Swiping at the EPA was easy enough, but context matters in river spills
It was the cheap story, and none less than the Economist ran with it this week in recapping the mine spill into the waterways of Southwestern Colorado. “Arsenic and lost face,” was the headline over a short story about the troubles stirred up after a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency breached a dam holding back the Kool-Aid-looking water in the Gold King Mine above Silverton.
Plenty of people piled on the EPA after the Aug. 5 spill. It seems lots of people hate the EPA—and this was before the Clean Power Plan. “To be accused of unconstitutional overreach is unfortunate,” concluded the Economist. “To give proof of incompetence when faced with such an accusation is unforgivable.”
But the Durango Herald may have been much closer to the truth of the situation when, only a day after the fouled waters reached Durango, it described the EPA as the one “left holding the hot potato.”
Indeed, Silverton and San Juan County had resisted a Superfund designation, afraid of the bad publicity for the community. Instead, there had been what the Herald described as a “piecemeal cleanup effort. …It was a compromise and gamble,” the newspaper went on to say. “It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.”
The lesson along the I-70 corridor in Colorado is that the EPA has managed to achieve cleanups where others have bumbled or done nothing. Consider the Eagle Mine, between Minturn and Red Cliff, just around the corner from Vail. Mining ended there in the late 1970s after a century. The mess was designated a Superfund site. But by the winter of 1989-90, the Eagle River looked much like the Animas River of a couple weeks ago. State officials had signed off on a low-cost gamble of their own, sealing the Eagle Mine. This lower-cost solution didn’t work. Water contaminated by heavy metals in the mine escaped into the river. At one point, snow at the Beaver Creek Resort, manufactured with water drawn from the Eagle River, had a faint orange hue. It wasn’t a year the Denver Broncos were going to the Super Bowl. Then the EPA was called in. Things got fixed—more or less.
That even a well-funded cleanup continues to have problems should be sobering. This week, Todd Fessenden, board president of the Eagle Mine Limited, a group charged with disseminating technical information in ways the layman can understand, sent an e-mail to elected officials in Eagle County assessing the river conditions there, in the wake of the Animals spill.
“What you may not know is that we’ve had more than a dozen spills of heavy metal-laden mine water, or partially treated mine water, in the last 6 years,” he wrote. “Those spills have ranged in magnitude from 0.5 gallons per minute to 428,000 gallons over a 23-hour period. I’ve personally seen the Eagle River run green and the same shade of orange the Animas turned in the last 6 years.”
Still, the river is much better now. Vail seems to have survived just fine, despite the presence of the EPA.
In Summit County, the Pennsylvania Mine was a long-time mess. It’s in Peru Gulch, not far from the A-Basin ski area, and upstream from Keystone. The original miners had been gone many decades. A couple had purchased the property for back taxes but, realizing the problems, couldn’t unload it. Nobody else would touch it either, because of the liability if something went wrong.
But progress has been made in recent years. The mine less than a decade ago was running red downstream to Keystone and into Dillon Reservoir. It was, as the Summit Daily News noted in a story last week, long one of the most toxic abandoned mines in the state.
Again, the EPA’s involvement was crucial for making progress. By stepping in, explained Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-site coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine, the EPA takes on liability. With the EPA involved, the state will step in and do work, too. “When bad things happen, it becomes the EPA’s fault,” he explained.
And things can go wrong. “It’s like working on the bomb squad. You have a set of techniques, but, every now and then, the bomb goes off,” he said.
Jeff Graves, the senior project manager for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the potential for a “catastrophic release, surge event, whatever you want to call it, will be significantly reduced if not eliminated” by late September.
The Pennsylvania Mine currently puts 12,000 pounds annually of zinc into Peru Creek. No fish can be found in the creek nor in the Snake River downstream as far as Keystone, where the pollution is diluted. But if not as bad as the Pennsylvania Mine, more than 100 abandoned mines remains in the Snake and Blue River watersheds.
Reviewing the Animas pollution, Wyatt laments the “finger-pointing without putting what happened (at Silverton) into context.” The mining history above Silverton was difficult, with the mines interconnected and covering a broad area.
Lynn Padgett, a geologist, has been studying abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains since 1990. Elected a Ouray County commissioner in 2009, but has kept after her interest, most recently appearing before a committee of Club 20 meeting in Lake City in support of Good Samaritan legislation.
Good Samaritan legislation would allow third parties to step in and clean up a mine site without incurring liability if something goes wrong, such as occurred at the Gold King Mine, as specified by the Clean Water Act. By Padgett’s rough count, there have been 15 different pieces of legislation have been introduced into Congress over the years—and all have foundered.
“The Clean Water Act is ironically a barrier to having clean water,” she says.
Padgett remembers going to the Gold King Mine in 2012 with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who had worked to move Good Samaritan legislation. As had several other congressional representatives. The problem always ends up being a concern about potentially responsible individuals being allowed to get duck their responsibilities.
The current proposal is being pushed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton. The legislation would create pilot projects. Other counties have been asked to lend support, and a letter from Pitkin County Commissioner Rachael Richards asks that the pilot be broadened to include the hard-rock mineral belt of Colorado, specifically including Eagle, Gunnison, Pitkin and Summit counties.
Padgett says the Gold King Mine doesn’t provide a good argument against mining. It and most of the other old mines pre-date modern laws that govern mining. “Our problem is these very old, historic mines,” she says.
Did the EPA truly mess up, as critics say, or was it, as the Durango Herald said, the party left holding the hot potato? Padgett says she’s waiting to get more information.
