In November 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chief of Staff, Matt Fritz, established an agency team to conduct an After-Action Review of EPA’s response to the Gold King Mine (GKM) release that occurred on August 5, 2015. The team, comprised of employees from across the agency, interviewed over a hundred people and reviewed a large volume of documents to identify lessons learned and develop recommendations for the Administrator’s consideration. Among the documents reviewed were after-action reports from previous emergency responses, which showed that some of the issues identified at Gold King Mine were not new. On December 21, 2015, the After-Action Review Team submitted its report detailing ten specific recommendations to improve how the agency responds to emergency incidents and to ensure a highly effective EPA Emergency Response Program that can adapt quickly to dynamic, unpredictable situations. These recommendations, shown in Appendix A, were:
Recommendation 1: Establish a National Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) at EPA.
Recommendation 2: Institute Senior Official training plan.
Recommendation 3: Institute ICS key leadership training plan.
Recommendation 4: Establish an agency data and information management team.
Recommendation 5: Improve data and information posting and communications.
Recommendation 6: Establish Communications Strike Teams and broaden data training for PIOs and public affairs staff.
Recommendation 7: Invest in data resources and clarify roles/responsibilities.
Recommendation 8: Build capacity for rapid data collection, interpretation, and dissemination.
Recommendation 9: Align public affairs resources and update communications procedures.
Recommendation 10: Improve notification procedures, plans, and equipment.
The EPA outlined its efforts in a report posted on its website late Friday afternoon called “In the Rearview Mirror: Implementation of the Gold King Mine After-Action Review.”
The EPA’s chief of staff announced the changes in February 2016, after the agency took responsibility for the release of metal-laden water from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015.
The changes were based on a December 2015 after-action report that made 10 recommendations focused on improving its emergency response and communications that the EPA has worked on, the review stated. The original after-action report did not seem to have been posted on the EPA’s website when it was finished. EPA officials did not immediately respond to request for comment on the review Saturday.
The review recommended the agency continue funding emergency management training and positions created as a result of the changes. But it did not list specific budget expenses.
A national emergency response team was trained by December 2016 and it will be deployed to mine spills or releases that the EPA has caused or is directly involved in, or when an event involves multiple EPA regions.
“Quick and effective response to incidents reduces the risk to public safety, environmental damage and potential legal liability,” the report said.
To improve communications, the EPA plans to develop three teams of six that will assist with breaking down complex and technical information. When a team is deployed, they will not communicate with the public but will work behind the scenes.
Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina could not comment on the report, but she acknowledged that there were challenges with EPA communications after the Gold King Mine spill.
“We tried to work through those as situations arose,” she said.
During emergencies, the EPA also plans work with federal, state, local, tribal, trust territory and other partners on development and release of all materials.
Effectively communicating data with the public was another focus of the EPA, and it calls for eliminating the time lag between the EPA receiving data and communicating it to the public.
Residents and local officials were frustrated with the slow pace of metals sampling and interpretation of the data.
This data was needed to determine whether the river could be reopened and used for drinking, agriculture and recreation.
Distrust of the EPA’s data led some residents of the Navajo Nation to keep their irrigation ditches closed, causing lost crops, because they didn’t want to risk using the contaminated water.
The Office of Emergency Management has hired a coordinator to help the EPA with data, and the review solicits funding for training and workshops.
Agency workers also updated their contact lists for tribal governments and plan to update those lists annually.
The agency also updated training for senior leadership on what their role is during an emergency. Satellite communications systems were also upgraded for those working in the field.
After the spill, the EPA team was trapped without cellphone service or a satellite phone and this delayed communications with the state by almost two hours.
The state and federal agencies told a judge Thursday that they support the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District’s request to have a courtroom voice in a clean-water lawsuit against Colorado Springs.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are suing the city, which discharges pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries.
The Lower Ark district wants to join the case as an intervenor to protect the district’s interest during the litigation…
Senior Judge Richard Matsch is presiding over the case in U.S. District Court in Denver and will decide whether to grant Lower Ark’s request.
The EPA and the state health-environment department filed the lawsuit Nov. 9. It alleges that Colorado Springs’ storm sewer system is violating federal and state clean water laws.
