Native Waters at Risk: Learning to Listen

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

From Stanford University: Water in the West (Sibyl Diver):

In 2015, 3 million gallons of drainage water came rushing out of the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado, spewing 190 tons of heavy metals and other contaminants into a tributary of the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had been doing some excavation of the passage leading into the mine during an investigation at the site, had triggered pressurized water stored behind a plug at the mine portal. The damage was significant, taking a heavy toll on one community in particular: the Navajo Nation.

“When the spill occurred, it was economically devastating to the region, which is the bread basket of the Navajo Nation,” said Karletta Chief, Assistant Professor of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. “It also had a traumatic impact on people. They view the river as the male deity of the Navajo homeland. Seeing it turn yellow really devastated the people.”

Indigenous Knowledge and Water Science

Chief, a hydrologist and a member of the Navajo Nation herself, has spent her career integrating rigorous scientific study with Indigenous knowledge to address urgent water quality problems. Raised in a remote community of Black Mesa, Arizona, where she often served as a translator for her family, Chief went on to receive undergraduate and master’s degrees from Stanford and a PhD from the University of Arizona. Her work on the Navajo Nation on water issues has earned her a place in Stanford’s Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I grew up in a tribal community where we were taught to just listen to elders,” says Chief. “When I came to Stanford I had to unlearn that. You were expected to debate your issue, and we are trained to do that as western scientists. You want to interject. A lot of times this is for good reason. Scientists are curious and interested. But it’s important to sit back and just listen.”

Working closely with Navajo Nation community members, Chief focuses on spill response, water quality testing, and supporting local decision-making on key water resource issues.

Water quality is an important issue for the Navajo people, yet access to clean water is a real challenge. More than 8,000 homes on the Navajo reservation do not have access to potable water. Navajo people on the reservation travel an average of 24 miles each way to haul their drinking water. Groundwater contamination and depletion on native lands from mining activities is also a serious concern.

After the Gold King Mine spill, many local Navajo farmers either couldn’t irrigate their fields due to the closure of irrigation intakes or chose not to for fear of contamination. As a result, crop yields were seriously impacted. As many as 2,000 Navajo farmers and ranchers are estimated to have been affected by the spill. Chief, who has been an active force in understanding the Gold King Mine disaster and its impacts, developed a study with tribal members on short-term exposure to mining contaminants.

Typical environmental assessment methodologies do not adequately account for the social and cultural impacts of mining nor integrate Indigenous ways of knowing. “The elders gave us guidance and asked us to incorporate the fundamental Diné (Navajo) philosophy of hózhó,” Chief explains. Sa’ah Naaghái Bik’eh Hózhóón has to do with harmony, restoration, and healing, as well as following the Navajo approach to problem solving.

“I don’t think the EPA considered traditional knowledge in their approach,” says Chief. “In ours, we did this through listening sessions and allowing people to talk and write down their experiences. We had the help of the traditional cultural experts and elders that were involved when we were writing the proposal. This is important because it raises the need to have more accurate ways to do these risk assessments, particularly with Indigenous communities where they use rivers in many more ways than recreation. They revere the river in spiritual ways.”

Community-engaged research also requires communicating scientific findings back to communities in a language and format that is accessible. “When we reported back, we needed the help of cultural experts to make sure that we were doing that effectively,” says Chief. The goal for this work is to support tribal members in using research to make their own assessments, draw their own conclusions, and determine how to heal their community and environment. “Not everyone has gone back to farming,” explains Chief. “But [the research] has definitely helped in answering some questions.”

Communicating the details of spill response to non-English speakers was a challenge. When the Navajo language lacked a word to describe a water contaminant like manganese, Chief and her team worked with traditional knowledge holders and medicine people to name the element. The community outreach “really helped in terms of people understanding what we’re doing and the results that we share; coming back to restoring harmony and healing for the people as a result of this traumatic event,” explained Chief.

To share their results, Chief’s team participated in teach-ins organized by community environmental organizations. They broadcasted their findings over radio forums in Navajo language and presented at various chapter meetings, representing different parts of Navajo Nation.

