Owner of #GoldKingMine not happy with proposed cleanup solution — The Durango Herald

Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Local groups call for plugging of discharging mines

Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, is not happy about the proposed Superfund cleanup around Silverton, saying the suggestion to plug more mines only redistributes potentially toxic water and doesn’t solve the problem…

In December, two community groups formed to help guide the Superfund process – the Citizens Advisory Group and the Silverton-San Juan County Planning Group – submitted letters to the EPA with a similar recommendation.

The main message: focus on the sites – namely the Gold King, American Tunnel, Mogul and Red & Bonita – which are contributing the most amount of contaminated metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

According to data from the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, almost half of all metal loading from the 120 draining mines sampled around Silverton comes from these four sources.

And the suggested solution? Place more bulkheads.

“While currently the (Bonita Peak) enjoys high-priority status as a Superfund site, the (community group) is quite concerned its priority could change in the future,” the CAG wrote. “… Bulkheads can be funded with manageable, annual budgeting, unlike a large water treatment facility, which may need a big financial infusion all at once.”

Hennis, for his part, has long maintained that the original bulkheads placed on the American Tunnel caused his mines to start to discharge mine wastewater. Sunnyside Gold has adamantly denied the Sunnyside Mine is connected geologically to Hennis’ mines.

Regardless, Hennis said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn the community groups were in favor of more bulkheads as a main treatment option.

“Bulkheading doesn’t work,” Hennis wrote. “It appears all they accomplished in the long term was to re-distribute acid mine water flows elsewhere, and in the same volume as the original problem.”

Hennis says that if the Gold King and Red & Bonita are plugged, it could shift water back into the American Tunnel, where bulkheads there could be overwhelmed.

“Rolling the dice on a potential catastrophic failure of the American Tunnel bulkheads makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. “If a release of 3 million gallons of mine water from the Gold King raised absolute havoc downstream, a potential release of billions of gallons from the Sunnyside Mine Pool would have unthinkable consequences.”

Hennis instead said the only long-term solution would be to drain the Sunnyside Mine pool, treat the water and shut off spots where water gets into the Sunnyside Mine network.

But this could be costly.

Richard Mylott, spokesman for EPA, said the agency is working to understand the impacts that bulkheading would have on water quality and water levels within the Cement Creek area…

Mylott said EPA has installed several wells to monitor the groundwater system when it tests the closure of the Red & Bonita.

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

City of Durango plans temporary fix for dangerous rapids at Whitewater Park — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The city of Durango plans to get back into the Animas River this winter to fix human-made rapids at the Whitewater Park that drew criticism for posing too great a risk to boaters during high water last summer.

Tweaks have been made to the Whitewater Park, which flows along Santa Rita Park, as early as the 1980s. But a full-scale $2.6 million project to enhance the park and build a series of rapids began in 2014 and was finished in 2018.

The most recent issue, which requires the city to get back in the river in the coming months, started three years ago and is considered separate from the Whitewater Park, which was led by the Parks and Recreation Department.

In summer 2016, the city’s Utilities Department spent $1 million to build several new features in the river, just above the Whitewater Park, for the sole purpose of diverting more water into the city’s water intake for municipal use on the east side of the river.

Since then, some members of the boating community have said the new features, which span the entire width of the river, function like low-head dams, one of the most dangerous hazards on a river because of the strong, recirculating water that can flip and trap boats, as well as people.

And if people fall out at the new drops, they have a long, cold swim through the actual Whitewater Park, which includes several major rapids and water temperatures in the low- to mid-40s…

This past summer, [Shane] Sigle said the only way to permanently fix the rapids would be to use grout to cement boulders in the river to ensure a safely designed flow. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which issues permits for work in any waterways) and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, however, oppose using grout on river bottoms because it can adversely affect aquatic life.

City officials have said it’s unrealistic, and costly, to get back into the river every year to move boulders and rocks. But without being able to use grout, options are limited.

As a result, while long-term solutions are sought, it appears smaller maintenance projects are the city’s only way to make the river safer.