The city denies it is violating the laws. Mayor John Suthers recently pointed to additional expenditures the city is making as an example of its commitment to correct storm water problems.
The storm water contains pollutants, including E. coli, that flow into the river from creek tributaries.
The district encompasses Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, where considerable produce, including Rocky Ford melons, are grown.
In Thursday’s court filing reviewed by The Pueblo Chieftain, the EPA and the department told Matsch they agree with Lower Ark that it should have a voice in court because the district wants the river water to have adequate quality.
To achieve that, the agencies and the district want Colorado Springs to reduce the amount of polluted discharges.
The environmental agencies contend Colorado Springs mischaracterizes the lawsuit as being focused on past issues, but it in fact “seeks to remedy current and ongoing violations.”
The environmental agencies disagree with Colorado Springs’ arguments that the district has no legal right to become an intervenor and that intervention will unduly complicate the litigation.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement and enforce” its stormwater management program, as required by permits the government has issued. The lawsuit goes on to ask a judge to impose monetary penalties on Colorado Springs for the violations.
FromThe Farmington Daily Times (Magdalena Wegrzyn , Leigh Black Irvin , Joshua Kellogg and Noel Lyn Smith):
Federal lawmakers, tribal leaders and state and local officials presented a rare unified front today as they vehemently denounced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it will not pay more than $1.2 billion in claims filed against it in response to the Gold King Mine spill.
The EPA said the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents the agency from paying claims that result from “discretionary” government actions. Congress passed the law to allow government agencies — and in this case, contractors working on their behalf — to act “without the fear of paying damages in the event something went wrong while taking the action,” according to a press release from the EPA.
Three federal lawmakers representing New Mexico denounced the news in a joint statement, calling the agency’s reasoning a “shameful legal interpretation of liability.” Meanwhile, Navajo Nation officials questioned who would take responsibility for reimbursing tribal members hurt by the spill, which on Aug. 5, 2015, released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary that feeds the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River, ultimately emptying into Lake Powell.
The EPA said the work contractors conducted at the mine near Silverton, Colo., is considered a “discretionary function” under the law.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a statement saying they would continue pushing for legislation to hold the EPA accountable. They also said it would be up to the courts to determine whether the EPA’s defense is legitimate.
Heinrich said in a phone interview that he intends to introduce legislation to ensure the EPA pays claims that have already been filed, as well as future claims.
“I’m going to speak to all of the senators from Colorado and Arizona, and we’re going to introduce legislation to do this right,” he said.
An EPA agency official said paying the claims would discourage cleanup efforts — such as the one being conducted at the Gold King Mine when it was breached — in the future…
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will continue pursuing its lawsuit against the EPA and several other entities. He said the tribe plans to work with president-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration to address claims tied to the spill.
“It doesn’t stop here,” Begaye said shortly after attending an inauguration ceremony in Shiprock for recently elected Northern Agency chapter officials. “This is one step, and we will continue taking the next step and if we have to, we’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.”
An EPA official said 73 claims related to the mine spill were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Four were from governmental agencies and the rest were from individuals and companies…
Joe Ben Jr. served as the Shiprock Chapter’s farm board member when the spill occurred. Ben, a farmer himself, said he did not file a claim but knows several other farmers who submitted claims for lost crops and revenue…
… collecting compensation doesn’t weigh heavily on [Earl] Yazzie. Instead, the farmer said he’s more concerned about whether to plant crops this spring and if he’ll irrigate with water from the San Juan River…
Included in the $1.2 billion is about $154 million in tort claims that are part of a lawsuit filed by the state of New Mexico, according to the EPA official. She said the EPA’s defense will be used in court to deny payment of those claims…
The EPA official acknowledged the announcement was slow in coming, adding “we spent a lot of time trying to see if there was any other way to address this because this is obviously an answer that leaves a lot of people unhappy who have been hurt.”
The city of Colorado Springs, in response to a lawsuit that seeks court action against the city for discharging pollutants into tributaries of the Arkansas River, denies it is violating clean water laws.
The city’s denial is its first response in court to a lawsuit that claims discharges of pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries violate the laws. The discharges are from Colorado Springs’ stormwater system.
“The City has complied with the law,” states the response filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver.
The lawsuit was filed Nov. 9 against Colorado Springs by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement, and enforce” its stormwater management program as specified in permits the government has issued in past years.
