2nd Annual Conference on Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

Here’s the Click here to register. From the release:

JOIN US IN FARMINGTON. Building on last year’s successful conference, the 2nd Annual Conference on Environmental Conditions of the Animas and San Juan Watersheds with Emphasis on Gold King Mine and other Mine Waste Issues will continue to facilitate the exchange of data and research results associated with monitoring efforts related to the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill. Since the spill, quite a bit has happened on the site and this conference will provide an update of the increased understanding of the spill, along with lessons that have been learned.

The conference is an opportunity to meet, learn from, and share ideas on a broad effort that includes four states, three Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regions, two Tribes, and numerous local and municipal agencies and public water systems.

The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) will host the conference on June 20-22, 2017 at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. This year’s technical program will include oral and poster presentations in addition to plenary talks from some of the region’s leading experts on environmental catastrophes and their impacts on our communities. This year’s conference will include an all-day educational field trip of the Animas and San Juan watersheds.

Particularly relevant topics to be featured at the conference this year include:

  • Geology, minerology, ore bodies and natural sources of contamination
  • Analysis of Animas and San Juan watersheds as a result of Gold King Mine spill
  • Effects of acid mine drainage after more than a century of mining
  • Effects of historical mill-waste discharges
  • Effects of historical spill events
  • Effects of the Gold King Mine spill
  • Differentiating geologic and historical contaminants from Gold King Mine spill contaminants
  • Transport and fate of mining contaminants in the Animas and San Juan watersheds
  • Contaminant uptake into the food web
  • Mining and milling contaminant impacts on surface water, sediment, groundwater, agriculture, livestock, wildlife, and humans
  • Long-term monitoring
  • Existing corrective measures to control mine seepage and hydraulic consequences
  • Options for additional source control, spill prevention, and remediation
  • E. coli and other organisms in nutrients
  • Streamflow and water quality sensitivity to climate change
  • Groundwater and surface-water geochemistry and their interaction with the hyporheic zone
  • The conference will support the activities outlined in the Gold King Mine Water Spill Long Term Monitoring Plan, prepared by the New Mexico’s Long Term Impact Team (April 4, 2016).

    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)

    US Supreme Court will continue with Waters of the US rule case

    Kayakers float the Los Angeles River near the Sixth Street Bridge in downtown L.A. Photo credit Tom Andrews via The High Country News.

    From Utility Dive (Robert Walton):

    Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court declined a request to stay litigation over the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which the White House asked for as it reconsiders the environmental regulations.
  • Last month President Trump signed an executive order directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the controversial WOTUS rule, in which the Obama administration clarified federal jurisdiction over waterways and wetlands under the Clean Water Act of 1972.
  • The question before the Supreme Court includes whether District or Circuit courts have jurisdiction over the rule. The White House had asked to hold the case in abeyance as it makes several major environmental policy moves.
  • Can States Protect Our Waters? — @FieldandStream

    Fly fishing on the Gunnison River outside of Delta, Colorado. Photo credit: © Mark Skalny for The Nature Conservancy

    Here’s a report from Hal Herring writing for Field and Stream. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

    You may wonder why so many Conservationist posts dwell so obsessively on the recent decision by the Trump Administration to review and replace the so-called Waters of the U.S. Rule, and why we’ve written about this topic so many times.

    The answer is that most of us have lived in a nation where, until very recently, water quality has steadily improved. Many of us have never experienced the kind of wholesale water pollution that was common in the U.S. before the 1972 Clean Water Act, with the ruin of property values and fisheries and drinking water supplies. Although this situation of steadily improving water quality is actually unique in a world that is mostly growing dirtier and more crowded by the hour, we seem to take it for granted in a way that I just cannot understand, and that is totally different from the way we think about all our other freedoms and responsibilities. Freedom isn’t free. The price of liberty is constant vigilance. To whom much is given, much is expected.

    #AnimasRiver: Losses from #GoldKingMine spill revised downward

    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)

    From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Aurora Sentinel:

    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

    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…

    The EPA said it received 73 claims for economic damage or personal injuries. The AP obtained copies of the claims through an open records request, although many details were redacted.

    The Albuquerque, New Mexico, law firm Will Ferguson & Associates filed claims totaling $900 million for about a dozen residents of Aztec, a town of about 6,100 on the Animas River in northwestern New Mexico. The residents say the contaminated water damaged their wells, soil and plumbing and caused health problems including chronic intestinal pain, rashes and memory loss.

