#AnimasRiver: @EPA — Implementation of the #GoldKingMine After-Action Review

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

Click here to read the report. Here’s an excerpt:

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.
  • From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

    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.

    Ebbing Away: Latest land “subsidence” monitoring report finds lower ground levels and fissures in some regions of Arizona

    Arizona Water News


    The problem of land subsidence in Arizona – the lowering in elevation of land-surface levels, largely the result of groundwater extraction – is a decidedly mixed bag, the Arizona Department of Water Resources is discovering.

    Thanks to decreased groundwater pumping in the Phoenix and Tucson Active Management Areas, for example, subsidence rates in many areas of those AMAs have decreased between 25 and 90 percent compared to rates in the 1990s.

    That is just one of the major findings of the department’s recent “Land Subsidence Monitoring Report No. 3,” released earlier this month.

    And it’s the news from the happy side of the bag.

    On the opposite side, land subsidence statewide is proving to be an increasingly serious challenge that is causing problems for infrastructure in some areas. And it is proving to be a headache even in certain parts of active-management areas.

    Monitoring for subsidence


    View original post 593 more words

    EPA delays in-situ uranium rule


    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.

    The Water Information Program January Newsletter is hot off the presses

    South Fork Mineral Creek, Silverton photo via hhengineering.com
    South Fork Mineral Creek, Silverton photo via hhengineering.com

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Aquatic Life Discovered on Mineral Creek Above Silverton

    Recent studies by Mountain Studies Institute and the USGS on Upper Mineral Creek have found an improving macroinvertebrate population and a naturally reproducing brook trout population. For the past 20 years, this stretch was devoid of aquatic life. The Animas River Stakeholder Group has conducted a dozen mining remediation projects above that reach on Mineral Creek, which has dramatically improved water quality. ARSG will request that the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission make an aquatic life designation under the Clean Water Act for that segment of Mineral Creek. Congratulations to ARSG and its many partners for this water quality remediation success!

    #AnimasRiver: Public comments favor continued Cement Creek water treatment operations

    The EPA's wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 -- photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio
    The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    Continued operations of the temporary water treatment plant north of Silverton received near unanimous support during a 30-day public comment period.

    From Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, the Environmental Protection Agency accepted public comments on whether to continue operations at the plant that handles acidic discharges from the Gold King Mine.

    The EPA previously announced it preferred that option while it continues to evaluate long-term options for the recently declared Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which would address issues at 48 mining-related sites around Silverton.

    The public comment period was part of a formal process to move the plant from “emergency removal action” funding to a “non-time critical removal action” funding, which is part of the Superfund process.

    The agency received 12 submissions, mostly from government entities affected by the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine blowout, with only one resident weighing in.

    The government entities in favor of continued operations included the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; the Colorado Attorney General’s Office; La Plata County; San Juan County; the town of Silverton; the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, and Congressman Scott Tipton.

    Trout Unlimited, an environmental group, and Duranglers Flies and Supplies also voiced support for keeping the plant running.

    While all the above-mentioned entities voiced support for continued operations, some suggested the EPA start treating discharges from adjacent mines, namely the Red & Bonita and Mogul mines, as well as the American Tunnel.

    Others wrote that the EPA should secure a place to store the lime-heavy metal sludge byproduct of the treatment plant before committing to continued operation. The EPA has said it is searching for a long-term dump site…

    A representative from Silverton Mountain Ski Area, which is about a mile and a half downstream from the water treatment plant, raised concerns about the treatment plant’s impact on ski operations.

    The ski mountain’s chief operating officer, Tim Petrick, asked the EPA to consider installing better equipment for improved communications in the remote area, as well as perform dust suppression on County Road 110.

    And a Castle Rock-based company called Jalema Technologies Ltd. that deals with mine wastewater treatment said the EPA could cut costs of operations “if a more studied plant design was implemented at the site.” The company then argued it had the technology to “produce higher quality discharge water for a cost similar to that shown for” the temporary plant, and offered its services.

    One resident voiced support for the continuance of the plant, though the name was redacted.

    Rebecca Thomas, EPA’s project manager for the Superfund site, said the agency will consider the comments and then make a decision through an “action memo.”

    She expected the final decision to be issued in January.

    Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
    Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed

    @NatGeo: As Groundwater Dwindles, a Global Food Shock Looms

    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation's irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.
    The High Plains Aquifer provides 30 percent of the water used in the nation’s irrigated agriculture. The aquifer runs under South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas.

    From National Geographic (Cheryl Katz):

    By mid-century, says a new study, some of the biggest grain-producing regions could run dry.

    Rising temperatures and growing demands for thirsty grains like rice and wheat could drain much of the world’s groundwater in the next few decades, new research warns.