Colorado Springs asserted in Monday’s filing that it “has at all times been in compliance” with permits issued by the state agency to govern the discharges and the stormwater system.
The city contends it should not be subjected to court orders or monetary penalties that the environmental agencies want a judge to impose.
Colorado Springs also contends that allegations in the lawsuit misrepresent the facts of issues in dispute.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Christie St. Clair):
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posted the final fate and transport report for the Gold King Mine (GKM) release. The report focuses on understanding pre-existing river conditions, the movement of metals related to the GKM release through the river system, and the effects of the GKM release on water quality. The research supports EPA’s earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system returned to the levels that existed prior to the GKM release and contamination of metals from the release have moved through the river system to Lake Powell.
“This report is a comprehensive analysis of the effects on water quality from the Gold King Mine release,” said Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s Science Advisor and Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “While data indicate that water quality has returned to pre-event conditions, EPA is committed to continue our work with States and Tribes in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release to ensure the protection of public health and the environment.”
The area affected by the Gold King Mine release consists of complex river systems influenced by decades of historic acid mine drainage. The report shows the total amount of metals, dominated by iron and aluminum, entering the Animas River following the release — which lasted about nine hours on August 5, 2015 –was comparable to four to seven days of ongoing GKM acid mine drainage or the average amount of metals carried by the river in one to two days of high spring runoff. However, the concentrations of some metals in the GKM plume were higher than historical mine drainage. As the yellow plume of metal-laden water traveled downstream after the release, the metal concentrations within the plume decreased as they were diluted by river water and as some of the metals settled to the river bed.
There were no reported fish kills in the affected rivers, and post-release surveys by multiple organizations have found that other aquatic life does not appear to have suffered harmful short-term effects from the GKM plume. The concentrations of metals in well-water samples collected after the plume passed did not exceed federal drinking water standards. No public water system using Lake Powell as a source of drinking water has reported an exceedance of metals standards since the release.
Some metals from the GKM release contributed to exceedances of state and tribal water quality criteria at various times for nine months after the release in some locations. Metals from the GKM release may have contributed to some water quality criteria exceedances during the spring 2016 snow melt. Other exceedances may reflect longstanding contributions of metals from historic mining activities in the region and natural levels of metals in soils and rocks in the area. EPA will continue to work with states and tribes to interpret and respond to these findings.
Results from this analysis will inform future federal, state and tribal decisions on water and sediment monitoring. EPA will continue to work with states and tribes to ensure the protection of public health and the environment in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release.
Read the final report, “Analysis of the Transport and Fate of Metals Released From the Gold King Mine in the Animas and San Juan Rivers”: https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_file_download.cfm?p_download_id=530074
The 2015 Gold King Mine spill deposited nearly 540 tons of metals over a 9-hour period into Cement Creek, which feeds into the Animas River, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday in it final report on the scope and ongoing effects of the spill.
The EPA estimated that roughly one percent of the metals, mostly iron and aluminum, contained in the spill came from the mine, with the rest coming from the waste piles on the hillside below the mine adit and the stream bed of Cement Creek.
The study states “the volume of the GKM release was equivalent to four to seven days of ongoing GKM acid mine drainage,” or “one to two days of high spring runoff.”
But, as indicated in previous tests, the river returned to pre-spill levels.
There have been no reported fish kills or significant impacts on other aquatic life, but the EPA will continue to monitor the waterways impacted by the spill, the agency said Friday in a release.
The study also looked at water quality in the Animas to see if it had returned to pre-event conditions and if the impacts of the spill itself had long-term detrimental ramifications on the river given the history of mining in the region…
“The research supports EPA’s earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system returned to the levels that existed prior to the GKM release and contamination of metals from the release have moved through the river system to Lake Powell,” the release said.
Following Aug. 5, 2015 spill, the concentration of contaminants exceeded water quality standards in multiple locations impacted.
This necessitated the building of an interim water treatment plant at Gladstone that was mandated to operate through November 2016, said Cynthia Peterson, community involvement coordinator for the Bonita Peak Mining District. The EPA concluded a public comment session on Dec. 14 regarding the future of the treatment plant, and will release a final decision by the end of January, Peterson said. But the EPA has a preferred course of action.
