Today (Wednesday, Jan. 17), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified the Eagle Mine Superfund site in Eagle County, Colo. as among 31 current and former National Superfund Priorities List (NPL) sites with the greatest expected redevelopment and commercial potential.
“EPA is more than a collaborative partner to remediate the nation’s most contaminated sites, we’re also working to successfully integrate Superfund sites back into communities across the country,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “Today’s redevelopment list incorporates Superfund sites ready to become catalysts for economic growth and revitalization.”
EPA’s redevelopment focus list includes a portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund site that has been identified for potential residential development. EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment are currently working with a development company, Battle North, LLC, to complete environmental investigation and cleanup actions necessary to allow for future residential use. In 2017, EPA selected a remedy for this area to achieve the additional cleanup of surface soils to levels that would allow for future residential development. These actions will include the excavation, containment and disposal of soils at a solid waste facility, the installation of a soil exposure barrier, and the implementation of institutional controls.
The 235-acre Eagle Mine Superfund site is located one mile from the town of Minturn and 75 miles west of Denver and is bordered by the White River National Forest. The Eagle River runs through the site. Gold, silver, copper and zinc mining and production took place on the site at various times between the 1880s and 1984 leaving high levels of metals in soils, surface water and groundwater. EPA placed the site on the NPL in 1986. To date, cleanup has included the removal of contaminated soils and sediments, containment of mine seepage and runoff, monitoring of surface water, groundwater, pool water and stream water, and land use controls. These actions have achieved significant water quality improvements in the Eagle River, an important recreational asset and a now-thriving trout fishery.
“The Eagle Mine site offers a great example of how EPA is working with local interests to secure the productive reuse of Superfund sites,” said EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento. “Over the past decades, cleanup actions taken at the Eagle Mine site have addressed soil, groundwater, and mine waste contamination and significantly improved water quality in the Eagle River. Our recent efforts with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Battle North build upon that progress with new remedies for soil contamination that will make portions of the Eagle Mine site ready for residential use.”
Superfund redevelopment has helped countless communities reclaim and reuse thousands of acres of formerly contaminated land. Superfund sites on the list have significant redevelopment potential based on previous outside interest, access to transportation corridors, land values, and other critical development drivers.
Farmers, business owners, residents and others initially said they suffered a staggering $1.2 billion in lost income, property damage and personal injuries from the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine, which tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
But the total now appears to be about $420 million. A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million.
It‘s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.
Under former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, the EPA said it was prohibited by law from doing so.
Now that they‘re in charge, Republicans have vowed to slash spending on the environment, leaving the prospects for compensation in doubt.
Mixing reportage, historical inquiry, and personal narrative, environmental journalist Thompson uses the Gold King Mine disaster as the starting point of an investigation into the environmental history of Colorado’s Animas River Valley, stretching back to the beginning of European colonization. In 2015, three million gallons of bright-orange, heavy-metal-tainted water spewed out in a matter of minutes from the defunct Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. Though the immediate danger of the toxins passed relatively quickly, it irreparably altered the relationships that the local Diné (Navajo) had with their land. “Our history is a history of pollution,” Thompson writes, detailing the damages caused by even the most primitive forms of mining in a seemingly endless war between mining companies and the humans and wildlife that depend on the water systems near mining sites. Thompson, a southwestern Colorado native, knowledgeably and sensitively addresses ethical questions at the heart of his inquiry, including what it would mean to restore the water system to its precolonial state. He also effortlessly explains the technical elements of this story, such as the complex chemistry of the environmental effects of mining. This is a vivid historical account of the Animas region, and Thompson shines in giving a sense of what it means to love a place that’s been designated a “sacrifice zone.”
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Award-winning investigative environmental journalist Jonathan P. Thompson digs into the science, politics, and greed behind the 2015 Gold King Mine disaster, and unearths a litany of impacts wrought by a century and a half of mining, energy development, and fracking in southwestern Colorado. Amid these harsh realities, Thompson explores how a new generation is setting out to make amends.