Jarrod Biggs, assistant utilities director, said the plan is to get in the Animas River as early as February to start the project, which could cost around $140,000 to $160,000.

Without grouting, though, the river will eventually move the boulders and nullify the improvements the city plans to make this year.

Durango whitewater park plans

Lake Nighthorse changing the game for annual bird count — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

…volunteers with the National Audubon Society’s annual bird count, which has been ongoing since 1949, say they are starting to see the impact the new body of water is having on different species of birds around Durango in winter months.

“Lake Nighthorse has created a different habitat,” said John Bregar, a member of the Durango Bird Club. “It’s attracting water fowl and fish-eating birds we didn’t use to get so much of before. It’s pretty cool to be monitoring that.”

[…]

A group of about nine eared grebe, a water bird, which is a rare sight on the Christmas count, were spotted on Lake Nighthorse last year. Double-crested cormorant, a seabird, used to leave Southwest Colorado for warmer pastures but have taken up at the reservoir during the winter.

And two horned grebes, another water bird, which Bregar said were never recorded on a Christmas count and are not common in Southwest Colorado in general, are now wintering on Lake Nighthorse…

Bregar said aside from the rare finds, all kinds of birds take advantage of the waters and fish of Lake Nighthorse, such as bald eagles, loons and mergansers.

“It’s a deep body of water with a lot of fish,” he said, “so fish-eating birds are quite prevalent.”

In all, 31 volunteers counted 6,279 individual birds and 82 different species Dec. 15.

For reference, 2017 was seen as a good year for the bird count, with volunteers finding 85 species and 7,452 individual birds.

And in 2018, the count, which was conducted Dec. 16, found a strong number of diverse species – 82 – but the number of individual birds was down to 6,732…

Some interesting observations from the count include:

  • Bird counters noted a near record high number of northern harriers, a raptor, at 19. In a previous year, 20 were spotted
  • The bird count broke the record for white-winged doves. Only twice before has the count recorded that species, and each time, it was just one dove. “This year we recorded six white-winged doves, five near the upper Animas River and one along Florida Road,” Bregar said. “Durango has had a small population of white-winged doves hanging out in the northern portions of our city for years, but they seldom stray far enough south to get counted in our Christmas bird count.”
  • A flock of 21 snow geese was spotted flying above the skies in Durango. The birds usually are not seen in Southwest Colorado.
  • The most abundant bird spotted was the Canada goose at almost 1,200. Second place goes to juncos, a medium-sized sparrow, at around 1,000.
  • Lake Nighthorse and Durango March 2016 photo via Greg Hobbs.

    Southwest #Colorado remains in severe #drought — The Cortez Journal

    West Drought Monitor December 24, 2019.

    From The Cortez Journal (Jim Mimiaga):

    Much of Southwest Colorado remains listed in a severe drought although it has accumulated 130% of average snowpack.

    According the U.S. Drought Monitor as of Dec. 24, all of Montezuma County and all but the northern edge of La Plata County and the eastern edge of Archuleta County remain listed in severe drought. Virtually all of Dolores, Montrose and Ouray counties were designated in a severe drought.

    As of Dec. 30, the severe drought designation remained despite an above-average snowpack for Southwest Colorado.

    San Miguel, Dolores, Animas, and San Juan Basin High/Low graph December 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

    A SNOTEL map showed 130% of the 30-year average snowpack for the San Juan, Animas, Dolores and San Miguel river basins as of Dec. 30.

    The reason the region remains in the drought category is because the drought monitor tracks precipitation over many previous months, said Ken Curtis, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District that manages McPhee Reservoir.

    July through October was very dry, with below-average moisture. It will take continued average, to above-average moisture to knock the area out of drought, he said…

    A large part of Colorado’s Western Slope remains in severe or moderate drought.

    In fact, only the northeast section of the state, including the Denver metro area and the northern mountains around Steamboat Springs, are not under some kind of drought listing.

    In all, nearly 70% of Colorado is abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. A year ago, roughly 85% of the state had some kind of drought status, including 11% that was listed as being in exceptional drought.