But like Wyatt and many others, she’s worried that too many will draw the wrong less from Gold King and the Animas, calling for reduced funding of the EPA by Congress. “That would be the wrong answer,” she says.
Last week, engineers and environmental experts took a big step toward trying to staunch that flow by blocking one of the mine tunnels. If all goes well, the new bulkhead could reduce the direct discharge from the mine by about two-thirds, said Jeff Graves, a remediation expert with the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and…
On Friday, Oct. 17, Stiegelmeier was one of several federal, state and local officials marking a milestone for the centerpiece of the county’s current mining cleanup efforts — plugging the Pennsylvania Mine.
About 8 miles east of Keystone, the abandoned mine is Summit County’s biggest mess. The mine, considered the worst in the state, spews toxic heavy metal concentrates and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir. Peru Creek is without fish, insects or other aquatic life. The Snake River has life, but it’s sparse and found only in the lower reaches. In 2007, a burp of acidic water from the abandoned mine killed fish all the way to Keystone, county officials said.
This past week, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety finished installing one of two bulkheads, massive plugs of concrete and steel built about 500 feet inside the mine.
According to project manager Jeff Graves, once both bulkheads are installed, toxic burps and blowouts will be a thing of the past.
“That won’t happen again — it can’t,” he said.
The bulkheads prevent water from flowing through the mine. Water will back up inside, reducing the amount of oxygen the metals and sulfides are exposed to, which should improve water quality.
Though the more than $3 million project still has far to go, reclamation efforts seem to have had positive impacts already. Last year, the Peru Creek turned reddish-orange seven or eight times. That hasn’t happened once this year.
In addition to the bulkheads, new drainage ditches channel water away from waste-rock piles. Those piles have been capped. Eventually, they’ll be revegetated. Limestone has also been strategically added to raise the pH of the water, which could help filter out metals into settlement ponds.
Organizations involved in the project include: the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Safety, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service, Summit County Open Space and Trails, Northwest Council of Governments, the Snake River Watershed Task Force, the Blue River Watershed Group and the Keystone Center.
Here’s the release from the United States Geological Service (Nancy J. Bauch, Lisa D. Miller, and Sharon Yacob):
Water quality of streams, reservoirs, and groundwater in the Blue River watershed in the central Rocky Mountains of Colorado has been affected by local geologic conditions, historical hard-rock metal mining, and recent urban development. With these considerations, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Summit Water Quality Committee, conducted a study to compile historical water-quality data and assess water-quality conditions in the watershed. To assess water-quality conditions, stream data were primarily analyzed from October 1995 through December 2006, groundwater data from May 1996 through September 2004, and reservoir data from May 1984 through November 2007. Stream data for the Snake River, upper Blue River, and Tenmile Creek subwatersheds upstream from Dillon Reservoir and the lower Blue River watershed downstream from Dillon Reservoir were analyzed separately. (The complete abstract is provided in the report)
From the Summit Daily News (Alli Langley/Joe Moylan) via the Glenwood Springs Post Independent:
During the silver mining boom of the 1870s, with a population of just 71, Sts. John was for a short time Summit County’s largest town.
The Summit County Open Space and Trails Department recently bought the abandoned townsite and nearby mining claims for $425,000 from the Tolen family, which owned land in the area since the 1950s.
The purchase, finalized July 28, conserves about 90 acres in the Snake River Basin above the town of Montezuma as public open space. The 18 separate parcels have significant wildlife value, according to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the U.S. Forest Service and the Snake River Master Plan.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Tolen family for working closely with the Summit County Open Space program to preserve the heritage of Sts. John and this exquisite landscape for the enjoyment of Summit County citizens and visitors alike,” said Brian Lorch, the program’s director. “This is one of the most important and significant acquisitions the program has made in recent years.”
The county acquired the properties using the Summit County Open Space fund, approved by voters in 2008. Breckenridge Ski Resort contributed $25,000 toward the purchase as part of a deal with environmental groups worried about the impacts of the recent Peak 6 development.
With the acquisition, the county will protect a large portion of the Snake River Basin backcountry and preserve a piece of Summit County history. Lorch said the Sts. John properties are highly valued for their intact historic resources, popularity for outdoor recreation and high-quality wetlands and wildlife habitat…
The Summit County Open Space program acquires lands to protect the scenic beauty, natural habitat, backcountry character and recreational opportunities in Summit County. Funded through property tax mill levies approved by Wvoters in 1993, 1999, 2003 and 2008, the program has protected more than 14,000 acres of open space.
About 8 miles east of Keystone and a couple of miles south of the 14,000-foot-plus Grays and Torreys peaks, the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine is considered the worst mine in the state. The mine adds toxic heavy metal concentrations and acidifies water flowing into the Peru Creek, a tributary of the Snake River, which feeds Dillon Reservoir.
A three-year, $3 million cleanup project aims to stop that pollution. The project could serve as a model for future mine reclamation efforts around the state, said Paul Peronard, on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The collaborative effort is currently under budget and ahead of schedule, he said, even with the added cost of helping Summit County fix the part of Montezuma Road that washed away in early June.
“This is very much a huge partnership,” said Jeff Graves, senior project manager with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
For decades, government agencies and other interested parties faced issues of liability and funding when trying to tackle the mine’s cleanup.
“It’s quite a conundrum,” said Lane Wyatt, a water-quality expert with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “The problem is you don’t really have anybody to point your finger to in places like this to say, ‘You’re responsible. You got to go clean this up.’ ”
This year the state is working to place one of two bulkheads, or giant concrete plugs, about 500 feet inside the mine. The bulkheads will block water from leaving through one large entry and stop water from flowing freely through the mine, Graves said.