    Nearly half of our food comes from the warm, dry parts of the planet, where excessive groundwater pumping to irrigate crops is rapidly shrinking the porous underground reservoirs called aquifers. Vast swaths of India, Pakistan, southern Europe, and the western United States could face depleted aquifers by midcentury, a recent study finds — taking a bite out of the food supply and leaving as many as 1.8 billion people without access to this crucial source of fresh water.

    To forecast when and where specific aquifers around the globe might be drained to the point that they’re unusable, Inge de Graaf, a hydrologist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, developed a new model simulating regional groundwater dynamics and withdrawals from 1960 to 2100. She found that California’s agricultural powerhouses — the Central Valley, Tulare Basin and southern San Joaquin Valley, which produce a plentiful portion of the nation’s food — could run out of accessible groundwater as early as the 2030s. India’s Upper Ganges Basin and southern Spain and Italy could be used up between 2040 and 2060. And the southern part of the Ogallala aquifer under Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico could be depleted between 2050 and 2070.

    “The areas that will run into trouble the soonest are areas where we have a lot of demand and not enough surface water available,” says de Graaf, who presented her results last week at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

    Farming has mushroomed across arid regions like these in the past half-century. With scarce rains and few rivers and lakes, they depend on water pumped up from underground. Since 1960, excessive pumping has already used up enough groundwater worldwide to nearly fill Lake Michigan, estimates de Graaf, who projects that with climate change and population growth, future groundwater use will soar. She considers an aquifer depleted when its water level falls below a depth of around 300 feet, at which point it becomes too expensive for most users to pump up.

    Shrinking groundwater supplies will dent the world’s food supply, says de Graaf’s co-author Marc Bierkens, a hydrologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Bierkens points out that 40 percent of global food production now relies on irrigation with groundwater. If the amount of available groundwater were cut in half, for example, he estimates that farm output would drop by roughly 6 percent—reflecting the portion that’s absolutely dependent on unsustainable groundwater use.

    “It’s not that the whole population will starve,” says Bierkens, “but it will have an impact on the food chain and food prices.”

    USGS: Groundwater-flow model of the northern High Plains aquifer in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming


    Here’s the abstract from the USGS (Steven M. Peterson, Amanda T. Flynn, and Jonathan P. Traylor):

    The High Plains aquifer is a nationally important water resource underlying about 175,000 square miles in parts of eight states: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Droughts across much of the Northern High Plains from 2001 to 2007 have combined with recent (2004) legislative mandates to elevate concerns regarding future availability of groundwater and the need for additional information to support science-based water-resource management. To address these needs, the U.S. Geological Survey began the High Plains Groundwater Availability Study to provide a tool for water-resource managers and other stakeholders to assess the status and availability of groundwater resources.

    A transient groundwater-flow model was constructed using the U.S. Geological Survey modular three-dimensional finite-difference groundwater-flow model with Newton-Rhapson solver (MODFLOW–NWT). The model uses an orthogonal grid of 565 rows and 795 columns, and each grid cell measures 3,281 feet per side, with one variably thick vertical layer, simulated as unconfined. Groundwater flow was simulated for two distinct periods: (1) the period before substantial groundwater withdrawals, or before about 1940, and (2) the period of increasing groundwater withdrawals from May 1940 through April 2009. A soil-water-balance model was used to estimate recharge from precipitation and groundwater withdrawals for irrigation. The soil-water-balance model uses spatially distributed soil and landscape properties with daily weather data and estimated historical land-cover maps to calculate spatial and temporal variations in potential recharge. Mean annual recharge estimated for 1940–49, early in the history of groundwater development, and 2000–2009, late in the history of groundwater development, was 3.3 and 3.5 inches per year, respectively.

    Primary model calibration was completed using statistical techniques through parameter estimation using the parameter estimation suite of software with Tikhonov regularization. Calibration targets for the groundwater model included 343,067 groundwater levels measured in wells and 10,820 estimated monthly stream base flows at streamgages. A total of 1,312 parameters were adjusted during calibration to improve the match between calibration targets and simulated equivalents. Comparison of calibration targets to simulated equivalents indicated that, at the regional scale, the model correctly reproduced groundwater levels and stream base flows for 1940–2009. This comparison indicates that the model can be used to examine the likely response of the aquifer system to potential future stresses.

    Mean calibrated recharge for 1940–49 and 2000–2009 was smaller than that estimated with the soil-water-balance model. This indicated that although the general spatial patterns of recharge estimated with the soil-water-balance model were approximately correct at the regional scale of the Northern High Plains aquifer, the soil-water-balance model had overestimated recharge, and adjustments were needed to decrease recharge to improve the match of the groundwater model to calibration targets. The largest components of the simulated groundwater budgets were recharge from precipitation, recharge from canal seepage, outflows to evapotranspiration, and outflows to stream base flow. Simulated outflows to irrigation wells increased from 7 percent of total outflows in 1940–49 to 38 percent of 1970–79 total outflows and 49 percent of 2000–2009 total outflows.