integrating rigorous scientific study with Indigenous knowledge to address urgent water quality problems. Raised in a remote community of Black Mesa, Arizona, where she often served as a translator for her family, Chief went on to receive undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford and a PhD from the University of Arizona. Her work on the Navajo Nation on water issues has earned her a place in Stanford’s Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I grew up in a tribal community where we were taught to just listen to elders,” says Chief. “When I came to Stanford I had to unlearn that. You were expected to debate your issue, and we are trained to do that as western scientists. You want to interject. A lot of times this is for good reason. Scientists are curious and interested. But it’s important to sit back and just listen.”

Working closely with Navajo Nation community members, Chief focuses on spill response, water quality testing, and supporting local decision-making on key water resource issues.

Water quality is an important issue for the Navajo people, yet access to clean water is a real challenge. More than 8,000 homes on the Navajo reservation do not have access to potable water. Navajo people on the reservation travel an average of 24 miles each way to haul their drinking water. Groundwater contamination and depletion on native lands from mining activities is also a serious concern.

After the Gold King Mine spill, many local Navajo farmers either couldn’t irrigate their fields due to the closure of irrigation intakes or chose not to for fear of contamination. As a result, crop yields were seriously impacted. As many as 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers are estimated to have been affected by the spill. Chief, who has been an active force in understanding the Gold King Mine disaster and its impacts, developed a study with tribal members on short-term exposure to mining contaminants.

Typical environmental assessment methodologies do not adequately account for the social and cultural impacts of mining nor integrate Indigenous ways of knowing. “The elders gave us guidance and asked us to incorporate the fundamental Diné (Navajo) philosophy of hózhó,” Chief explains. Sa’ah Naaghái Bik’eh Hózhóón has to do with harmony, restoration, and healing, as well as following the Navajo approach to problem solving.

“I don’t think the EPA considered traditional knowledge in their approach,” says Chief. “In ours, we did this through listening sessions and allowing people to talk and write down their experiences. We had the help of the traditional cultural experts and elders that were involved when we were writing the proposal. This is important because it raises the need to have more accurate ways to do these risk assessments, particularly with Indigenous communities where they use rivers in many more ways than recreation. They revere the river in spiritual ways.”

Community-engaged research also requires communicating scientific findings back to communities in a language and format that is accessible. “When we reported back, we needed the help of cultural experts to make sure that we were doing that effectively,” says Chief. The goal for this work is to support tribal members in using research to make their own assessments, draw their own conclusions, and determine how to heal their community and environment. “Not everyone has gone back to farming,” explains Chief. “But [the research] has definitely helped in answering some questions.”

Communicating the details of spill response to non-English speakers was a challenge. When the Navajo language lacked a word to describe a water contaminant like manganese, Chief and her team worked with traditional knowledge holders and medicine people to name the element. The community outreach “really helped in terms of people understanding what we’re doing and the results that we share; coming back to restoring harmony and healing for the people as a result of this traumatic event,” explained Chief.

To share their results, Chief’s team participated in teach-ins organized by community environmental organizations. They broadcasted their findings over radio forums in Navajo language and presented at various chapter meetings, representing different parts of Navajo Nation.

More recently, Chief has co-organized a conference on Indigenous perspectives on water, with community leaders taking a prominent role. Chief has also developed short 1-2 minute videos that can be streamed in the waiting rooms of hospitals. “When you’re engaging tribes, not everybody is the same. There are different sectors of the tribal community that need to be considered,” says Chief. “It is not always the young people. There are health experts and elders. It is not always the tribal leaders.”

“I am still learning about how to report back to the community,” Chief explains. “There is such a large number of people in different sectors of the Navajo population, so it is a really daunting task to reach out to everybody.”

Responding to the Gold King Mine Spill

Chief is continuing her community-based research with tribal partners. This includes the Navajo Gold King Mine Exposure Project, a household-level biomonitoring initiative to investigate biological accumulation of toxins in community members over time. Initial findings have shown no significant evidence of long-term health impacts from the spill, although the research team did find slightly elevated arsenic levels for Navajo people compared to the general U.S. population. It remains to be seen what these results will look like as time goes on.

Recent investigation by the EPA has also detected elevated lead levels at sites near the mine up to 100 times higher than the danger level for wildlife. There are approximately 5,105 abandoned mines in Colorado, 3,989 in New Mexico, 10,697 in Utah, and 24,183 in Arizona.

“It’s a sleeping giant, and a wake-up call for everybody to act quickly on stabilizing the area and reducing risk in the future,” cautions Chief. “There are thousands of abandoned mines in the region and the risk of a spill like this is really high.”

In 2016, about one year after the Gold King Mine disaster, the EPA added the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site. The district is made up of 48 mining-related sites including Gold King.

Although the EPA has declared Superfund cleanups a priority the Gold King Mine cleanup remains lingering in the study stages. Meanwhile, the legal fight for fair compensation for the Navajo Nation continues. A ruling in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico against Environmental Restoration, LLC. (the contract company that excavated the mine and caused the spill) upheld the Nation’s claims of negligence and also upheld their right to seek punitive damages. All of which harkens back to the importance of Chief’s meaningful engagement with Indigenous knowledge in her research. The issue in seeking damages for the Navajo is keeping accurate records and receipts, which may not fully reflect their losses in terms of the cultural importance of the river and surrounding lands.

Chief’s next project supported by a million dollar grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship program is to develop a new training program at the University of Arizona. The program, which is currently accepting applications for graduate students, will include learning the fundamentals of energy and water efficiency and a project-based class working with Indigenous communities. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary thinking to encourage “a holistic view of problem solving that is needed to bring water to Native American communities,” says Chief.

One of the principles that the program will cover is the importance of understanding the diversity of Native American tribes. “Across hundreds of tribal communities, they are diverse in many ways,” Chief explains. “Within a tribal community, there are many more ways that the tribal community is diverse. It’s not one size fits fit all. So, when scientists are working with tribal communities it’s important to remember that. We need to make sure that we do not apply other tribal experiences to the tribes we’re working with,” says Chief. “More and more it is really about listening, and especially working with grassroots organizations that are the movers and shakers.”

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.