    Despite the continued dry conditions, forecasters said things are better than they were last year at this time when exceptional and extreme drought – the worst categories – had set in. Over the last three months, parts of southern Arizona and New Mexico recovered but portions of Utah and Colorado dried out…

    Purgatory Resort was reporting a 54-inch base depth Monday, Telluride Ski Area was reporting a 43-inch base, and Wolf Creek Ski Area was reporting an 81-inch midway base depth.

    Colorado Statewide Snowpack basin-filled map December 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

    A look back at Navajo Tribe environmental issues in the “teens” — The Navajo Times #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification #ClimateChange #ActOnClimate

    From The Navajo Times (Cindy Yurth):

    The other big story of the decade was the environment. As the drought steadily worsened in the early teens, President Ben Shelly found himself between a rock and a hard place. A proposed settlement of the water rights on the Little Colorado River, which would have included the Nation sacrificing a portion of its water rights in exchange for infrastructure, proved so wildly unpopular that he was forced to back down, leaving the Nation to take its chances in court.

    A plan to round up Dinétah’s feral horses, which ranchers accused of drinking up and fouling the ever-scarcer watering holes, stirred an international uproar from humane organizations and even actor Robert Redford. It was eventually abandoned and the animals remain a problem, now numbering in the tens of thousands with few natural predators.

    Water issues continued in 2015 as an estimated several hundred Navajos — including President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer — joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in protesting the construction of an oil pipeline beneath the tribe’s main water source, braving sub-zero temperatures, tear gas and rubber bullets.

    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)

    In the summer of that year, the Diné had their own water issue to contend with, watching in amazement as the Animas River ran orange with dissolved metal compounds from an abandoned gold mine near Silverton, Colorado — the result of a botched containment effort by the US. Environmental Protection Agency.

    The Navajo Nation joined the states of New Mexico and Utah in suing the agency and its contractor. As of this writing the litigation is still pending.

    Then there was Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama on Dec. 28, 2016, and reduced by 85 percent by President Donald Trump less than a year later. That’s also slogging through the courts.

    But by far the biggest environmental story was the rapid dethronement of King Coal, which for decades had propped up state, local, and tribal economies in the Four Corners.

    As prices for natural gas and renewable energy declined, power plant owners beat a hasty retreat from the dirty fossil fuel that had sustained generations of Navajo miners and a good chunk of the Navajo and Hopi tribes’ budgets.

    In 2013, the Navajo Nation managed to stave off the closure of BHP Billiton’s Navajo Mine by creating a company to buy it, but there was no stopping the demise of the Navajo Generating Station and the two mines on Black Mesa that fed it.

    Environmentalists had for years been pressuring the tribal government to create a plan to replace the revenue that would be lost when the plant closed, preferably by converting it to a sustainable energy producer, but as the last coal shovelful of coal was turned this past November, the only plan was to dig into the Permanent Trust Fund former President Peterson Zah had created in 1985 for just this eventuality.

    Meanwhile the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, the tribal enterprise created to buy the Navajo Mine and then lead the Nation into a more sustainable energy future, purchased three more coal mines in Wyoming and Montana — a move that shocked not only environmentalists but the president and Council.

    Navajo Generating Station and the cloud of smog with which it blankets the region. Photo credit: Jonathan Thompson via The High Country News

    The San Juan Generating Station in Waterflow, New Mexico, is next on the chopping block, slated to close in 2022 unless the state’s Public Regulation Commission approves a plan to convert it to a carbon capture facility.

    We’re reporters of the news, not prognosticators. But it’s not too risky to predict that all these environmental issues will extend into 2020 and most likely beyond, joined by ones no one has even thought of yet as irreversible climate change takes hold.

    Judge’s recommendation: Lawsuit against D&SNG for 416 Fire costs should proceed — The Durango Herald

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    In what could be a major blow to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a federal judge has recommended a district court throw out the train’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit in which the U.S. government is seeking $25 million for fighting the 416 Fire.