More recently, Chief has co-organized a conference on Indigenous perspectives on water, with community leaders taking a prominent role. Chief has also developed short 1-2 minute videos that can be streamed in the waiting rooms of hospitals. “When you’re engaging tribes, not everybody is the same. There are different sectors of the tribal community that need to be considered,” says Chief. “It is not always the young people. There are health experts and elders. It is not always the tribal leaders.”

“I am still learning about how to report back to the community,” Chief explains. “There is such a large number of people in different sectors of the Navajo population, so it is a really daunting task to reach out to everybody.”

Responding to the Gold King Mine Spill

Chief is continuing her community-based research with tribal partners. This includes the Navajo Gold King Mine Exposure Project, a household-level biomonitoring initiative to investigate biological accumulation of toxins in community members over time. Initial findings have shown no significant evidence of long-term health impacts from the spill, although the research team did find slightly elevated arsenic levels for Navajo people compared to the general U.S. population. It remains to be seen what these results will look like as time goes on.

Recent investigation by the EPA has also detected elevated lead levels at sites near the mine up to 100 times higher than the danger level for wildlife. There are approximately 5,105 abandoned mines in Colorado, 3,989 in New Mexico, 10,697 in Utah, and 24,183 in Arizona.

“It’s a sleeping giant, and a wake-up call for everybody to act quickly on stabilizing the area and reducing risk in the future,” cautions Chief. “There are thousands of abandoned mines in the region and the risk of a spill like this is really high.”

In 2016, about one year after the Gold King Mine disaster, the EPA added the Bonita Peak Mining District as a Superfund site. The district is made up of 48 mining-related sites including Gold King.

Although the EPA has declared Superfund cleanups a priority the Gold King Mine cleanup remains lingering in the study stages. Meanwhile, the legal fight for fair compensation for the Navajo Nation continues. A ruling in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico against Environmental Restoration, LLC. (the contract company that excavated the mine and caused the spill) upheld the Nation’s claims of negligence and also upheld their right to seek punitive damages. All of which harkens back to the importance of Chief’s meaningful engagement with Indigenous knowledge in her research. The issue in seeking damages for the Navajo is keeping accurate records and receipts, which may not fully reflect their losses in terms of the cultural importance of the river and surrounding lands.

Chief’s next project supported by a million dollar grant through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Traineeship program is to develop a new training program at the University of Arizona. The program, which is currently accepting applications for graduate students, will include learning the fundamentals of energy and water efficiency and a project-based class working with Indigenous communities. The emphasis is on interdisciplinary thinking to encourage “a holistic view of problem solving that is needed to bring water to Native American communities,” says Chief.

One of the principles that the program will cover is the importance of understanding the diversity of Native American tribes. “Across hundreds of tribal communities, they are diverse in many ways,” Chief explains. “Within a tribal community, there are many more ways that the tribal community is diverse. It’s not one size fits fit all. So, when scientists are working with tribal communities it’s important to remember that. We need to make sure that we do not apply other tribal experiences to the tribes we’re working with,” says Chief. “More and more it is really about listening, and especially working with grassroots organizations that are the movers and shakers.”

Pagosa Springs: #Geothermal Resource Workshop set for May 23, 2018

Photo credit: Colorado.com

From the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (Sally High) via The Pagosa Sun:

Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) welcomes Colorado School of Mines (CSM) and Colorado Geologic Survey back to Pagosa Springs this week.

CSM’s seventh Geophysics Field Camp builds on previous years’ research into Archuleta County’s geothermal plumbing.

The GGP invites the public to a scientific retrospective of collected data and updated interpretations of the local geothermal resource on
Wednesday, May 23. The workshop is at the Archuleta County CSU Extension building from 6 to 8 p.m. The GGP workshop contains two presentations.

Dr. Andrei Swidinsky and Stephen Cuttler of CSM will present a seven-year retrospective of the geophysical data collected by CSM students. Each year’s field camp adds to our understanding of the underground structure of our geothermal aquifer.