    Will Ferguson, the firm’s managing partner, said the $900 million represented an opening position, and the attorneys never expected to recover that much.

    Kedar Bhasker, another lawyer with the firm, said the claims were refiled in December. Bhasker called the lower amount “more reasonable.”

    In January, the EPA was still using the $1.2 billion total for all the claims, which didn’t reflect the law firm’s revisions. EPA officials didn’t immediately provide an explanation in response to emails seeking comment.

    The other claims ranged from river guides asking for a few hundred dollars in lost wages to the Navajo Nation seeking $162 million for environmental and health monitoring, among other things. The state of New Mexico asked for $130 million in lost taxes and other revenue. The state and tribe also are suing the EPA separately in federal court.

    Ten tourist-dependent businesses filed claims, saying they lost money when travelers stayed away. Farmers and ranchers said crops died because the river couldn’t be used to irrigate and that they had extra expenses from hauling untainted water to livestock.

    Some property owners said the value of their land plummeted because of the stigma attached to the spill…

    The agency noted it had already spent more than $31.3 million on the spill, including remediation work, water testing and payments to state, local and tribal agencies for their emergency response to the disaster.

    But lawmakers were infuriated — especially Republicans, some of whom portrayed the spill as a glaring example of EPA mismanagement. They have pressed the new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, to reconsider the decision not to pay damages.

    At his confirmation hearings, Pruitt promised to review it. The EPA didn’t immediately respond to emails and a phone call seeking comment on whether he had done so.

    Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said he believes Pruitt “will make good on his promise to work with me and my colleagues in resolving the outstanding issues that remain from the Obama administration’s EPA.”

    Colorado Democrats introduced a measure in Congress in 2015, shortly after the spill, intended to allow federal compensation for economic damages, but the bill died.

    Now, Congress appears to be waiting on President Donald Trump’s administration to make its intentions known.

    “We don’t know what to expect from this administration in regard to that,” said Liz Payne, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado, whose district was hurt by the spill.

    “It’s still a waiting game for us at this point,” she said.

    @EPA: “…abolishing the agency…I personally think it’s a good idea” — Myron Ebell

    From ColoradoPolitics.com (Peter Marcus) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

    The man who led transition efforts for President Trump at the EPA said the administration’s proposed budget signals a commitment to abolish the agency.

    But Myron Ebell, a Colorado College graduate and an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said it is not an overnight effort.

    The administration’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal released Thursday charts a course that could lead to the end of the federal environmental agency, Ebell said, speaking to a conservative group at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver on Thursday.

    Ebell had proposed Trump make a 10 percent cut to the EPA in his first budget request. The proposal unveiled Thursday would cut the agency by significantly more, up to 31 percent. It represents about a $2.6 billion cut to the agency’s relatively small, when compared to other federal agencies, $8.2 billion budget.

    The cuts would result in about 3,200 employees being laid off in the initial wave, which could include many regional staff. Denver is home to Region 8 headquarters, a multi-state jurisdiction that covers much of the Intermountain West, which employs about 500 people.

    “I think there’s a serious commitment here to draining the swamp,” Ebell, calling upon a popular Trump campaign mantra, said to applause.

    The preliminary budget request would eliminate as much as a fifth of the agency’s workforce, which stands at around 15,000. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, including energy grants that help to fight air pollution. Scientific research would also face massive cuts.

    Environmental interests had feared Trump’s budget proposal would start to chip away at the EPA, ultimately leading to closure. News of the preliminary budget sent many into a tailspin, as it potentially signals a much faster outcome.

    Trump also proposed a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department and a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy.

    “The president’s budget is a moral document, and President Trump has shown us exactly where he stands. These unprecedented cuts will hamper the ability of our park rangers, scientists, those who enforce the law against polluters, and other Coloradans from doing their important work,” said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado.

    “This is not just cutting the fat, this is a complete butchering of programs and jobs that are critical to Colorado.”

    The move leaves specific uncertainty in Colorado, where the EPA has promised to cleanup toxic leaking mines that are spilling into the Animas River in Durango. The Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 was triggered by an EPA engineering error, causing about 3 million gallons of mustard yellow sludge to pour into the river.

