Public water supply issues continue in Widefield, Security area — The Denver Post

Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.
Widefield aquifer via the Colorado Water Institute.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment emphasized, in a preliminary health assessment, that there’s no established link between these perflourinated chemicals (PFCs) and the elevated kidney, lung and bladder cancer documented in Security, Widefield and Fountain.

Air Force officials on Tuesday confirmed they are stepping in with $4.3 million to set up a temporary water treatment system to try to reduce exposures to contaminated water. The Air Force also has agreed to accelerate testing at military airfields suspected as a source. They are doing this as a “good neighbor gesture,” officials said, not as an admission of fault.

CDPHE officials recommended that — as a precaution — residents in areas where PFCs levels are above the EPA’s newly established 70 parts per trillion health advisory limit should consider alternative sources of water…

Widefield water department director Brandon Bernard welcomed the Air Force intervention, aimed at deploying granulated carbon treatment technology, to give utilities “breathing room” to explore options for dealing with the PFCs in their water supplies. Most well water in the Widefield aquifer contains PFCs above the EPA limit, utility officials said, and they have joined counterparts in neighboring Security in blending water from wells as much as possible with water piped 40 miles from Pueblo.

Yet Widefield (pop. 18,000) cannot get by without using water from its 11 wells, [Brandon Bernard] said. “When we don’t have to run our wells, we won’t,” he said. “But at times of peak demand, 80 degrees, we are forced to run our wells.”

[…]

The utilities south of Colorado Springs have been scrambling since May 19, when the EPA tightened its previous 400 parts per trillion (ppt) health advisory limit for PFCs. The communities south of Colorado Springs, with a combined population of around 80,000 people, rank among the hardest-hit of 63 areas nationwide where the chemicals, widely used to fight petroleum fires, have been measured at levels the EPA deems dangerous.

These PFCs are among the worst in an expanding multitude of unregulated contaminants that federal scientists are detecting in city water supplies, including hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and anti-depressants. PFCs don’t break down and boiling water won’t get rid of them.

The CDPHE’s preliminary health assessment — “Southeast El Paso County Perfluorinated Chemicals Preliminary Assessment of Cancer” — found that overall cancer cases from 2000 to 2014 were “statistically higher than expected,” based on El Paso County cancer rates.

State health investigators determined that “lung cancers were about 66 percent higher, kidney cancers were about 17 percent higher, and bladder cancers were about 34 percent higher than expected.” However, each of these cancers has been linked to smoking, CDPHE officials said, and tobacco use in the area was relatively high…

Air Force officials stepped in with $4.3 million “as an interim measure,” said Maj. William Russell, spokesman for the 21st Space Wing at the Peterson Air Force Base, which is east of Colorado Springs and north of the contaminated watersheds.

Federal water experts at the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA and CDPHE officials and local utility crews have been discussing a temporary fix and heard from the Air Force civil engineers last week. Details were to be considered this week for a system for trying to remove PFCs, Russell said.

Air Force officials nationwide are investigating potential sources of PFC contamination and on Tuesday said they would begin drilling at Peterson Air Force Base in October…

Air Force investigators “are hoping to have that internal draft report by March 2017.”

Meanwhile, base officials are checking aircraft hangar fire suppression systems and investigating past use of PFCs. “They are also replacing their current stock” of an aqueous film-forming foam that may contain PFCs “with a newer EPA-compliant synthetic foam,” according to prepared material released Tuesday.

Peterson Air Force Base crews have used this standard fire-suppressing foam on airfields. For years, they’ve provided firefighting and emergency services to Colorado Springs in exchange for using land leased from the city. They also used the foam from 1970 to 1990 in training exercises at the base involving fire departments from across the region. This did not violate EPA guidelines, officials said.

After about 1990, training was done in a lined basin using water to fight controlled propane-fueled fires, officials said, and the foam then was used only in emergency response…

CDPHE officials had urged the Air Force to accelerate testing and on Tuesday said they are pleased with the response.

“Human studies show increased exposure to PFCs might increase the risk for some health effects,” Salley said. “However, these studies have scientific limitations, and results have not been consistent. The most consistent health effects in human studies are increases in blood cholesterol and uric acid levels, which may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease or high blood pressure.

“Studies have shown more limited findings related to low infant birth weights. It is not yet clear whether PFCs cause cancer, some studies have shown associations with higher level exposures to PFCs and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer in humans and liver, pancreas and testicular cancer in laboratory animals. There is a large amount of uncertainty on exposure levels and health effects for PFCs.”

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):

The Air Force’s announcement Tuesday offered a possible stop-gap solution to a problem that local water district managers say may take years to permanently fix, and it comes as residents there flock to purchase bottled water.

The chemicals, called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, “possibly” came from Peterson Air Force Base, where firefighters used a foam rich in those chemicals for decades to put out aircraft fires, said Steve Brady, a spokesman for the base’s 21st Space Wing.