As shocking and heartbreaking as the Gold King spill and its aftermath may be, it’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The disaster itself was the climax of the long and troubled story of the Gold King mine, staked by a Swedish immigrant back in 1887. And it was only the most visible manifestation of a slow-moving, multi-faceted environmental catastrophe that had been unfolding here long before the events of August 5, 2015.
Jonathan Thompson is a native Westerner with deep roots in southwestern Colorado. He has been an environmental journalist focusing on the American West since he signed on as reporter and photographer at the Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper in 1996. He has worked and written for High Country News for over a decade, serving as editor-in-chief from 2007 to 2010. He was a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and in 2016 he was awarded the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market. He currently lives in Bulgaria with his wife Wendy and daughters Lydia and Elena.
This re-engineering along headwaters of the Dolores River requires replanting wetlands with native grasses and laying in soil to mimic natural processes — an innovative approach that may be deployed more widely across the water-challenged West, where tens of thousands of toxic mines foul rivers and streams. So far, the experiment is working, removing fish-killing zinc, manganese linked to birth deformities and cancer-causing cadmium from muck flowing from the Argentine Mine complex uphill from Rico.
“Mining is what brought communities to life at the turn of the 19th century, but now residents and visitors would like to see these scars restored as much as possible — especially focusing on water cleanup,” San Miguel County commissioner Hilary Cooper said from her perch in Telluride, 22 miles north of the mess. “For many of these areas, human intervention is required to initiate the cleanup. But planning, which ultimately allows native vegetation, restored natural floodplains and the engineering skills of beavers to assist with the cleanup is generally preferred when possible. In the end, we will find it is more effective.”
Wildlife, including river otters, may be reviving in Rico because multiple factors favor environmental recovery.
First, federal agencies enforced laws. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 issued an emergency order compelling action to stop contamination of Dolores headwaters after state regulators and mine owners failed to get a grip. Then, EPA officials swiftly identified and enlisted a private company legally responsible for the mess — something agency officials haven’t done at other sites, including the Gold King Superfund district, where a potentially responsible corporation is fighting the EPA in court.
And the company, Atlantic Richfield — now owned by global energy giant BP — resolutely embarked on a cleanup, investing tens of millions of dollars. This compares with less than $5 million that the EPA has mustered for cleanup of the 48-site Gold King district above Silverton. For another Superfund disaster that the EPA declared in 2008 in Creede, federal funds have been so scarce that cleanup has barely begun.
In 2012, Atlantic Richfield contractors at Rico faced rising water inside mine tunnels that threatened a ruinous blowout. The St. Louis Tunnel, within a few hundred yards of the Dolores River, had collapsed and was oozing as much as 1,300 gallons a minute of toxic muck. A lime water treatment plant installed to neutralize sulfuric acid in the flow, churning out thousands of cubic yards a year of waste solids, wasn’t working. (The acid, private contractors later determined, is mostly neutralized by natural calcium deposits inside the tunnel before the muck flows out.) Cleanup crews also had to deal with eroding, unlined tailings ponds where rain and melting snow leached toxic metals into the river…
The innovative cleanup by Atlantic Richfield modernizes the standard approach of installing water treatment plants in the high country along with bulkhead plugs to try to control leaks. Contractors scooped out and lined the old ponds, planted grasses interspersed with stones and put in a sediment mix of manure, hay, alfalfa and woodchips — all aimed at filtering out toxic metals…
This massive experiment now covers 55 acres, closed inside fences and berms, below the newly dammed St. Louis Tunnel. The toxic muck still flows at rates fluctuating from 700 to more than 1,000 gallons a minute but now is channeled through three black tubes that carry the muck through the engineered ponds and wetlands.
In one pond, the toxic mine water seeps down vertically 2.5 feet through sediment, where chemical reactions help break out the manganese, zinc and cadmium. Native sedge and rush grasses are starting to grow atop that sediment layer. In other ponds, water is pushed through wetlands created using stones and grasses that grow naturally in the San Juan Mountain to filter out and chemically extract toxic metals.