Dr. Paul Morgan is senior geo- thermal geologist at Colorado Geological Survey. In 2017, Morgan published Origins and Geothermal Potential of Thermal Springs in Archuleta County, including Pagosa Springs, Colorado, USA (Revisited). The paper was first presented at the international Geothermal Resource Council’s 2017 conference. The Archuleta County public can hear Morgan’s revised interpretations at the GGP workshop.
The GGP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit operating an educational park in downtown Pagosa Springs. The nonprofit park demonstrates geothermal direct energy use, year-round horticulture and environmental awareness. Twenty-first century water conservation and geothermal potential are priorities of GGP’s mission.

GGP’s Education Dome is busy with student and volunteer activity, and the Community Garden Dome and Innovation Dome are being constructed. Pagosa Springs Centennial Park’s Riverwalk is the site of the GGP project.

There is no charge for the GGP’s geothermal resource update work- shop, although donations to the nonprofit are accepted. The public is welcome.

Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District shows #drought management plan at public hearing

West Drought Monitor May 8, 2018.

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

The Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board held a public hearing on [May 1, 2018] evening to discuss the 2018 Drought Management Plan and to take public comment.

PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey began the presentation by briefly discuss- ing the precipitation levels for the district.

“We’re just a little bit more than 50 per- cent of what we usually get,” Ramsey said. In regard to snow-water equivalency,
Ramsey noted that, for 2018, “we’re out.”

[…]

Triggers and levels of plan

“The triggers are basically going to be a combination of the amount of water in the reservoirs plus the amount of water we have pulled in from the river,” Ramsey explained. “It’s going to be a ratio between that and what our expected water use for the year is going to be.”

PAWSD is going to base these triggers off of what the district used in 2017, Ramsey noted.

When 90 percent of that use is met, that is what will trigger level one of the drought management plan, Ramsey stated.

Level two is triggered by 70 percent use, 50 percent would trigger level three, 40 percent triggers level four and 30 percent use will trigger level five, Ramsey described.

R.I.P. Steve Fearn

Steve Fearn via the Colorado Water Congress.

Steve Fearn

From Silverton, in the heart of the San Juan Mountains high on the Animas River,
in between Red Mountain Pass and Molas Pass

flowing through Durango up into Lake Nighthorse

Steve Fearn represented Southwestern Colorado on the Board of the Colorado
Foundation for Water Education 2011 to 2016

bridging the Great Divide tirelessly.

Sure, steady, a wise and patient counselor, he held and served all of Colorado
in the highest respect.

You are with us, Steve!

Greg Hobbs (April 23, 2018)

Steve Fearn. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Longtime Silverton resident wanted to bring back mining

Steve Fearn, one of the founders of the Animas River Stakeholders Group who was involved with multiple water boards, and who at one time owned the Gold King Mine, died last week at his home in Silverton. He was 74.

It is believed he died from a dormant strain of malaria that he caught while working at mines in Indonesia in the 1980s, La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith said Monday. An autopsy is scheduled for Thursday.

“I think one of the main things about Steve is that even though he often disagreed with people, he was always looking for some common ground,” said Peter Butler, another founder of the stakeholders group.

Fearn was raised in Boulder and received a civil engineering degree from the University of Colorado-Boulder, according to Bruce Whitehead, executive director of the Southwestern Water Conservation District.

Eventually, Fearn began his career building power plants, and was one of the lead engineers for the Craig Station Power Plant in Craig and the Hayden Generating Station near Steamboat Springs, Butler said.

Eventually, Fearn found his way to the Western Slope in the 1970s, working for a time at the mill for the Idarado Mine in Telluride, Butler said.

However, Fearn planted roots in Silverton when he moved there in the 1970s.

“He did do some work on several of the different mines,” Butler said. “He’s been underground in a few of those mines up there.”

In the early 1990s, after Silverton’s last mine closed and issues over water quality in the Animas River watershed became a growing concern, Fearn and others formed the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

At the time, many people believed the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado imposed water-quality standards that didn’t take into account natural loading of heavy, potentially toxic metals into the waterways.

The stakeholders group was then tasked with drafting more realistic water-quality goals, and eventually evolved into a group that conducted numerous cleanup projects throughout the watershed.

Butler said there was some level of conflict in the forming of the stakeholders group, as interests were divided among the mining industry and environmentalists.

Former miners even circulated petitions calling for the stakeholders group to get out of town, Butler said.

“He was always the level-headed voice from the mining industry,” Butler said.

