Bonita Peak Mining District superfund site update

The “Bonita Peak Mining District” superfund site. Map via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Driven by desire to know what lies beneath, crews bore deeper every day

EPA crews last week started to bore into the ground in what is expected to be a more than 500-foot journey to reach the American Tunnel in hopes of better understanding a complex network of mines in the upper Cement Creek basin, a tributary of the Animas.

It’s these mines that are considered the worst polluters of heavy metals seeping into the Animas River…

In 1959, however, when Standard Metals announced it was going to reopen the Sunnyside Mine, the now-defunct company also said it was going to extend the American Tunnel from the vast mine network to Gladstone, an old mining community about 10 miles north of Silverton.

Extending the tunnel solved two costly problems for previous mining companies: It allowed for ore to be easily taken out for further processing, and it created a better system for groundwater to exit the mine.

The move led to a three-decade period of prosperity, said Bev Rich, Silverton native and director of the San Juan County Historical Society.

“They discovered some really good gold, and a good reserve of it,” she said.

In 1991, however, the Sunnyside Mine, which had been taken over by Sunnyside Gold Corp., closed as a result of depressed gold prices. What was left behind, in terms of the American Tunnel, was a never-ending pathway for acidic discharges.

Sunnyside Gold initially pulled water coming out of the American Tunnel into a treatment plant, a costly yet effective method that took metals out of Cement Creek and greatly improved the quality of the Animas River.

But, in a move hoping to end its financial involvement in the Animas River basin, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement in 1996 with the state of Colorado to shut down the treatment plant and instead install three bulkheads that essentially function as plugs to stem the acidic flow.

By 2001, though, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network, which has led some researchers and experts familiar with the basin to believe that water is spilling out into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion…

One thing is clear: After the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was officially listed in fall 2016, EPA made it a priority to figure out what was happening with water movement underground. This past winter, a helicopter carrying an electromagnetic mapping device made the rounds around Silverton to try to understand the geological makeup of the San Juan Mountains, and hopefully, its groundwater workings.

This desire to know what lies beneath is what ultimately led to EPA drilling into the American Tunnel…

Guy, with the EPA, said it could take almost a month to reach the American Tunnel, boring through 20 to 30 feet of hard rock per day. The intent is to reach a portion of the tunnel between bulkheads 2 and 3, but it’s going to take more wells and more research to form a better grasp on how water moves underground in this geological puzzle…

Butler said the project plays into the larger question surrounding the Bonita Peak Superfund site: What is the ultimate strategy to fix issues in the upper Cement Creek area? EPA, for its part, has said that question warrants further investigation and time before being answered.

#GoldKingMine update: Interview with Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace #AnimasRiver

Here’s an interview with Jonathan Thompson author of, “The River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster,” from Colorado Public Radio (Andrew Villegas):

What’s the latest?

The EPA recently ordered the Sunnyside Gold Corp. to do some drilling work to investigate where the water originates to help with cleanup. But just a few days ago, Sunnyside Gold sent a letter to the EPA essentially saying, “No, we’re not going to do it.”

What’s their rationale for refusing?

Back in 1992 when Sunnyside Gold Corp. closed the mine and started cleaning up, the company came to an agreement with Colorado that they would plug the mine and do a certain amount of cleanup.

Sunnyside Gold also agreed to clean up unrelated, neighboring mines to offset the pollution in the river. In a way, they were like pollution credits.

The company spent well over $20 million on clean-up. Now they’re basically saying, “Look, we came to this agreement with the state — the EPA signed off on the agreement — and we did everything that we were supposed to do.”

So what’s the next step?

We’ll it’s going to be another court battle, likely. So far, it has been the subject of a number of ongoing lawsuits. This is just going to add to that legal quagmire. In the meantime, it’s just going to delay progress on the superfund cleanup.

Do you foresee the cleanup will eventually finish?

It will take place, it’s going to take a long time. And that’s not totally surprising. Superfund designations tend to be very long, drawn out processes. Don’t expect them to wrap up the cleanup any time in the next 10 years, maybe not the next 20.

What are the detrimental effects to the environment?

Mostly it’s to aquatic life: bugs and fish. It’s bad for them. We’ve seen that dramatically on the Animas River, where the mine spilled into. The number of species of fish downstream for maybe 40 miles downstream has declined.

Are people threatened by these kinds of spills?

Not necessarily. People were certainly affected because they had to close the river and they had to shut off irrigation ditches. And it was also emotionally and psychologically traumatic for people, to see the river turn that color. As far as health effects go, there wasn’t enough lead or mercury in the spilled water to really affect human health, and many wastewater treatment facilities downstream are able to clean these things out.