Once contractors figure out which method or combination works best, they say they’ll seek EPA approval and then fully install engineered wetlands, eventually removing fences and roads.
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Andrew Mutter/Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):
EPA announces elevation of 21 sites nationwide
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the list of Superfund sites that Administrator Pruitt has targeted for immediate and intense attention. The 21 sites on the list – from across the United States – are in direct response to the Superfund Task Force Recommendations, issued this summer, calling for this list.
“By elevating these sites we are sending a message that EPA is, in fact, restoring its Superfund program to its rightful place at the center of the Agency’s mission,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “Getting toxic land sites cleaned up and revitalized is of the utmost importance to the communities across the country that are affected by these sites. I have charged the Superfund Task Force staff to immediately and intently develop plans for each of these sites to ensure they are thoughtfully addressed with urgency. By getting these sites cleaned up, EPA will continue to focus on ways we can directly improve public health and the environment for people across America.”
In Colorado, the Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) site is on the Administrator’s Superfund list for emphasis. EPA is currently working with the State of Colorado as well as its federal partners, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to develop a Five-Year Plan that outlines cleanup activities and remediation objectives for the site. EPA is working closely with the local government and community stakeholders to ensure the interests of the community are met.
“We are heavily invested in achieving tangible water quality improvements in the Upper Animas watershed,” said EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento. “EPA has a unique responsibility at this site and by placing it on this list we are recognizing that responsibility and ensuring the community that it is going to be a priority.”
While long-term planning continues, EPA is using an adaptive management approach at the site that supports early actions to improve water quality, stabilize mine features and address priority areas that pose a risk to human health. Through his hands-on engagement at the BPMD site, Administrator Pruitt will advance progress on site cleanup without expending additional taxpayer dollars.
“Today’s announcement to include the Bonita Peak Mining District site to the EPA’s Superfund “Emphasis List” is an important step forward,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “We visited the site with EPA Administrator Pruitt in August and are encouraged by his follow through with resources and support to the agency’s cleanup efforts. This is in addition to other national priority list sites like the Colorado Smelter site in Pueblo, where important EPA cleanup actions also are underway. We look forward to working closely with the EPA, our communities and our Congressional delegation to remediate these sites.”
“Secretary Pruitt assured me when I met with him before his confirmation and when we visited the site in August that the EPA would make the right decision for the people of Southwest Colorado, and I appreciate his agency following through on their promise,” said Senator Cory Gardner. “The Gold King mine spill has had a significant impact on our state and there will continue to be a lot of work done by our elected officials and community. This latest commitment to the Bonita Peak Mining District along with continued attention to Colorado Smelter cleanup actions in Pueblo are important steps in the progress that needs to be made by the EPA at both locations.”
“We applaud the EPA’s decision to prioritize the Bonita Peak Mining District site, and we encourage them to keep working with state officials to secure funding for a local community liaison based in Silverton to improve coordination for the BPMD site among local, state, and federal governments,” said Senator Michael Bennet. “The administration and Congress should also work together to ensure all Superfund sites, including important clean-up efforts underway in Pueblo, have the resources and support they need.”
The Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) became a Superfund site on Sept. 9, 2016, when it was added to the National Priorities List. The site consists of historic and ongoing releases from mining operations in three drainages: Mineral Creek, Cement Creek and Upper Animas, which converge into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado. The site includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings impoundments and two study areas where additional information is needed to evaluate environmental concerns.
In developing this initial list, EPA considered sites that can benefit from Administrator Pruitt’s direct engagement and have identifiable actions to protect human health and the environment. These are sites requiring timely resolution of specific issues to expedite cleanup and redevelopment efforts. The list is designed to spur action at sites where opportunities exist to act quickly and comprehensively. The Administrator will receive regular updates on each of these sites.