Butler credited Fearn with taking the lead on many remediation projects throughout the years, including placing bulkheads on the Kohler Tunnel and the Mogul Mine.

However, critics of the stakeholders group say the group was an attempt to delay an all-out cleanup under the EPA’s Superfund program. While the stakeholders have helped improve water quality in the basin, major pollution sources outside the scope of the group’s purview has held back any major headway in accomplishing goals like restoring aquatic life in the Animas River from Silverton to Durango.

Fearn, over the years, was one of the staunchest opponents to Superfund, arguing the designation would eliminate any chance of mining’s return to Silverton and place a stigma on the town that would hinder tourism.

“He wanted to revive mining … and he didn’t make any bones about it,” said San Juan County Judge Anthony Edwards. “He wanted to bring an economy where people were paid living wages, and he believed mining was the best option for that.”

Fearn himself tried to bring back Silverton’s dying mining industry over the years. In 2000, he purchased the Gold King Mine. He then attempted to get the Pride of the West mill at Howardsville, north of Silverton, back in operation.

Butler said Fearn believed it was better to make mining viable in the U.S., where there is some level of environmental and labor force regulations, rather than other countries without those rules in place.

“He believed you may be doing a lot more damage to the Earth by sending mining to different countries,” Butler said.

However, due to a complex entanglement of lawsuits, Fearn and his mining ventures were foreclosed on around 2004. The Gold King Mine was then purchased by Todd Hennis in 2005.

The EPA in August 2015 caused a mine blowout at the Gold King Mine while working on a cleanup project at the site. The spill released 3 million gallons of mine waste laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.

In fall 2016, the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, which encompasses nearly 50 mining-related sites throughout the Animas watershed, was officially declared a Superfund site.

Fearn was named in a lawsuit filed by New Mexico over the spill. He was not considered a “potentially responsible party” – a term the agency uses for people or companies it regards as financially responsible for a cleanup, EPA said Monday.

Fearn also served on numerous water-related boards. He represented San Juan County on the Southwestern Water Conservation District for 22 years, serving 10 of those years as vice president.

“He was always willing to listen and find solutions,” Whitehead said. “He didn’t just say no, he looked for alternatives and worked hard to do that.”

Butler said Fearn is credited for getting the water conservation district to fund projects that would improve water quality. He also served on the working group that eventually produced the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act.

Fearn was ousted as a representative, however, by San Juan County commissioners in February 2017 after they said Fearn’s representation no longer reflected the county’s values.

“Historically, San Juan County has been largely dominated by mining interests, and Steve Fearn is very much associated with those interests,” county attorney Paul Sunderland said at the time. “But the board’s interests have shifted more toward recreation.”

Whitehead said Fearn was named a director emeritus despite being replaced on the board.

“He will be missed greatly,” Whitehead said. “He was a good guy and a friend.”

Edwards said more information will be forthcoming on a memorial service to be held sometime in May.

Gold King Mine Entrance after blow out on August 5, 2015. Photo via EPA.

Down ‘The River Of Lost Souls’ With Jonathan Thompson — Colorado Public Radio

From Colorado Public Radio (Nathan Heffel). Click through to listen to the interview:

A new book puts the Gold King Mine spill within the long history of mining and pollution in Southwest Colorado.

Jonathan Thompson will be at the Book Bar tonight. I wonder if Denver is a bit of a shock to his system even though he’s a sixth-generation Coloradan?

I am so happy to finally get to finally meet Jonathan. His new book, River of Lost Souls, is an important read. Understanding the industrialization of our state over the years will help us chart a less destructive course.

I loved the passages where Jonathan reminisces about spending time around the Four Corners and in the San Juans. He transports you to those times in your life spent next to the river or exploring what sights the land has to offer. He connects you to the Four Corners in a way that only a son of the San Juans could.

Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

Community groups help ease the anxiety of a superfund listing

One of the many smelters that once operated in the Pueblo area. Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The Colorado Smelter processed silver and lead for 25 years before it closed in 1908, leaving behind a toxic footprint that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhoods of Pueblo in southeastern Colorado.

However, it wasn’t until more than a century later that an inspection found lead and arsenic levels posed a risk to residents. An early study area included more than 1,900 potentially affected homes.