Base officials decided to expedite in-depth testing to pinpoint the source of the contaminants after a preliminary report in June suggested the installation as a possible source…

The Air Force expects to install granular activated carbon filters – devices that can filter PFCs from the water, Air Force officials said.

The devices are positioned at or near well heads, filtering water as it is pumped from the ground. Doing so would allow local water districts to once again rely more heavily on the Widefield aquifer – a vital water source for each community.

Still, the development appears unlikely to help residents for much of the rest of this summer, due to the time needed for installation, said Roy Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation Districts.

“This will just help solidify not having a concern next summer and in years to come,” Heald said.

Once installed, local water officials said the project could help keep residents from receiving water laden with PFCs, which have been linked to low birth weights in newborns or certain cancers.

The chemicals aren’t regulated, but the Environmental Protection Agency still sets baseline levels at which the public must be notified about potential health effects.

In May, the EPA lowered its baseline level to 70 parts per trillion, and the EPA said adverse health effects might happen after prolonged use.

All public wells for the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts tested above the new health advisory levels – leaving local water officials scrambling to minimize exposure.

Fountain shut down all of its wells, and it has only used clean surface water from the Pueblo Reservoir to keep people from drinking contaminated water from the aquifer.

Its reliance on surface water has essentially left the city running at 80-percent capacity – a move its been able to achieve so far, due to mandatory watering restrictions, said Curtis Mitchell, the city’s utilities director.

The situation appears most urgent in Security and Widefield, where water districts still use contaminated wells to meet demand.

Officials for those two water districts have been diluting that contaminated water with surface water from the Pueblo Reservoir, limiting the number of residents exposed.

The Security Water and Sanitation Districts’ tactic could cause water rates to rise in the future, Heald said. It has instituted voluntary watering restrictions to limit water use – tamping down costs and limiting the need for well water.

Meanwhile, the Widefield Water and Sanitation District is on track to run out of clean surface water by sometime in November, said Brandon Bernard, its water department manager. At that point, every resident in the district would receive chemicals in their tap water, because it would have to rely solely on contaminated well water.

For now, the areas most often receiving contaminated tap water are those in the western portions of Security and Widefield.

Infants, pregnant and nursing women and women planning to become pregnant who live in affected areas may want to switch to bottled or treated water, health officials say.

The Air Force is working with the Army Corps of Engineers’ “rapid response group,” which plans to conduct a site visit Wednesday in the Pikes Peak region, said Tom Zink, who is the Corps’ Air Force national program manager for environmental support.

The visit also will focus on private wells, Zink said.

So far, 26 private wells tapped into the Widefield aquifer have tested above the EPA’s new levels, according Danielle Oller, an El Paso County Public Health spokeswoman. That equates to slightly more than half of the wells tested so far.

The aquifer stretches from Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and extends east to the Colorado Springs Airport…

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that Peterson Air Force Base was among 664 military sites across the nation due to be examined for the presence of PFCs. Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy also were on the list.

At Peterson Air Force Base, firefighters used the foam during training exercises from 1970 through about 1990, base officials said in a statement Tuesday.

The training site also was used by fire departments across the region, and it was in compliance with EPA standards at the time, the installation’s statement said.

Since roughly 1990, firefighters have trained in a lined basin using water and fighting flames fueled by a special propane system – not jet fuel. Since then, the foam has only used “in emergency response situations,” the base said.

Base officials said they are replacing their stock of firefighting foam with a new, EPA-compliant variety, and they are double-checking aircraft hangar fire suppression systems for residual chemicals.

Click here to read the release from Petersen Air Force Base via The Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck).

From KRDO.com (Chris Loveless):

The Air Force has awarded a $4.3 million rapid response contract as an interim measure to evaluate and treat PFC contaminated water in Security, Widefield and Fountain.

“This proactive measure is being taken as a good neighbor approach while the investigation continues,” said Lt. Col. Chad Gemeinhardt, 21st Civil Engineer Squadron commander.

The money will be used to evaluate affected potable water systems and develop short-term treatment solutions.

Peterson Air Force Base says that the treatment system is expected to be granulated activated carbon filters installed in the affected potable water systems to remove PFCs from drinking water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will meet with El Paso County Health, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, Air Force Civil Engineer Center and water district representatives July 6 to determine the best course of action.

Peterson Air Force Base officials requested and received an expedited date for further investigation as a possible source of the chemicals. The site investigation contractor will arrive at Peterson July 7, to determine best locations to drill monitoring wells. The wells will determine source and extent of the contamination, if any is found.

Drilling will begin in October 2016 and an internal draft report from the contractor is expected in March 2017. Soil samples will also be collected and sampled for PFCs to try and determine the source, according to Air Force Civil Engineer Center officials. The base was originally scheduled for further testing in May 2017, but testing was moved up to October 2016 based on the request.

Peterson provides airport firefighting and emergency services to the city of Colorado Springs in exchange for leased property from the city, and are the first responders for any aircraft or medical emergency on airport property.