The list is intended to be dynamic. Sites will move on and off the list as appropriate. At times, there may be more or fewer sites based on where the Administrator’s attention and focus is most needed. There is no commitment of additional funding associated with a site’s inclusion on the list.
EPA remains dedicated to addressing risks at all Superfund sites, not just those on the list. The Task Force Recommendations are aimed at expediting cleanup at all Superfund sites and Administrator Pruitt has set the expectation that there will be a renewed focus on accelerating work and progress at all Superfund sites across the country.
The Task Force, whose work is ongoing, has five overarching goals:
Expediting cleanup and remediation;
Reinvigorating cleanup and reuse efforts by potentially responsible parties;
Encouraging private investment to facilitate cleanup and reuse;
Promoting redevelopment and community revitalization; and
Many local and national officials saw the listing as the agency fulfilling commitments it made after the EPA in June 2015 released acid mine drainage into the Animas River watershed.
“That is exactly what was promised to us when we signed up for the National Priority List,” San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay said of the recent announcement.
Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Gov. John Hickenlooper also supported the announcement.
While the list is expected to be dynamic, Benevento said the announcement signified a long-term commitment to the area.
Inclusion on the list is not a commitment of additional funding, according to a news release. But it does place an obligation on the regional administrator to make sure the project manager has the resources that she needs, Benevento said.
The EPA is working with Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to develop a five-year plan for the Bonita Peak area that outlines cleanup activities and remediation objectives, the release said.
The site includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings impoundments and two study areas where additional information is needed to evaluate environmental concerns.
Project Manager Rebecca Thomas expects human health and aquatic risk assessments to be finished in the spring and some cleanup work to start in the summer.
San Juan County commissioners McCay and Scott Fetchenhier also said some sites could be cleaned up in the short-term.
“There are a couple sites with tailings that could be cleaned up pretty quickly,” Fetchenhier said.
McCay said understanding the flows of polluted water in the Gladstone area and how best to mitigate those is an immediate priority.
The push is part of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s promise to prioritize the decades-old cleanup program, even as the Trump administration shrinks the size and reach of the EPA. The 21 sites highlighted by the agency span the country, from a former tannery site in New Hampshire to a contaminated landfill from the World War II-era Manhattan Project in St. Louis to an abandoned copper mine in Nevada…
David Konisky, a political scientist at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, questioned how EPA put together the list of sites it released Friday.
“I do find the rationale for inclusion on the list to be strange,” Konisky, who has written extensively about the Superfund program, said in an email. “The EPA selected sites based on the ability of the Administrator to help achieve an upcoming milestone or site-specific action. This strikes me as mostly about creating a credit-claiming opportunity for Pruitt, rather than prioritizing additional resources to sites where communities face the most significant health risks.”
There are more than 1,300 Superfund sites nationwide, some of which have lingered for years on the EPA’s “national priorities list.” While Pruitt has repeatedly spoken about his focus on the program, calling it “vital” and a “cornerstone” of the EPA’s mission, critics have noted that the Trump administration has proposed slashing the Superfund budget by 30 percent. They also worry that a single-minded focus on speeding up the process at particular sites could result in inadequate cleanups…
“It’s happy talk,” Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, told The Washington Post in the summer, noting how funding for the program has shrunk over time. “We have Superfund sites, but we don’t have a super fund.”
The funding includes about $10.6 million in clean water infrastructure and $14.3 million in drinking water state revolving loan funding.
“The State Revolving Fund programs are critical for Colorado as they have provided the ability to fund more than $1.2 billion for clean water and $600 million for drinking water infrastructure projects throughout the state,” Pat Pfaltzgraff, director of the state’s Water Quality Control Division, said in the release. “The SRF programs continue to help offset the $12 billion dollar funding gap.”
According to the release, Colorado’s water infrastructure projects also are funded with state match, repayments from State Revolving Fund loans and interest earnings. Key projects for wastewater treatment and drinking water State Revolving Fund loans include: $43 million to Evans for its new consolidated wastewater treatment plant, $320,000 to Larimer County’s Wonderview Condos Association to replace its collection system and $58 million to Breckenridge for an intake structure, raw water piping and a water treatment plant.