    In the aftermath of the spill, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, which allows it to spend significant resources to implement a long-term water quality cleanup effort. Some worry those efforts would be diminished by reductions at the EPA.

    But Ebell said a pushback to the EPA’s “regulatory rampage” does not mean that environmental controls would go away. He said regulations would still be enforced – especially on the state level – including around Superfund sites and clean drinking water.

    “The question is, why do we need 15,000 people working for the EPA?” asked Ebell. “I understand why we need some … Maybe abolishing the agency is something that President Trump … would want to have a discussion about … I personally think it’s a good idea.”

    Busting up the EPA is not a good idea, Myron.

    Across party lines, Western governors see a partner in Pruitt — @COindependent

    Colorado abandoned mines

    From The High Country News (Elizabeth Shogren) via The Colorado Independent:

    Just a few days in office, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hosted an early Sunday morning breakfast for 11 Western governors. Scott Pruitt told them face-to-face what he’s said repeatedly since he was nominated: Under his leadership, the EPA will defer to states much more than it has in the recent past.

    Pruitt made a similar vow to profoundly transform the agency the day before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “We’re going to once again pay attention to the states across this country,” Pruitt told a gathering of Republicans. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.”

    This message resonated with the Western governors, regardless of their political affiliations, according to several members of the governors’ staffs. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent whose state is 66 percent federal land, was “encouraged by (Pruitt’s) emphasis on state’s rights,” Grace Jang, Walker’s communications director, says.

    The Western governors’ unanimity is striking in an era of intense partisanship and reflects the commitment they have to work together through the Western Governors’ Association. The breakfast was an annual event of that group, a rare hub of bipartisanship and consensus building in a polarized nation. The governors are in the midst of a major effort to transform the relationship between the federal and state governments to give them more input into federal regulations.

    “The Republican governors were on the same page with their Democratic colleagues in telling Pruitt, we want it to be a partnership,” says John Swartout, senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “We haven’t been happy that the EPA hasn’t always treated us as a full partner. We can make progress together.”

    As they ate scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and donuts at a square table in EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters, the governors one-by-one told Pruitt their priorities. Over the course of two hours, many mentioned their desire to have more sway over federal environmental regulations.

    Western governors have collaborated for about 100 years. Their desire to present a unified voice to Washington is driven in part because of the vast amount of federal land in the West, which means decisions made in Washington have acute impacts on their states’ economies. “It’s largely a function of being so distant from Washington and needing to amplify their distant voices,” said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group.

    In the Western Governors’ Association, the governors focus on shared objectives and pass joint resolutions. In December, for instance, they passed a resolution calling for a greater role in crafting federal regulations and in other decisions by the federal government. Other resolutions present their consensus positions on a wide range of issues, including endangered species, wildfire fire management, invasive species and abandoned mine cleanups.

    Western governors from both parties felt the Obama administration’s EPA failed to adequately consult the states as it crafted some important environmental regulations, such as the 2015 Clean Water Rule. (That rule was temporarily blocked in 2015, pending resolution of a court challenge brought by industry groups and 31 states.) “Had the EPA worked with us on the rule upfront it could have been a better rule,” Swartout says. EPA did address some comments the governors made about how the proposed rule impinged on state authority over water management, but not all of them.

    Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch a rollback of that rule and, until it’s rewritten, limit federal oversight to waterways that are navigable, leaving the rest to the states. Pruitt announced that he would rescind the Obama rule and write a new one that “restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water.”

    “We believe (Pruitt’s EPA) will partner with states in a way that’s meaningful; in a way that quite frankly the previous administration did not,” says Nephi Cole, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor policy.

    Many scholars caution that undoing that rule will be particularly detrimental in the arid West, where so many small streams and those that run only intermittently are crucially important for wildlife and water quality and quantity. States tend to be more responsive to local industries, because of the benefits they bring to the economy like jobs and tax revenue.

    But Cole argues that it’s a “false narrative” to suggest that giving states more control equates to allowing more pollution and less environmental protection. In another resolution adopted in December, Western governors assert that they want to be the ones to decide how to balance the needs of industry in their states and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

    During the two-hour breakfast, Pruitt spent most of the time listening to governors. (Most years, the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and other cabinet members important to Western states attend the breakfast, but as of Sunday, Pruitt was the only one of those who had been confirmed by the Senate.) Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Pruitt to personally engage in the Gold King Mine controversy. A 2015 blowout at the mine unleashed a surge of acid mine drainage down the Animas River. Pruitt committed to visiting Colorado and meeting with local and state officials, Swartout says.
    A big priority for some governors is that the EPA continues to negotiate settlements with companies responsible for creating toxic waste sites covered under Superfund.

    Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, urged Pruitt to move forward with the plan to clean up the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site, so the city can revitalize the waterfront and create jobs. She also stressed her state’s continued commitment to fighting climate change, according to her press secretary, Bryan Hockaday.

    Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who heads the Western Governors’ Association, wants Pruitt to keep the pressure on to finally reach a settlement on the Superfund sites in and around Butte, Montana, where historic copper mining and smelting left behind the nation’s largest toxic waste site, according to his press secretary, Marissa Perry. After many years, negotiations between the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Corporation, owned by BP, have picked up steam. Bullock wants to make sure the momentum isn’t lost.

    While the Western governors break out of the hyper-partisanship that’s plagued other branches of government and see some opportunity to work with Pruitt, potential major budget cuts to the EPA may give Pruitt a lot less leeway to respond to state needs.

    This week, the White House sent agencies an outline of the president’s draft budget that reportedly would gut the EPA’s $8 billion budget, cutting by 30 percent the grants it sends to the states to implement air, water and toxic waste regulations. Pruitt told E&E News that he’s asking the White House to retain more funding for the states to improve air quality, clean up Superfund sites and improve aging water and wastewater infrastructure. Programs slated for zero funding include grants to clean up abandoned industrial sites and funding to bring safe drinking water and sewer systems to Native villages in Alaska, according to the Washington Post. More details on the budget are expected later this month. It’s not clear if the White House can win approval for its vision of a much smaller EPA.

    The proof of whether the governors and Pruitt will be able to work together will emerge in coming months, as the Trump administration pursues its agenda and rolls back existing rules. “We’re trying to work with him. We need to work with the federal government,” Swartout says. “It’s too early to know. We have to see how it all plays out. It’s just speculation at this point.”

    Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. This story originally appeared in High Country News on March 3, 2017.

    Why Trump’s water order heartens ranchers and worries conservationists — @COIndependent

    Will Hobbs, Greg Hobbs, Dan Hobbs, and a string of fish for dinner, Mary Alice Lake, Weminuche Wilderness, 1986 via Greg Hobbs
    Will Hobbs, Greg Hobbs, Dan Hobbs, and a string of fish for dinner, Mary Alice Lake, Weminuche Wilderness, 1986 via Greg Hobbs

    From The Colorado Independent (Kelsey Ray):

    President Donald Trump has directed the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back a clean water regulation that Colorado ranchers have criticized as overly burdensome but environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts say is essential to protecting the health of the state’s rivers and streams.

    Trump’s executive order Tuesday concerns what is known as the Waters of the United States rule, a regulation passed in May 2015 under President Barack Obama that clarified the scope of waters protected under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Calling Obama’s expanded regulations “a disaster” and “one of the worst examples of federal regulation,” Trump said his order was “paving the way for the elimination” of the rule, which had yet to be implemented.

    Obama’s rule set about clarifying which U.S. waters are protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act. Until 2015, the Act protected “navigable waters, interstate waters and the territorial sea” and also, on a case-by-case basis, waters that were upstream given that protecting major waterways requires looking after what flows into them. Obama’s rule expanded protections to include most tributaries, wetlands near floodplains and even some “isolated” waters — those that don’t actually flow into protected waters, but are near them.

    Trump’s order seeks to scale back this definition to be more in line with an opinion issued by the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a 2006 case about the Clean Water Act. In ruling that Clean Water Act protections did not extend to a particular wetland, Scalia defined protected waters as “relatively permanent, standing or continuously flowing bodies of water.” Obama’s rule, in contrast, relied more heavily on the definition presented in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion. The Supreme Court could not reach a majority on that case, ruling 4-1-4.

    Rob Harris, a senior attorney at Western Resource Advocates, says that under Scalia’s definition, impermanent and seasonal streams and waterways, such as those that rely on snowmelt or are particularly vulnerable to drought, may not be protected. That poses a particular threat in Colorado because, Harris says, only 15 miles of Colorado rivers and streams are what might be considered traditionally navigable waters. “The other 95,000 stream miles are not,” he said.