Peterson used aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, in joint fire training on Peterson, where fire departments from across the region used the training sites to adequately prepare for emergency response actions to provide public safety. The AFFF was used in a legal, responsible manner in full compliance with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines at the time.

An industry-standard fire suppressant used to extinguish flammable liquid fires such as jet fuel fires, the foam was used from 1970 until about 1990 when Peterson firefighters began training in a lined basin using water to fight a controlled propane-fueled fire, which provides realistic firefighting conditions in an environmentally-safe and controlled manner. Since developing the new lined training area, AFFF has only been used in emergency response situations.

#Drought of the Future Will Not Be the Droughts of the Past — USGS

US Drought Monitor June, 28, 2016.
US Drought Monitor June, 28, 2016.

From the USGS:

Due to its prevalence and implications for humans, wildlife, and ecosystems, drought is a focal research theme of the North Central Climate Science Center (NC CSC). From December 7-8, 2015, twenty-eight scientists, managers, and communicators gathered in Fort Collins, CO to discuss and synthesize the existing knowledge of climate change and ecological drought across the North Central region. Over the course of the workshop, participants agreed on several important factors that exemplify the changes occurring in the region:

  • 1. Droughts are a natural process in the North Central U.S
    Data from the past 100 years show that periods of drought are normal for the region. In fact, droughts lasting several years are not uncommon, and many species that inhabit the region have adapted to these conditions. However, as the climate changes, droughts may last longer and cover larger areas, potentially pushing species beyond their adaptive capacity.
  • 2. Temperatures are increasing and precipitation patterns are changing
    Over the past 50 years, average temperatures have increased by almost 2° Fahrenheit, with much of the change occurring during the winter months. Precipitation patterns are also projected to change. These changes will have implications for hydrology, vegetation, and wildlife in the region.
  • 3. Greater demand for less water
    Water resources in parts of the region are already stressed, with changes being seen in ground water levels and stream flow. These problems could be exacerbated by climate change and have effects on both human and ecological communities.
  • Drought in the North Central U.S. is typically discussed in terms of its impacts on municipal water supplies, agriculture, and livestock grazing. Yet as temperatures increase, precipitation patterns change, and water resources are stressed, it is increasingly important to consider drought in the context of its effects on ecosystems, species, and habitat. Moreover, as described in a new paper, there is no “one size fits all” method for understanding local drought impacts and responses. The theme of Ecological Drought helps to re-frame the discussion and bring a new focus to the environmental implications of drought.

    The July 2016 “WaterNews” is hot off the presses from @DenverWater

    anteroreservoirdwd

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

    A large refill: Antero Reservoir filling as dam rehab project makes progress

    Last year, we emptied Antero Reservoir to clear the way for significant repairs to the 100-year-old dam.

    Despite harsh weather conditions and unpredictable construction challenges, we expect to complete the project earlier than originally expected.

    Crews recently finished installing a barrier wall inside the dam, and this summer they’re focusing on building the new spillway. With this timeline in place, we can expect to finish construction by the end of 2017.

    This spring we started refilling the reservoir, which — depending on snowpack and other conditions — will be fully operational by 2018.

    #ClimateChange: Why a half-degree temperature rise is a big deal — NASA

    droughtcornfieldnorthdakotastate

    From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Bob Silberg):

    Corn plants with no corn

    Why does a half degree of temperature increase make such a difference to some of the crops that were studied? For one thing, a half degree averaged out over the whole world can mean much more of an increase in some locations and at certain times.

    “Most of that temperature change may occur during a small fraction of the year, when it actually represents conditions that could be 5 or 10 degrees warmer than pre-industrial temperatures instead of just 1.5 or 2 degrees warmer,” said Dave Schimel, who supervises JPL’s Carbon Cycle and Ecosystems group.

    “There are places in the world where, for these important breadbasket crops, they are already close to a thermal limit for that crop species,” Schimel said. Adding to the burden, he said, “this analysis (the EGU study) does not take into account the fact that pests and pathogens may spread more rapidly at higher temperatures.”

    And Schimel pointed out that heat can imperil agriculture even when crops don’t die. “If you get really high temperatures or very dry conditions during critical parts of the development of the crop, it produces essentially no grain. For example, above certain temperature thresholds, corn doesn’t die but it doesn’t grow seed. It doesn’t grow a corncob. And other crops are similar to that, where the development of the actual food part of the crop is dramatically inhibited above critical temperatures.”

    But what about that fertilization effect from carbon dioxide? “It does help a bit, but it doesn’t make the underlying problem go away,” he said. “And by the way, if the plant was growing really fast when it died, it still died.”

    Can we avoid the extra half-percent temperature increase? Schimel agrees that we should try hard to do so, but cautions that we don’t know how to fine-tune global warming with that much precision. “If we aim for 2 degrees, we might hit 3 degrees,” he said. “If we aim for 1.5 degrees, we might still hit 2 degrees.”