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

#AnimasRiver: “@EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project” — Kevin Roach

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Sunnyside Gold Corp. is refusing to carry out work ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton.

“Enough is enough,” Kevin Roach, with Sunnyside Gold, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project.”

In June, the EPA ordered Sunnyside Gold to install five groundwater wells and two meteorological stations at mining sites around the headwaters of the Animas River as part of the investigation into the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site…

Sunnyside Gold has denied any responsibility but has been willing to work with the EPA in limited ways during the past three years. On Tuesday, however, Roach sent a letter to EPA staff saying Sunnyside Gold “declines to undertake the work,” arguing the company no longer has any liability for mining pollution issues in the Animas River watershed.

Peterson said Wednesday morning that EPA has not yet received the complete letter from Sunnyside Gold…

In 1996, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three plugs to stem the flow of acid drainage out of the American Tunnel, which served as the transportation route for ore, as well as mine runoff, from the Sunnyside Mine to facilities at Gladstone, north of Silverton.

By 2001, however, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network. Now, several researchers and experts familiar with the basin believe water from the Sunnyside Mine pool is spilling into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion.

Much of the work EPA ordered Sunnyside to do, however, seeks to gain more insight into the issue. EPA, too, intends to drill into the American Tunnel this month to better understand groundwater conditions in the area.

Earlier this year, Sunnyside Gold called for the EPA to be recused from leading the Superfund cleanup, arguing it is a conflict of interest for the agency to do so after it caused the blowout at the Gold King Mine in August 2015.

EPA’s Peterson said at the time the agency “will continue to require the company to take actions to ensure that financial responsibility for cleanup is not shifted to taxpayers.”

Update on #AnimasRiver water quality, Gold Medal Waters status

Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

Colorado has more than 300 miles of streams with Gold Medal status, which is intended to highlight the state’s rivers and creeks that provide outstanding fishing opportunities.

To qualify, a waterway must meet two criteria: have a minimum of 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout measuring 14 inches or longer.

In 1996, a 4-mile stretch of the Animas River from the confluence of Lightner Creek down to the Purple Cliffs by Home Depot gained the Gold Medal tag and, ever since, has been marketed as a premier destination for fishing…

The water quality issues in the Animas are complex, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Durango.

A combination of factors – heavy metals leeching from abandoned mines in the Animas headwaters around Silverton, above-average water temperatures, sediment loading and urban runoff – have had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

As a result, fish in the Animas River are unable to naturally reproduce, and the waterway must rely on annual stocking of rainbow and brown trout by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In 2014, the Animas River started showing signs it was not meeting Gold Medal criteria, when a fish survey found a disappearance of large, quality-size trout in the stretch.

It was thought aquatic life would take a devastating hit from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, which sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River. Ultimately, however, subsequent studies showed the tainted waters had no effect on fish.

But in 2018, “everything went to hell,” White said.

Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when torrential rains in July 2018 hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of black mud and ash down the Animas River, which killed most of the fish in the waterway downstream of Hermosa Creek.

White said it may take up to four years to again meet Gold Medal standards in the Animas as the river recovers. Still, there’s been no discussion about delisting the impaired waterway, he said…

…Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, has said it generally takes one to 10 years for a watershed to recover after a wildfire, but because only a small percentage of the 416 Fire burned at high intensity, he expects the timeline for recovery to be on the short end.

And, many wildlife officials, like Japhet and White, are hopeful the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton will help with metal contamination issues. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the work in the Bonita Peak Mining District will reduce the frequency of elevated metals in the Animas River, as well as the pulses of metals the agency suspects are being released from the mines.

White said this year’s high runoff will do wonders for aquatic life in the long run. He said wildlife officials plan to stock the Animas this summer and early fall.

U.S. Attorney’s office files lawsuit against the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad over #416fire

From the Associated Press via The Greeley Tribune:

A company that operates a historic railroad that carries tourists through southwestern Colorado’s mountains and forests was accused Tuesday in a lawsuit of causing one of the largest wildfires in state history.

Federal investigators found that a coal-burning engine operated by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and American Heritage Railways threw cinders or other hot material onto brush near its track and started a fire on June 1, 2018, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn.