    Trump said he was signing the order on behalf of farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers, who find the rule overly burdensome. “It’s prohibiting them from being allowed to do what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said, adding that the Waters of the U.S. rule applies to “nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land, or anyplace else that they decide.” As an example, Trump said, “If you want to build a new home, for example, you have to worry about getting hit with a huge fine if you fill in as much as a puddle — just a puddle — on your lot.”

    But that’s not true. The rule, in fact, clarified that the Clean Water Act does not apply to puddles, nor to groundwater, artificial ponds and lakes, artificial dryland irrigation or to many kinds of ditches. Trump’s remarks upon signing the rule, saying that “In one case in a Wyoming, a rancher was fined $37,000 a day by the EPA for digging a small watering hole for his cattle” and that “I’ve been hearing about it for years and years” could not have been as a result of the Waters in the U.S. rule, which, again, had not yet gone into effect.

    Still, farmers and ranchers said the rule was unclear about what agricultural-related waters were included. They worried, as Politico reported, that the rule would “give bureaucrats carte blanche to swoop in and penalize landowners every time a cow walks through a ditch.”

    “We wanted to see the rule rescinded. We asked that it be reconsidered,” said Terry Fankhauser, the executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association which contributed funds to a lawsuit filed by a national cattlemen’s association and several commodities groups challenging the Obama administration’s expanded definition of which bodies of water should be protected.

    Fankhauser said groups like his worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to try to find answers, but remained unclear about what enforcement might look like. He thought the best answer would be to redefine the terms and reconsider the rule itself before finalizing it.

    Environmentalists worry that Trump’s order will hurt Colorado’s water quality and wildlife by narrowing which waterways receive protection from pollution. “The people of the American West want clean, healthy rivers, not a return to the days when rivers in America caught fire and were severely polluted and dead,” Gary Wockner, director of Save The Colorado, said in a statement. The way he sees it, basing water protections on Scalia’s definition could leave the Poudre River, the South Platte River and rivers across the Front Range vulnerable to pollution not just from agriculture, but from coal-fired power plants, refineries and even city wastewater treatment facilities.

    Sportsmen, too, are concerned about the environmental effects of the order. David Nickum, the executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited, said that anglers know clean water starts at the source. “If we degrade and pollute those headwaters, it is only a matter of time until the next snowmelt or rainstorm sends those impacts down into our larger rivers and water supplies.” Chris Wood, the CEO of Trout Unlimited, said that altering the rule to follow Scalia’s definition would cause 60 percent of U.S. streams and 20 million acres of wetlands would lose protection of the Clean Water Act. That would be, he said, “an unmitigated disaster for fish and wildlife, hunting and fishing, and clean water.”

    But Fankhauser insists that clean water matters to cattlemen, too — “it’s not only a right, it’s an obligation to us” — and said calling Trump’s order a rollback of the Clean Water Act was a “pretty significant overstatement.” Rather, he says, it’s an opportunity to come up with a solution that protects the environment without strapping the agricultural sector with unnecessary regulations.

    Trump can’t simply undo Obama-era water quality protections with his executive order. His EPA chief Scott Pruitt will have to undergo a lengthy federal rulemaking process to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule. And, as Vox reports, federal courts have historically interpreted the rule as Kennedy did, rather than along Scalia’s narrower view. [ed. emphasis mine]

    Colorado, in the meantime, has the ability to enact more stringent water regulations. Harris, who hopes either the state legislature or the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPHE) will take on the task, wondered, “Are we going to wait until something bad happens and our waterways are impacted, or are we going to protect our waterways before the problem even starts?”

    Jacque Montgomery, spokesperson for Gov. John Hickenlooper, says the administration wasn’t completely satisfied with the Waters of the U.S. rule, but that “the complete absence of a rule means ambiguity and uncertainty” regarding which waters apply. Said Montgomery, “Colorado aims to keep protecting our watersheds and streams,” and will follow through on the watershed and stream management plans called for in the state water plan. Her remarks, says CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley, speak for that organization as well.

    Trout Unlimited’s Nickum predicted a lengthy battle in Colorado from groups looking to push against what they see as a threat to their clean water.

    “You can expect Colorado sportsmen and women to be aggressively involved, fighting for the headwater streams and wetlands that are essential for healthy fish and wildlife habitat,” he said.