    #AnimasRiver: Bringing geoscience to bear on the problem of abandoned mines — Earth Magazine

    From Earth Magazine (Sara Pratt):

    Not much happened around the Silverton Caldera in southwestern Colorado between 26 million years ago — when hydrothermal alteration of the caldera’s fractured granitic rocks left behind extensive veins of metal-rich ores — and 1871, when those deposits were discovered by prospectors. That’s when Silverton really started to boom. From 1871 to 1991 — when the Sunnyside Mine on the east side of Bonita Peak, the largest of dozens in the area, closed — an estimated $530 million worth of gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc were extracted from the Silverton Caldera. Most of the prospectors and mining companies that extracted that wealth are long gone, but a legacy of widespread environmental impacts remains…

    A map of the results of the water and sediment sampling published by the Arizona Geological Survey indicates that only a handful of samples, mostly in the upper reaches of the watershed in the early days of the spill, had pollutant levels that exceeded maximums established for drinking water standards. While the Animas and San Juan rivers remained closed to use for irrigation, drinking water and recreation for about 10 days, the impact to agriculture along the banks of the river was minimal although future crop yields could suffer from the shutdown of irrigation, according to the University of Arizona researchers, led by Karletta Chief, a hydrologist and tribal extension specialist in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science.

    The report also put the 3-million-gallon spill into perspective. Each year, Silverton mines collectively discharge more than 330 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River watershed — more than 100 times the volume of the Gold King spill. In other words, the Animas River is experiencing a Gold King-sized spill, albeit less concentrated, roughly every three days.

    After more than a century of largely unmitigated mining in the West, Gold King is just the latest example of the slow-motion environmental problem that has been unfolding in hundreds of mines and along thousands of kilometers of waterways. The EPA’s involvement in this particular spill, however, is an unusual twist that has brought controversy and attention, but at least, researchers say, it is shining a light on the larger problem of abandoned mine lands and the complexities surrounding their regulation and remediation.

    In recent decades, the movement to remediate abandoned mine lands has gained momentum, and geoscientists from many different fields, from environmental scientists and hydrologists to geologists and mining engineers, are bringing their expertise to bear in characterizing abandoned mine sites, monitoring their environmental impacts, and assessing and prioritizing them for reclamation. But regulatory, legislative and funding issues remain — and a looming geoscience workforce crisis may leave future cleanup projects in the lurch.

    The Impacts of Abandoned Mine Lands

    Today, the U.S. has an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 abandoned mine sites mostly concentrated in eastern coal mining regions, like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and western hardrock and coal mining regions like Colorado and Wyoming.

    “Abandoned mines” are those abandoned before 1977 by owners who pulled up stakes when the veins tapped out or market economics changed, making the mine no longer profitable to work. Prior to 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) established the national Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, few regulations held former mine owners accountable for the environmental consequences of abandoning a mine. SMCRA assesses fees on active coal mining operations to pay for remediation of abandoned coal mine sites. There is, however, no similar program for hardrock abandoned mines.

    Geologic map of the Silverton Caldera showing the Animas River, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek, which outline the ring-shaped caldera. Much of the mineralization occurs in radial and graben faults. Credit: USGS/Church, von Guerard and Finger, 2007 (modified from Casadevall and Ohmoto, 1977).
    Geologic map of the Silverton Caldera showing the Animas River, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek, which outline the ring-shaped caldera. Much of the mineralization occurs in radial and graben faults. Credit: USGS/Church, von Guerard and Finger, 2007 (modified from Casadevall and Ohmoto, 1977).

    Abandoned mines can range from small prospect pits that merely pock the surface, to deep underground mines with kilometer upon kilometer of adits, shafts, drifts, stopes and tunnels. Such underground cavities often intersected the water table — the surface, or top, of water stored underground — requiring drainage tunnels or pumping during active mining. When mines were abandoned, however, the pumping often stopped, and drainage tunnels — which were graded to allow water, as well as loaded ore cars, to passively flow downslope — continued to drain.

    Seeping groundwater can then pool in the mine and possibly escape into the surrounding environment, potentially leading to the most prominent and far-reaching of the many health, safety and environmental dangers posed by abandoned mines: the degradation of water resources by acid mine drainage.

    Acid rock drainage can occur naturally, without mining, when rocks containing gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals — which also usually contain pyrite, an iron sulfide that, when exposed to air and water, creates sulfuric acid that further leaches metals from the rock — are exposed via weathering and erosion, fractures or exhumation. But mining accelerates and scales up this natural weathering, exposing vast amounts of fresh rock surfaces both inside and outside the mine to oxygen and water.

    Until the 1930s, it was common practice to dump mine tailings directly into streams. When acid mine drainage flows into creeks or streams, it can impact reaches of a watershed far downstream, often leaving trails of iron-hydroxide deposits — “yellow boy” in mining terminology — that stain rocks and riverbanks red, yellow and orange. Today, tens of thousands of kilometers of U.S. rivers and streams are still affected by acid mine drainage.

    In addition to water-quality impacts, other hazards that also require mitigation include spoils and tailings piles, open portals and shafts, underground fires, ground subsidence, explosive gases and rusting equipment, just to name a few.