“EPA’s preferred plan for the water treatment plant is for its continued operations and to look at additional options in the future as we understand more about the nature and spread of the contamination,” she said.
The agency also is conducting remedial investigation to understand the impact of the 48 sites in the mining district, which was named a Superfund site in September, on river contamination, Peterson said. This represents the first step before clean-up operations can begin.
From the Associated Press (Matthew Daly) via The Farmington Daily Times:
Agency says only 1 percent of the metals came from inside the mine and the rest were “scoured” from waste piles on nearby hills and stream beds
Nearly 540 tons of metals — mostly iron and aluminum — contaminated the Animas River over nine hours during a massive wastewater spill from an abandoned Colorado gold mine, the Environmental Protection Agency said today in a new report on the 2015 blowout that turned rivers in three states a sickly yellow.
The total amount of metals entering the river system was comparable to levels during one or two days of high spring runoff, although the concentration of metals was significantly higher at the spill’s peak, the report said.
In February, the EPA estimated the amount of metals in the release at 440 tons. The agency said additional data and improved analysis resulted in the higher final estimate.
The EPA said its research supports earlier statements that water quality in the affected river system has returned to pre-spill levels…
The EPA said in its report that only 1 percent of the metals came from inside the mine, while 99 percent were “scoured” from waste piles on nearby hills and stream beds. The iron and aluminum reacted with the river water to cause the eye-catching mustard color that was visible for days as the plume traveled down the river system into Lake Powell, the EPA said.
Besides iron and aluminum, the spill released manganese, lead, copper, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and a small amount of mercury into the river, the EPA said…
New Mexico Environment Secretary Butch Tongate accused the EPA of using the taxpayer-funded report to try to defend its actions. The state has sued the agency over the spill.
Colorado officials said they had no comment on the report. Utah officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“While data indicate that water quality has returned to pre-event conditions, EPA is committed to continue our work with States and Tribes in the river system affected by the Gold King Mine release to ensure the protection of public health and the environment,” Dr. Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s science adviser and deputy assistant administrator in its office of research and development, said in a statement…
The disaster, which turned the Animas River a toxic-looking yellow-orange, prompted concern and anger downstream, particularly in the Navajo Nation and New Mexico, where officials have been continually complaining about the spill’s water-quality impacts and have filed lawsuits against the EPA. The concentrations of some metals in the Gold King mine plume were higher than historical mine drainage, the EPA said in a news release announcing the report’s findings, but the impacts on water quality were not long lasting as some had worried…
There were no reported fish kills in the Animas or San Juan rivers, and the EPA says surveys have round that other aquatic life does not appear to have suffered any short-term impacts…
Also, the agency says the concentrations of metals in well-water samples collected after the 3 million-gallon spill’s plume passed through areas did not exceed federal drinking water standards. No public water system using Lake Powell as a source of drinking water has reported an exceedance of metals standards since the release, according to the EPA.
“Some metals from the GKM release contributed to exceedances of state and tribal water quality criteria at various times for nine months after the release in some locations,” the release said. “Metals from the GKM release may have contributed to some water quality criteria exceedances during the spring 2016 snow melt.”
However the EPA says other metal-level exceedances may reflect the longstanding mine drainage from the region’s historic sites as well as natural levels of metals in southwest Colorado’s soils and rocks. Silverton and its surroundings are now slated to get a federal cleanup of their leaching, historic mines under the EPA’s Superfund program.
The mines and mining sites in Silverton’s surroundings — including the Gold King — pour an estimated 5.4 million gallons of metal-laden waste into the Animas’ headwaters each day.
“Results from this analysis will inform future federal, state and tribal decisions on water and sediment monitoring,” the EPA release said, though it did not immediately elaborate.
From the Associated Press (Mead Gruver) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:
Federal officials withdrew a proposed requirement for companies to clean up groundwater at uranium mines across the U.S. and will reconsider a rule that congressional Republicans criticized as too harsh on industry.
The plan that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put on hold Wednesday involves in-situ mining, in which water containing chemicals is used to dissolve uranium out of underground sandstone deposits. Water laden with uranium, a toxic element used for nuclear power and weapons, is then pumped to the surface. No digging or tunneling takes place.