    In July, the U.S. government named the D&SNG as the cause of the 416 Fire, which started along the train’s tracks north of Durango in summer 2018 and went on to burn more than 54,000 acres of mostly national forest lands in the Hermosa Creek watershed.

    After eyewitness accounts and months of speculation, federal investigators determined a cinder emitted from a smokestack from a D&SNG coal-burning locomotive, which was running at a time of extreme drought in Southwest Colorado, sparked the fire.

    At the same time, U.S. officials said the D&SNG denied starting the fire, prompting a lawsuit that seeks $25 million from the railroad for damages and fire-suppression costs.

    In September, the D&SNG filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying there is no federal law that allows claims to recover fire suppression costs, and the only Colorado law on the issue allows for recovering actual damages from a fire on property – but not firefighting costs.

    The judge overseeing the case – U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Blackburn – asked for a recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter on interpreting the law and on whether to dismiss the case.

    On Friday, Neureiter filed his recommendation, which supported the U.S. government.

    “First, I reject the (D&SNG’s) argument that, as a public entity providing a civic service by fighting a forest fire, the United States is not entitled to recover fire suppression costs,” he wrote.

    “The United States was protecting its own property, the National Forest, and acting like a property owner in fighting and attempting to suppress the fire … the United States is entitled to whatever protection is afforded to other landowners in Colorado – including entitlement to recovery of fire suppression costs.”

    Mining company included in #GoldKingMine lawsuit receives environmental excellence award — The Farmington Daily Times

    Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Hannah Grover):

    Sunnyside Gold Corporation, the last mining company to actively operate in the Silverton caldera, was recognized for “five years of responsible mining and 30 years of successful remediation and reclamation,” according to the award announcement provided to The Daily Times by Sunnyside Gold Corporation.

    This award comes as Sunnyside faces continued litigation alleging the bulkheads it installed in the Sunnyside Mine’s American Tunnel led to changes in water levels. The suit claims this eventually created a buildup of water in the Gold King Mine that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors later accidentally released when they breached a collapsed portal into the mine.

    “The primary purpose of the engineered concrete bulkheads was to isolate the interior workings of the Sunnyside Mine, and to prevent water flow from the interior workings to the Animas Basin,” said Kevin Roach, Sunnyside’s director of reclamation, in an email to The Daily Times.

    Roach said that while Sunnyside owns mines near the Gold King, it never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. He said the company was not involved in the Gold King Mine spill and has no responsibility for it.

    “There is no physical man-made connection between the Sunnyside and Gold King mine workings,” Roach said.

    And Roach stood by the decision to install bulkheads in Sunnyside’s mine workings.

    “One of the most important lessons that can be derived from SGC’s successful reclamation is that, in appropriate circumstances, bulkheading of closed mines can be an effective method to improve water quality,” he said.

    Sunnyside has maintained the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which triggered the spill, bears the responsibility. Roach further highlighted studies showing the water quality in the Animas River returned to pre-spill conditions shortly after the incident…

    The award also comes after Sunnyside refused to comply with an order the EPA sent the company to install groundwater wells and meteorological stations as part of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site remediation work. The Superfund site includes 48 mine sites believed to have impacted water quality in the Animas River. Some of these mine sites were related to Sunnyside’s operations…

    Working to reclaim land

    Over the past 30 years, Sunnyside has spent $30 million on reclamation work. Roach said much of Sunnyside’s work occurred at sites it does not own. In addition to installing bulkheads, this work included relocating or removing mine tailings from several sites, including near the Animas River and its tributaries.

    Sunnyside Gold Corporation was a latecomer to the mining activity in the Silverton caldera, entering the region in 1985 when it acquired the Sunnyside Mine, which it operated until 1991. The mine itself dates back to 1873 and includes two tunnels for hauling ore and drainage, one of which is the American Tunnel.

    Following the installation of bulkheads in the American Tunnel, the Sunnyside Gold Corporation was released from liabilities in 2003 when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded it had completed its obligations laid out in a consent decree.

    In terms of the future, Sunnyside does not have plans to resume mining in the Silverton caldera. However, that does not necessarily mean mining is gone from the caldera forever.