    In addition to Gold King, Colorado alone has more than 23,000 other abandoned mines posing varying degrees of threats. More than 6,000 have been remediated by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — but $66 million worth of unfunded projects remain listed on the national database of abandoned mine lands. Other states have similar backlogs.

    In Pennsylvania, the state most impacted by acid mine drainage and with a long history of remediating it, abandoned mines discharge 300 million gallons of acid mine drainage per day, affecting more than 8,800 kilometers of streams, says Eric Cavazza, director of the state’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation and past president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs.

    The Watershed Approach

    The problem may seem vast and intractable, but the science of acid mine drainage is well understood. And, over the last few decades, a well-stocked toolbox of mitigation techniques has been developed, including treating acid mine drainage waters with lime (calcium carbonate) to buffer the water’s pH to normal levels and channeling mine discharges through settling ponds to allow metals to precipitate.

    Gold King mine treatment pond via Eric Vance/EPA and the Colorado Independent
    Gold King mine treatment pond via Eric Vance/EPA and the Colorado Independent

    The bigger challenge is determining where and how to allocate limited resources, says Geoffrey Plumlee, a geochemist with USGS in Denver who testified before Congress in November 2015 on the role geoscientists can play in assessing and prioritizing remediation of abandoned mines.

    In his testimony, Plumlee emphasized the importance of involving geoscience expertise at every stage: identifying and assessing sites, determining remediation options, and prioritizing projects based on the potential return. The task is figuring out which sites pose the greatest hazard and possess the greatest potential for improvement, he says.

    Plumlee cites the example of Colorado’s Summitville Mine, a hardrock gold mine about 100 kilometers southeast of Silverton, where mining had occurred on and off since the late 1800s. In the 1980s, open-pit mining began using a new cyanide-leaching technique to dissolve gold from lower-grade ores. Almost from the beginning, heavy-metal discharges, pH levels lower than 3, and cyanide leakage plagued the operation.

    In 1992, the mining company declared bankruptcy and was unable to meet its remediation responsibilities. In 1994, to prevent a major spill into the Alamosa River, the state of Colorado asked the EPA to designate it a Superfund site and take over cleanup, the cost of which has since exceeded $100 million.

    The ore geology at Summitville — massive sulfide-rich volcanic deposits, with no underlying carbonates to help buffer and neutralize acidity — “was basically a geologic recipe for extreme acid rock drainage,” Plumlee says. Meanwhile, the ore geology at other mines can result in discharges near drinking-water quality. Although not all mine drainage is acidic, it can still carry substantial amounts of toxic elements.

    “Not all mine drainage is created equal,” Plumlee says. “This is why understanding the geology of the deposits is so important to helping predict mine drainage chemistry.” That is just one way geoscientists can help prioritize different sites for cleanup. Another example of how geoscience may be brought to bear is the interdisciplinary “watershed approach,” exemplified in a 10-year pilot study of the effects of more than a century of historical mining in two watersheds: Boulder Creek in Montana and the Animas River in Colorado, which includes Gold King. In the comprehensive study, which ran from 1997 to 2007, researchers examined “the geology and geochemistry of rock and sediment, the hydrology and water chemistry of streams and groundwater, and the diversity and health of aquatic and terrestrial organisms” in each watershed.

    Diverting mine drainage into settling ponds allows iron oxides, heavy metals and other suspended particles to precipitate. Credit: EPA.
    Diverting mine drainage into settling ponds allows iron oxides, heavy metals and other suspended particles to precipitate. Credit: EPA.

    In the study, undertaken when the USGS implemented a new program in cooperation with federal land-management agencies called the Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative, researchers inventoried mine sites, analyzed an array of water, rock and mine waste samples, and characterized the geologic conditions controlling acidity and the release of toxic metals.

    The results of the study, published in a 2007 report edited by USGS scientists Stanley E. Church, Paul von Guerard and Susan E. Finger, demonstrated the full potential of a comprehensive geotechnical assessment of watersheds impacted by mining, Plumlee says. Eight years later, that report became a vital resource for the teams investigating the Gold King Mine spill, helping to establish both pre-spill and pre-mining conditions.

    Determining the natural conditions that existed in an environment prior to mining is important, Plumlee says, because it provides a baseline for the conditions that are technically feasible to achieve with remediation. This, in turn, can help planners set realistic goals for reclamation plans.

    During mining (top), the water table is often lowered to access ore, exposing the rock to oxygen and creating acid mine drainage. Sealing off a mine can return the water table to pre-mining levels (bottom), creating anoxic conditions inside the mine and preventing further acidification. Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

    In establishing those conditions, it is important to remember that nature is not always pristine when left to its own devices. In Colorado, for example, the first European settlers gave streams names like Iron Creek, Alum Creek and Bitter Creek: names that alluded to natural acid rock drainage. In 1875, prior to intensive mining, the topographer of the Hayden Expedition noted the “iron-sulfate” waters of Cement Creek and Mineral Creek were not fit for drinking.