The metal occurs in the rock naturally but the process contaminates groundwater with uranium in concentrations much higher than natural levels. Mining companies take several measures to prevent tainted water from seeping out of the immediate mining area.
Even so, underground leaks sometimes occur, though most of the mines are not near population centers. No in-situ uranium mine has contaminated a source of drinking water, the industry and its supporters assert.
Along with setting new cleanup standards, the rule would have required companies to monitor their former mines potentially for decades. The requirement was set for implementation but now will be opened up for a six-month public comment period, with several changes.
Those include allowing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or states to determine certain cleanup standards on a site-specific basis. The EPA decided to resubmit the rule and seek additional public input after reviewing earlier comments, agency spokeswoman Monica Lee said.
Wyoming’s Republican U.S. senators, John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, praised the EPA’s decision to reconsider, saying the rule was unnecessarily burdensome for the uranium industry.
Wyoming has five active in-situ uranium mines and is the top uranium-producing state. Other mines are active in Nebraska and Texas.
“In-situ uranium recovery has been used in the United States for decades, providing valuable jobs to Wyoming and clean energy to the nation,” Enzi said in a news release. “I rarely say this about the EPA, but the agency made the right decision.”
Environmentalists and others say uranium-mining companies have yet to show they can fully clean up groundwater at a former in-situ mine. Clean groundwater should not be taken for granted, they say, especially in the arid and increasingly populated U.S. West.
“We are, of course, disappointed that this final rule didn’t make it to a final stage,” said Shannon Anderson with the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “It was designed to address a very real and pressing problem regarding water protection at uranium mines.”
The EPA rule is scheduled for further consideration in President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.
In-situ uranium mining surged on record prices that preceded the 2011 Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster. Prices lately have sunk to decade lows, prompting layoffs.
Colorado Springs is opposing an Arkansas River water district’s request to join a lawsuit that seeks to stop the city from discharging pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries of the river.
The Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District wants a voice against Colorado Springs by being allowed to take part in the litigation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health jointly filed the lawsuit Nov. 9 in U.S. District Court in Denver against Colorado Springs. The lawsuit claims that the city’s discharges of polluted stormwater into the tributaries violate state and federal clean water laws.
The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Colorado Springs “to take all steps necessary to redress or mitigate the impact of its violations.”
The lawsuit also seeks a court order to require the city “to develop, implement and enforce” its stormwater management program, as required by permits the government has issued. The lawsuit goes on to ask a judge to impose monetary penalties on Colorado Springs for the violations.
Water runoff from streets, parking lots and other surfaces picks up pollutants that drain into the stormwater sewage system, which discharges it into the creeks.
Pollutants include accumulated debris, chemicals and sediment. They “can adversely affect water quality, erode stream banks, destroy needed habitat for fish and other aquatic life, and make it more difficult and expensive for downstream users to effectively use the water,” the lawsuit states
The water district on Dec. 9 asked Senior Judge Richard Matsch for permission to become an intervenor to protect the district’s interests to have clean and usable water from the river.
The city on Dec. 22 filed arguments opposing the district’s request. The city contends that the district has no legal right to intervene.
The district — as well as Pueblo officials — has long been a critic of Colorado Springs for sending polluted and sediment-filled stormwater, including dangerous E. coli bacteria, into the river and for not controlling flooding the water causes.
The district encompasses Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, where considerable produce, including Rocky Ford melons, are grown.
Colorado Springs officials have negotiated a deal with Pueblo County for the city to spend $460 million over 20 years on Fountain Creek flood control.
The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs reported last Friday that Mayor John Suthers cited that commitment as an example of how his administration is working to resolve the complaints of its downstream neighbors.
In its court filing opposing allowing the district to become a participant in the litigation, the city said the case will be greatly complicated and costs of litigating it will increase. The city also said that the EPA and state environment department will adequately represent the district’s interests.
Attorney Peter Nichols, representing the district, sees it differently, according to The Gazette: “The question is whether the city is already putting a lot of political pressure on the state and EPA to back off. The district is concerned they might be successful with that pressure, and water quality wouldn’t be improved in Fountain Creek,” Nichols said.
The newspaper reported that district Executive Director Jay Winner said Colorado Springs repeatedly had broken promises about the stormwater problems.