Flames eventually consumed about 85 square miles (220 square kilometers) of land near Durango, prompting evacuation orders affecting hundreds of people. Much of the damage occurred in the San Juan National Forest and on other federal land…

Officials had not disclosed a cause of the fire before Dunn’s office filed the lawsuit, which says multiple eyewitnesses told federal investigators that one of the trains passed through the area immediately before the fire began…

Residents and businesses have filed their own lawsuit against the railroad company, arguing that it knew or should have known about drought conditions that summer.

A statement released by Dunn’s office said federal authorities estimated damage and fire suppression involving the blaze could hit $25 million.

“This fire caused significant damage, cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and put lives at risk,” Dunn said in a statement. “We owe it to taxpayers to bring this action on their behalf.”

Cortez: Six-month project to repair sanitation infrastructure on the north side to turn dirt July 1, 2019

Cortez early 1900s via Crow Canyon Archaeological Center

From The Cortez Journal:

The Cortez Sanitation District contracted with Four Corners Materials for the construction, which will include replacing 1 mile of sanitary sewer line and manholes along with reconnecting sewer services between North Ridge Drive, North Market Street and West Empire Street.

@EPA: Bonita Peak Mining District Human Health Risk Assessment

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

Click here to read the report. Here’s the introduction:

The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site (Site) is located in southwestern Colorado. The Site consists of 48 historic mines or mining-related sources where ongoing releases of metal- laden water and sediments are occurring within the Mineral Creek, Cement Creek, and Upper Animas River drainages in San Juan County. Drainages within the Site contain over 400 abandoned or inactive mines, where large- to small-scale mining operations occurred. San Juan County is comprised of 10 historic mining districts (Colorado Geological Survey 2017). Historic mining districts within the Mineral Creek, Cement Creek, and Upper Animas River drainages include Animas, Animas Forks, Cement Creek, Eureka, Ice Lake Basin, and Mineral Point. Hereafter, the term “mining districts” or “Site” is used to refer to the mining districts within these three drainages. This document is a baseline human health risk assessment (HHRA) for the mining districts. The purpose of this document is to characterize the potential risks to humans, both now and in the future, from exposures to contaminants that may be present in the mining districts, assuming that no steps are taken to remediate the environment or to reduce human contact with contaminated environmental media. The mining districts are primarily used by humans for recreational, occupational, and tribal purposes. The receptor populations of interest for the risk assessment included campers, hikers, hunters, recreational fishermen, all-terrain vehicle (ATV) guides, ATV recreational riders, and county road workers. An addendum to this risk assessment will be developed to evaluate tribal exposures once the necessary exposure data are available.

The results of this assessment are intended to help inform risk managers and the public about current and potential future health risks to humans that may occur as a result of exposure to mining-related contaminants due to recreational and occupational activities, and to help determine if there is a need for action to protect public health at the Site. Site managers will also consider the results of the ecological risk assessment and any regulatory requirements in determining appropriate remedial actions for the Site. As appropriate, discussions and recommendations on how to manage potential risks will be provided in the Feasibility Study. The identification of remedial action levels, which will guide future remediation efforts, will be provided in the Record of Decision.

The methods used to evaluate risks in this HHRA are consistent with current guidelines for human health risk assessment provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use at Superfund sites (EPA 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1997, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, 2004, 2009a).

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Despite findings, agency says cleanup remains a priority

A new study has found no serious risk to human health stemming from mines included in a Superfund site around Silverton, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is a good news story,” said Christina Progess, Superfund remedial project manager. “And it’s a really important milestone for the project that paints a more full picture in terms of what cleanup work needs to be done.”

[…]

As part of the Superfund process, the EPA must evaluate the risks contamination slated for cleanup has on human health. In the case of Bonita Peak, exposure to mine waste through incidental ingestion and inhalation stood as the highest possibilities for people who visit the area.

But, for the most part, the study showed there doesn’t seem to be much risk to human health…

“Overall, there’s a lot of good news in here,” Progess said. “It doesn’t impact the local tourism industry, and folks working out in the district aren’t at risk from a human health standpoint. But (the study) also helps us highlight there are some areas that people come in contact with it.”

While Superfund sites with clear and significant human health risks receive priority within the EPA for funding, Progess said she doesn’t expect the study’s findings to affect Bonita Peak.

“Bonita Peak has always been and continues to be one of the administration’s top priority Superfund sites in the nation,” she said. “I don’t anticipate (funding) being a concern.”

In April, the EPA released a study assessing risks to aquatic habitats, which showed that in areas where water had low pH and elevated metals, fish and other aquatic life populations were highly impaired or nonexistent.

The study helped EPA identify four areas where the agency would like to improve water quality in the Animas River watershed to the point where restoration of aquatic life could be achievable.