    In 2011, the Colorado Geological Survey released a study identifying a number of streams whose headwaters, lying at elevations high above where mining impacts are felt, were acidic with high metals concentrations due to the hydrothermally altered metal-sulfide rocks in the surrounding geology. “Natural acid rock drainage has been active in Colorado for thousands, possibly millions of years,” the authors wrote.

    In addition to understanding surface geology, knowing a site’s underground history is also crucial for remediation decision-making. Pairing historic documents with modern geoscientific technologies can help uncover that history.

    Tools & Technologies

    If the Gold King spill did nothing else, it raised awareness that a better understanding of a mine’s underground structure and hydrologic conduits and connections, both man-made and natural, is needed to make effective remediation decisions.

    Gold King was part of a complex of mines including the large Sunnyside Mine. During the decommissioning of the Sunnyside Mine in the 1990s, 12 bulkheads — bunker-like structures made of steel and concrete — were installed to seal off the mine. Like plugging a bathtub drain, the bulkheading prevented acid mine drainage from flowing out at the lowest levels of the mine. After bulkheading, the local water table rose 300 meters, flooding the mine.

    Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.
    Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

    Although it might seem like flooding a mine would exacerbate the aquatic chemical reactions that result in acid mine drainage, sometimes water is part of the solution.“The idea behind the bulkheads is to raise the groundwater table back to pre-mining levels and remove oxygen from the acid mine drainage equation,” says Kirstin Brown, a geologist with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

    Soon after Sunnyside was bulkheaded and the water table rose, however, acid mine drainage at nearby mines — including the Red and Bonita, Mogul, and Gold King, each of which had previously been dry or discharging minimally — began flowing again. The renewed flows of acid mine drainage into Upper Cement Creek and the Animas River were at first actively treated to raise the pH. However, in 2003 and 2004, treatment ceased when disputes among the mine companies over who was responsible for its cost led to litigation, and streamwater quality again declined.

    In 2010, in an effort to better understand the flow of mine drainage into Upper Cement Creek, the Bureau of Land Management, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contacted the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety about creating a three-dimensional model of how the mine workings might be intersecting the water table.

    The task fell to Brown, who worked with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, to learn and use EarthVision software to create the model, which drew on data from historic mine maps, some of which the researchers had to track down and “dig out of people’s basements in Silverton,” she says.

    After scanning and georeferencing the old maps, groundwater data was then overlaid on the workings. Researchers can’t see the groundwater surface underground, but they can see where it flows out on the surface. If a mine portal, spring or stream is flowing at the ground surface, it shows researchers a fixed point on the surface of the groundwater table. Researchers also can check groundwater head pressures on some bulkhead gauges to see the current pressure and depth of the water table.

    The result was a model that can be manipulated in three dimensions that gives officials the ability to “better visualize and understand the groundwater in the mountain and to help communicate the problem [of acid mine drainage] to the public,” Brown says. The model could also “help make predictions for the best practices for remediation.”

    Understanding the hydrology at work in a mine can also allow for the most potent remediation technique: controlling the water at its source to prevent contamination in the first place. Sealing off mine entries with bulkheads can help prevent water from entering mine workings, and the flow of water inside the mountain can be manipulated to direct acid water away from clean water sources, Brown says.

    Remediation teams employ other tools and technologies to investigate what’s going on belowground. Salt and dye tracer solutions can be introduced into mine waters to follow the hydrological connections among the workings. Drilling boreholes to send cameras, sensors or other instruments down into a mine is another common technique, often used to check the pressure and depth of a mine pool prior to beginning work.

    “We do a lot of mine pool evaluations and mine pool monitoring, which is what didn’t happen at Gold King that resulted in uncontrolled releases of mine water,” Cavazza says. “Before we open up an abandoned underground mine, we almost always drill and put in monitoring wells so we have a good understanding of exactly how large [the mine pool] is, what the volume is, and how to contain and control it if we decide to open it.”

    Another way to figure out what’s going on is to go underground with an engineering team, says Brown, adding that this is only done after ground conditions have been assessed, stabilized and deemed safe. Once underground, teams can map faults and fractures, collect information about water quality and water sources underground, and assess how to control those sources, for example, by determining where to place bulkheads.

    But, it turns out, it is getting harder and harder these days to find engineers trained to work in mines.

    Mining Engineers: A Depleted Resource

    Since 1982, the number of accredited mining engineering schools has shrunk from 25 to 14 and for the last decade they have produced fewer than 200 graduates a year.

    “Here in Pennsylvania, we have had a very difficult time recruiting new mining engineers to replace our mining engineers who are reaching retirement age,” Cavazza says. “There are fewer mining engineers being trained nationally, and there is probably going to be a continued need for them into the future.”

    Last fall, in response to the Gold King spill, three bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources chaired by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who noted in his opening remarks the importance of having mining engineers on staff at agencies tasked with acid mine drainage cleanup.

