#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.

#Runoff news: Flood advisories issued for the Dolores, Animas, and La Plata rivers, #LakePowell elevation moving up #ColoradoRiver #COriver

From The Durango Herald:

The National Weather Service on Saturday issued flood advisories for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers, and residents reported flooding along the Dolores River about 10 miles north of town.

“We have major flooding on Road 37, Dolores, 10 miles north of Dolores,” Jeffrey L. Jahraus told The Journal. Eight to 10 properties were getting water, he said.

The flooding began Tuesday and has continued intermittently, Jahraus said. About a half-acre of his neighbor’s property was under water.

Flooding has happened at their property once or twice before, he said, but never like this. The Jahrauses live along Road 37, right by where the now-famous rock slide happened on Memorial Day Weekend…

At the gauge in Dolores, the river was flowing Saturday morning at 4,200 cubic feet per second, about 256% the average June 8 rate of 1,604 cfs. Saturday afternoon, it reached 6.7 feet at the gauge, more that a foot shy of the 8-foot flood stage…

Meanwhile, flood advisories continued Saturday until further notice for the Mancos, Animas and La Plata rivers.

Mancos River
The river flow along the Mancos River was expected to remain near to slightly above bankfull, and minor lowland flooding was possible. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.3 feet – several inches above bankfull – and flood stage was at 6 feet. The river was expected to rise to about 5.4 feet around midnight Sunday.

La Plata River
A flood advisory also continued Saturday for the La Plata River at Hesperus. The flows along the La Plata River were expected to remain slightly above bankfull, and flooding is possible, the National Weather Service said. Bankfull stage is 5 feet, and flood stage is 5.5 feet. Saturday morning, the river was at 5.1 feet and expected to rise to nearly 5.3 feet by Monday morning.

Animas River
The Animas River was flowing Saturday at 6.6 feet. The National Weather Service said the river was expectd to reach 6.93 feet by Sunday morning, a foot shy of the flood stage of 8 feet. Moderate flooding would occur at 9 feet, and major flooding at 10.5 feet. The record height of the Animas is 11 feet, the weather service says.

San Juan River Basin. Graphic credit Wikipedia.

From the Brigham Young University The Daily Universe (Josh Carter):

Lake Powell is benefitting considerably from this year’s runoff following a strong snow year in the Rocky Mountains. The lake has risen 16 feet in the last month and is experiencing an inflow of 128% the average. While water levels are expected to continue to rise until the peak month of July, there is still a long way to go before the lake reaches full capacity.

“This year definitely helps,” said Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Marlon Duke.
“But people need to keep in mind that when we came into this season Lake Powell was about 140 feet low. Even after this year, we’re going to be about 100 feet below full pool. So what we really need is three or four years just like this in a row.”

Lake Powell is currently stuck in the worst drought of its 56-year history. Its water levels and inflow have dropped significantly since the summer of 1999 — the last time Lake Powell was essentially full at 97% of capacity. The lake hit an all-time low in 2005 when its elevation sank to 3,555 feet, 145 feet below full pool.

The lake did experience a spike during the summer of 2010, when its levels got within 40 feet of full capacity. The drought has since continued, however, affecting not only Lake Powell but its sister reservoir Lake Mead as well.

“In 2000, when the drought started, Lake Powell and Lake Mead were both full,” Duke said. “Today Lake Powell is about 42% full and Lake Mead is even lower than that. Before we can start talking about whether or not the drought is over we need those reservoirs to be full again.”

Lake Mead was formed in 1935 and Lake Powell in 1963 after the completion of the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, respectively, along the Colorado River. They were created in hopes to store and provide water for the Colorado River Basin states during times of drought. Lake Powell predominately serves the Upper Basin states of Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, while Lake Mead provides for the Lower Basin states of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California.

The Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963 and subsequently caused the formation of Lake Powell. Photo credit: Esri Photo Library/Flickr via Brigham Young University

While both man-made reservoirs have served their purpose throughout the current drought, experts are thankful for this year’s runoff after a particularly low year in 2018.

“We’re coming off of 2018 which was the second-driest year ever since we’ve been keeping records in the Basin,” Duke said. “We were worried because if we had another year like 2018 then that would have really put us in some trouble.”

The drought hasn’t been the only threat to the lake’s water levels in recent years. A couple different proposals and campaigns are calling for Lake Powell to be drained and to distribute its water to Lake Mead and elsewhere.

“Fill Mead First” is a campaign first started in 1996 to encourage conversation about restoring the dammed Glen Canyon to its natural state. As the drought continued, the campaign has gained traction, arguing that Lake Mead needs more water from Lake Powell to ensure big cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego have enough. The campaign also argues that Lake Powell loses water through both rapid evaporation and water seeping into the porous sandstone walls.

BYU geology professor Gregory Carling talked about the potential benefits that could come from restoring Glen Canyon to what it once was.

“When the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it not only flooded one of the most beautiful canyons in the world but also thousands of archeological sites and side canyons,” Carling said. “Also, the way it is now with Lake Powell and Lake Mead half-full, both are losing lots of water through evaporation. So there probably is some sense in looking into what the benefits would be of draining Lake Powell and filling Lake Mead.”

Carling added, however, the proposal would have to go through a lengthy legislative process in order for anything to change.

“There are a lot of legal requirements and bureaucracy behind that, so it’s not just as easy as saying, ‘let’s drain one and fill up the other,’” Carling said. “You’d have to go back through a hundred years of the law of the river.”

Those opposing the “Fill Mead First” campaign argue that Lake Powell, one of the most popular boating and camping spots in Utah, supports the local economy through both recreation and tourism. The lake saw over 4 million visitors during each of the past two years for the first time in its history. Lake Powell supporters also argue the lake ensures a steady water supply to Lake Mead and the Lower Basin states.

Lake Powell attracts millions of boaters and tourists every year. Photo credit:Bernard Spragg/Flickr via Brigham Young University

The Lake Powell Pipeline is another proposal aimed at transferring water from Lake Powell to nearby Kane and Washington Counties in southern Utah. The proposed pipeline would run approximately 140 miles underground and deliver over 82,000 acre-feet of water per year to Washington County and 4,000 acre-feet of water per year to Kane County.

The proposal did take a hit last year when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled it would need greater oversight from other federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service. Officials expect a final decision to be made on the project by 2020.

Even amid the recent controversies experts hope the Colorado River Basin can take full advantage of its water resources, especially in times of drought. Representatives from all seven Colorado River Basin states recently met to sign drought contingency plans for the Upper and Lower Basins.

“This brings us one step closer to supporting agriculture and protecting the water supplies for 40 million people in the United States and Mexico,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Working together remains the best approach for all those who rely on the Colorado River.”

From The Farmington Daily Times (John R. Moses):

“The City of Farmington has temporarily closed sections of trails in Berg Park due to rising water levels.” City spokesperson Georgette Allen said in a press release June 7. “Trails on the north side of the Animas River near the All Veterans Memorial Plaza will be closed throughout the weekend.”