The need for a cleanup project was clear, but the community of Pueblo was torn.

Some residents were truly worried about the health effects from lead and arsenic poisoning, while others felt the problem was overblown and a major cleanup project would further strain the community’s struggling economy.

With seemingly no other options, it became apparent the only true path to cleaning up this legacy of pollution was through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup project – Superfund.

One of the community’s demands from the outset was to have a seat at the table with the EPA and other partners at key moments of decision-making, so the community could guide that process from its perspective.

The people of Pueblo accomplished that by creating, through the EPA’s process, a Community Advisory Group made up of a variety of interested people, residents, landlords, environmental groups and locally elected officials.

‘A need to get diverse interests together’

The situation in Pueblo is eerily similar to Silverton’s and its connection to hard-rock mining, which defined the community a century ago but ultimately left behind a complicated mess.

The small mountain town north of Durango, with a population of about 600, largely opposed a Superfund listing for two decades, fearing it would deter future mining in the region and adversely affect tourism.

However, the path toward a Superfund designation became inevitable after the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill, when an EPA-caused mine blowout released a torrent of waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers, turning them orange.

One of the major selling points in getting Silverton’s support for the Superfund listing was a promise from the EPA that the community, filled with old miners with extensive institutional knowledge, would have a seat at the table.

Scott Fetchenheir, a geologist, former miner and San Juan County commissioner, said that since the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund was declared in fall 2016, the EPA has made good on this promise…

How CAGs work
For a CAG to be formed, a community simply needs to let EPA employees know they are interested in creating a group.

Then, it’s really up to the residents to decide how many people are in the group (the average CAG has about 15 people) and how often they want to meet.

“It’s community driven, and EPA wouldn’t want to influence how a CAG might organize or represent itself,” said Cynthia Peterson, an EPA spokeswoman who works with the Superfund site near Silverton.

Kristi Celico, an organizer and facilitator for CAGs throughout the country, says the groups are usually effective in walking the line of the variety of demands coming from a community.

“It helps put all those people in a room to help bridge those interests,” she said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but I’ve set up hundreds of (CAGs), and nine out of 10 times, it has a huge impact over time.”

Southwestern Water Conservation District annual seminar draws ~200 folks

No Name Rapid, Class V, mile 10, Upper Animas River, Mountain Waters Rafting.

From The Durango Herald (Patrick Armijo):

The Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002 and the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 brought home just how painful disruptions in the water cycle from drought to human-made hazards can be.

Cathy Metz, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Durango, voiced that message Friday before about 200 people at the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s annual Water Seminar at the DoubleTree Hotel.

Both the 72,000-acre fire and the spill that tinted the river orange with mine wastewater put the brakes on the whitewater rafting and river recreation economy, which, she said, was estimated in a 2006 study to bring in $19 million annually to Durango’s economy…

Even after the blaze, which destroyed 56 homes and killed a firefighter, the watersheds got hit again after rains funneled debris from the denuded burn area into streams, creeks and rivers.

She noted the snowpack this year remains dangerously similar to conditions in 2002.

On Friday, snowpack in the Dolores, San Miguel, Animas and San Juan river basins was at 44 percent of the 30-year average, according to Colorado SNOTEL.

In August 2015, the city again suffered a blow to its water economy when an Environmental Protection Agency subcontracted crew breached the Gold King Mine, sending 3 million gallons of mine wastewater laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.

“The thing we learned from the spill,” Metz said, “is that this had been occurring for a hundred years, but we didn’t pay attention to it because it wasn’t obvious to us.”

The spill, painful as it was, led to action to begin cleaning the legacy of 19th-century hard-rock mining in the San Juan Mountains that still threatens Southwest Colorado’s watersheds.

A Superfund site, Bonita Peak Mining District, has been established to begin cleanup of mine waste…

Lake Nighthorse, the latest enhancement to quality of life in Southwest Colorado, also directly depends on the health of the water cycle, Metz said.

Recreation on the reservoir, which is about 2 miles southwest of downtown Durango, is expected to generate $12 million annually for Durango’s economy, she said. On Sunday, opening day, she said, the lake attracted 800 people, overburdening the parking lot.