    “In the Committee’s investigation of the Gold King Mine spill, we discovered that, out of 15,326 employees, [the EPA] has no mining engineers and only 68 geologists, two of [whom] are assigned to [EPA] Region 8 where the spill occurred,” Lamborn said.

    One bill, H.R. 3734, the Mining Schools Enhancement Act, would require the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to direct 70 percent of its research funding to mining schools to help train the next generation of mining engineers.

    In addition to mining engineers working on abandoned mine lands cleanup, it is “crucial to have economic and structural geologists who can help the mining engineers interpret and address the complexities of the geology, and hydrologists who can develop the detailed hydrologic models for groundwater flow,” Plumlee adds.

    Legislative Will

    The other two bills introduced last fall, H.R. 3843 and H.R. 3844, propose to assess a maintenance fee on mineral claims for the next seven years, establish a federal “Good Samaritan” law, and establish a foundation that would oversee private gifts and bequests to fund abandoned mine lands remediation projects.

    The bills are not the sweeping legislation that has been called for to replace the current law governing hardrock mining — the General Mining Act of 1872. Signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant to promote the settling of the West, it was enacted a century before the environmental movement took hold and made no provision for funding or regulation of remediation. “It’s never been updated, which is a very long time for an environmental law to be on the books,” Cavazza says. But, he says, “some people don’t want it updated.”

    The most recent legislation proposing to update the 1872 mining act, H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, was referred to subcommittee, where it remains. It would have, among other things, assessed reclamation fees to establish a fund for future cleanups and established a federal Good Samaritan law to waive some liability for private citizens, groups or companies who want to become involved in mine cleanup projects. Opponents contend that while domestic coal producers can pass the additional cost of reclamation fees onto consumers, U.S. mineral producers competing in a global market would suffer a competitive disadvantage if additional fees were imposed.

    “There’s really never been the legislative will in Congress to enact a hardrock abandoned mine lands program,” Cavazza says.

    Thus, hardrock abandoned mine lands are instead overseen by an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies, each with its own rules and guidelines. And funding to remediate a particular site may come from a hodge-podge of sources, including federal, state, and private partners who, in turn, get funding from a variety of sources, including SMCRA, Superfund, and the Clean Water Act Grant Program.

    “Currently, no single source of funding, whether it be federal, state, tribal or private, is adequate on its own to address the magnitude of the problem that exists,” the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) reported in 2007. As of 2011, according to a General Accounting Office report, BLM, USFS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had spent at least $2.6 billion to reclaim abandoned hardrock mines on federal, state, tribal and private lands.

    Good Samaritans

    Some of the private funding comes from corporations or groups — like Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving trout fisheries — that have a vested interest in cleaning up their local waterways. However, under certain laws anyone involved with mine cleanup in any way over the years can potentially be held responsible for environmental damage, even that which preceded their involvement with cleanup, and be liable for legal damages and cleanup costs.

    Thus, Good Samaritan laws offer permits to waive or reduce the liability of private parties that want to participate in environmental cleanup projects. For example, if a group helped remediate a polluted stream that was previously unable to support aquatic life to the point that fish could survive in it, but not necessarily to the point that the water met the standards of the Clean Water Act, Good Samaritan laws might exempt the company from the more stringent requirement.

    South Dakota and Pennsylvania are currently the only states with “Good Sam” laws. In Pennsylvania, Cavazza says, the 1999 law increased the number of private parties participating in acid mine drainage cleanup projects. But, he says, he suspects that many potential corporate partners are still dissuaded by legal teams who do not want to risk federal liability.

    “I don’t know why you would want to discourage anybody from going in to try to clean something up that they had nothing to do with creating, that they are not in any way liable for, and for which they are providing their own resources,” says Cavazza, who last fall testified in his capacity as past president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs (not in his role as a state official) to the benefits of Good Sam laws before the House subcommittee.

    The Legacy of Gold King

    Whether the Gold King spill will provide the impetus to create a national program for hardrock abandoned mine lands remains to be seen. The case of Gold King is currently mired in litigation and hearings. At the site, the EPA has set up a temporary water treatment plant in the nearby ghost town of Gladstone to treat Gold King discharge before it reaches Cement Creek. Downstream, state and federal public health agencies and other researchers continue to monitor the Animas watershed, especially during spring runoff and high-water events that may mobilize sediments laden with heavy metals.

    “Although there appear to be no short-term effects to health or the environment following the Gold King Mine spill,” the University of Arizona researchers wrote last November, “we will not understand the long-term impacts of this highly concentrated release of metals into our environment for quite some time.”

    In April, in response to a request from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and towns, counties and tribes in the Animas and San Juan watersheds, the EPA proposed listing 48 historic mine sites in the Silverton Caldera as a Superfund site. Some residents of Silverton had long resisted the designation, despite the fact that it would bring additional federal resources for remediation, because it was thought that associating the town’s name with Superfund, often synonymous with hazardous waste, could threaten tourism. But after seeing the Animas run orange, many changed their minds.