A federal-state partnership, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund provides financing for water quality projects through low-interest loans. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was created in 1996 and provides financial support to ensure safe drinking water.
Chronic ingestion of molybdenum can cause diarrhea, stunted growth, infertility, low birth weights and gout
Colorado health officials on Wednesday ignored state scientists and delayed for two years a decision on a mining giant’s push to weaken statewide limits on molybdenum pollution of streams, including a creek flowing into Dillon Reservoir, Denver’s drinking water supply.
Denver Water contends that Climax Molybdenum’s campaign to jack up molybdenum pollution limits 43 times higher than at present could cost ratepayers up to $600 million for expansion of a water treatment plant. Trace amounts of molybdenum — below a health advisory level — already flow out of Denver taps.
But Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials on Wednesday rescheduled a Dec. 12 molybdenum rule hearing for November 2019.
A CDPHE hearing officer said the delay will allow time for industry-financed studies to move through a peer-review process and for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to make decisions on molybdenum toxicity. A “temporary modification” that currently allows elevated molybdenum pollution from the Climax Mine was extended this year through 2018, and CDPHE officials at Wednesday’s meeting opened the possibility it could be extended again.
CDPHE scientists opposed the delay. The scientists, Denver Water and a coalition of mountain towns have opposed the push by Climax to allow more molybdenum pollution of Tenmile Creek, which flows down from the Climax Mine above Leadville into Dillon Reservoir, where water flows out through a tunnel to Denver and the upper Colorado River Basin. CDPHE water-quality scientists have determined that molybdenum pollution at the proposed new limits would kill fish and could hurt people…
Denver Water treatment plants cannot remove molybdenum, and expanding one plant to do that would cost from $480 million to $600 million, utility officials said in documents filed to the CDPHE.
Those costs ultimately would hit ratepayers, the 1.4 million people who rely on Denver Water for their domestic water supply. The molybdenum pollution from Tenmile Creek that reaches Denver facilities today is “below the human health advisory levels,” Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney said.
“We’d likely exceed the human health advisory standard if that (new limit) were to become the statewide water quality standard. … Currently, the concentrations in Tenmile Creek have not been at a high enough concentration that would result in an exceedance of the human health advisory level, so an extension of the ‘temporary modification’ for molybdenum is acceptable,” Chesney said.
A subsidiary of the $46 billion mining giant Freeport-McMoRan, Climax Molybdenum runs the Climax Mine, which was closed for 25 years and reopened in 2012. This led to elevated molybdenum pollution at levels up to 2,500 ppb, 10 times higher than the current statewide limit. The “temporary modification” granted by CDPHE water commissioners, and extended this year, allows this elevated pollution through December 2018…
EPA officials recently said a molybdenum pollution limit as high as 10,000 ppb could be sufficient. But EPA scientists previously have advised lower limits.
“Denver Water’s current position is that the molybdenum limit should be based on scientific evidence. While Climax Molybdenum Company has presented scientific studies in support of its proposed standard, the studies fail to account for the effect high molybdenum concentrations will have on individuals with a copper deficiency,” Chesney said. “Because we do not know how high molybdenum concentrations will affect people with copper deficiencies, and EPA has not modified the Human Health Advisory for molybdenum to correspond with Climax’s proposed standard, the (state water quality control) commission should decline to increase the molybdenum standard to the level proposed by Climax.”
A coalition of mountain towns also is fighting the proposed higher limits for molybdenum pollution of waterways.
“Because of scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of varying molybdenum concentrations on human health, the commission should decline to make the changes that Climax Molybdenum Company has proposed in the statewide molybdenum standards,” Frisco attorney Jennifer DiLalla said. “The town’s primary goal is ensuring that any action the commission may take with respect to molydenum standards is protective of the health of those who live and work and play in Frisco.”