    If approved, the Superfund site will be called the Bonita Peak Mining District.

    On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
    On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
    Eric Baker

    #COWaterPlan: Dealing with the “gap”

    Clear Creek Reservoir
    Clear Creek Reservoir

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

    This is the first in a continuing series about how Colorado’s Water Plan will be put into action.

    New sources of water are unlikely, so the Arkansas River basin’s focus should be on which crops or landscapes are irrigated, because irrigation is the largest use of water.

    Pueblo Water plans to increase storage in key locations above, in and below Lake Pueblo.
    Although we won’t find the water supply we want, wise use and efficient water management can stretch the supply we have.

    That’s the outlook from Alan Ward, water resources manager for Pueblo Water.

    Ward has been involved with filling municipal water needs during the severe drought of 2002 and the more prolonged drought of 2011-13.

    He oversees a complex water leasing program that allows Pueblo to make the fullest use possible of its water portfolio.

    Ward was part of Pueblo Water’s team that purchased more than one-quarter of the Bessemer Ditch water rights to secure future supply, and as a result is now a member of the canal company’s board of directors.

    Colorado’s Water Plan was unveiled last year as an evolving way to meet water needs for the state for decades to come.

    The process to develop the document was exhaustive, with hundreds of meetings, thousands of comments and 10 years of effort. It will take even more work to implement the plan and to focus activities that are in line with the plan’s objectives.

    To gain a better understanding of how policymakers view the plan, The Pueblo Chieftain and Arkansas Basin Roundtable is asking key individuals three basic questions: How the gap will be filled, what projects are anticipated and what actions can be taken to prevent the gap from getting bigger.

    Here are Ward’s answers:

    How do we fill the gap in the Arkansas River basin within Colorado’s Water Plan and the Basin Implementation Plan?

    “Since the water of the Arkansas River basin is already completely appropriated, the ‘gap’ is really the difference between the water supply we have and the water supply we’d like to have.
    I am not optimistic about the prospects of increasing supply. There is no currently unused supply to develop locally within the Arkansas River basin, so an increased supply would have to be imported from elsewhere.

    “I think that the expense along with the political and environmental hurdles make importation of new water supply into the Arkansas River basin very complicated and climate change may lead to even less supply on both the Eastern and Western slopes.

    “As an alternative, I believe the focus in the Arkansas River basin should be on adapting to having less water than we would like. Storage is key to making the most efficient use of the available water supply.

    Storage allows for some control of the timing and location of the limited water supply so that it can be used when and where it is most needed.

    Storage also provides the flexibility to move water in ways that can enhance recreational opportunities and minimize environmental impacts.

    “Irrigation, whether for crops and livestock grazing or lawns and urban landscapes, is the primary consumptive use of water in the Arkansas Basin (and most of the western United States). I believe that there just isn’t the water capacity to increase the amount of irrigated land, so there needs to be some difficult discussions about what gets irrigated. If urban irrigation increases, then agricultural irrigation will have to decrease or vice versa. It is important to note that urban irrigation has been on a downward trend so there is probably room for some urban growth without an overall increase in the amount of urban irrigation.

    “Determining where water should be used for irrigation is a complex problem.

    Because water rights are a private property right that can be transferred to new uses, there can be tensions about what role government should play in shaping the free-market movement of water rights and what involvement local communities should have in the transfer of water rights. Finding the right balance between the rights of individuals to use their property as they wish and achieving the desired outcomes of the broader public will be difficult.

    “Other water uses such as domestic (including indoor urban), environmental, recreational and industrial are extremely important, but they are so small relative to irrigation use that changes in these water uses will only have minor impacts on the ‘gap’ at a basinwide scale.”

    What projects do you plan to fill the gap?

    “Pueblo Water is looking to add storage capacity at three key locations for its operations.

    “Clear Creek Reservoir can be enlarged to provide additional storage in the Upper Arkansas River basin, which may facilitate better management and optimization of Pueblo’s water imported from the Western Slope.

    “Pueblo Reservoir is ideally located in that it is low enough in the basin that a significant amount of water flows into it from upstream.

    Many of the largest water users can take delivery of water from the reservoir either by pipeline or by release down the Arkansas River. Enlargement of Lake Pueblo could provide flexibility and water management efficiencies to Pueblo Water and many other urban, rural and agricultural water users.

    “Storage located a short distance downstream of the city of Pueblo would allow for more efficient reuse of Pueblo Water’s fully consumable water supplies while at the same time optimizing the timing of flow on the Arkansas River through Pueblo for recreational and environmental benefits.

    “Pueblo Water has committed to partner with Colorado Springs, Aurora, Fountain, Pueblo West and the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District in developing this type of storage in order to recapture water that the parties could have captured at Lake Pueblo if not for the Pueblo Flow Management Program (recovery of yield storage).”

    How do we keep the gaps for agriculture and municipalities from becoming bigger?

    “Keep expectations for water supply in line with actual water supply, plus encourage wise use and efficient water management, including expansion of storage.”