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

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

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

In November 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chief of Staff, Matt Fritz, established an agency team to conduct an After-Action Review of EPA’s response to the Gold King Mine (GKM) release that occurred on August 5, 2015. The team, comprised of employees from across the agency, interviewed over a hundred people and reviewed a large volume of documents to identify lessons learned and develop recommendations for the Administrator’s consideration. Among the documents reviewed were after-action reports from previous emergency responses, which showed that some of the issues identified at Gold King Mine were not new. On December 21, 2015, the After-Action Review Team submitted its report detailing ten specific recommendations to improve how the agency responds to emergency incidents and to ensure a highly effective EPA Emergency Response Program that can adapt quickly to dynamic, unpredictable situations. These recommendations, shown in Appendix A, were:

  • Recommendation 1: Establish a National Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) at EPA.
  • Recommendation 2: Institute Senior Official training plan.
  • Recommendation 3: Institute ICS key leadership training plan.
  • Recommendation 4: Establish an agency data and information management team.
  • Recommendation 5: Improve data and information posting and communications.
  • Recommendation 6: Establish Communications Strike Teams and broaden data training for PIOs and public affairs staff.
  • Recommendation 7: Invest in data resources and clarify roles/responsibilities.
  • Recommendation 8: Build capacity for rapid data collection, interpretation, and dissemination.
  • Recommendation 9: Align public affairs resources and update communications procedures.
  • Recommendation 10: Improve notification procedures, plans, and equipment.
  • From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

    The EPA outlined its efforts in a report posted on its website late Friday afternoon called “In the Rearview Mirror: Implementation of the Gold King Mine After-Action Review.”

    The EPA’s chief of staff announced the changes in February 2016, after the agency took responsibility for the release of metal-laden water from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015.

    The changes were based on a December 2015 after-action report that made 10 recommendations focused on improving its emergency response and communications that the EPA has worked on, the review stated. The original after-action report did not seem to have been posted on the EPA’s website when it was finished. EPA officials did not immediately respond to request for comment on the review Saturday.

    The review recommended the agency continue funding emergency management training and positions created as a result of the changes. But it did not list specific budget expenses.

    A national emergency response team was trained by December 2016 and it will be deployed to mine spills or releases that the EPA has caused or is directly involved in, or when an event involves multiple EPA regions.

    “Quick and effective response to incidents reduces the risk to public safety, environmental damage and potential legal liability,” the report said.

    To improve communications, the EPA plans to develop three teams of six that will assist with breaking down complex and technical information. When a team is deployed, they will not communicate with the public but will work behind the scenes.

    Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina could not comment on the report, but she acknowledged that there were challenges with EPA communications after the Gold King Mine spill.

    “We tried to work through those as situations arose,” she said.

    During emergencies, the EPA also plans work with federal, state, local, tribal, trust territory and other partners on development and release of all materials.

    Effectively communicating data with the public was another focus of the EPA, and it calls for eliminating the time lag between the EPA receiving data and communicating it to the public.

    Residents and local officials were frustrated with the slow pace of metals sampling and interpretation of the data.

    This data was needed to determine whether the river could be reopened and used for drinking, agriculture and recreation.

    Distrust of the EPA’s data led some residents of the Navajo Nation to keep their irrigation ditches closed, causing lost crops, because they didn’t want to risk using the contaminated water.

    The Office of Emergency Management has hired a coordinator to help the EPA with data, and the review solicits funding for training and workshops.

    Agency workers also updated their contact lists for tribal governments and plan to update those lists annually.

    The agency also updated training for senior leadership on what their role is during an emergency. Satellite communications systems were also upgraded for those working in the field.

    After the spill, the EPA team was trapped without cellphone service or a satellite phone and this delayed communications with the state by almost two hours.

    CDPHE and @EPA hope the Lower Ark is allowed to join their lawsuit

    Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013
    Report: Remediation Scenarios for Attenuating Peak Flows and Reducing Sediment Transport in Fountain Creek, Colorado, 2013

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Voczkiewicz):

    The state and federal agencies told a judge Thursday that they support the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District’s request to have a courtroom voice in a clean-water lawsuit against Colorado Springs.

    The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are suing the city, which discharges pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries.

    The Lower Ark district wants to join the case as an intervenor to protect the district’s interest during the litigation…

    Senior Judge Richard Matsch is presiding over the case in U.S. District Court in Denver and will decide whether to grant Lower Ark’s request.

    The EPA and the state health-environment department filed the lawsuit Nov. 9. It alleges that Colorado Springs’ storm sewer system is violating federal and state clean water laws.

    The city denies it is violating the laws. Mayor John Suthers recently pointed to additional expenditures the city is making as an example of its commitment to correct storm water problems.

    The storm water contains pollutants, including E. coli, that flow into the river from creek tributaries.

    The district encompasses Bent, Crowley, Otero, Prowers and Pueblo counties, where considerable produce, including Rocky Ford melons, are grown.

    In Thursday’s court filing reviewed by The Pueblo Chieftain, the EPA and the department told Matsch they agree with Lower Ark that it should have a voice in court because the district wants the river water to have adequate quality.

    To achieve that, the agencies and the district want Colorado Springs to reduce the amount of polluted discharges.

    The environmental agencies contend Colorado Springs mischaracterizes the lawsuit as being focused on past issues, but it in fact “seeks to remedy current and ongoing violations.”

    The environmental agencies disagree with Colorado Springs’ arguments that the district has no legal right to become an intervenor and that intervention will unduly complicate the litigation.

    The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement and enforce” its stormwater management program, as required by permits the government has issued. The lawsuit goes on to ask a judge to impose monetary penalties on Colorado Springs for the violations.

    #AnimasRiver: @EPA cites “sovereign immunity” — $1.2 billion in claims set aside

    This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
    This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

    From The Farmington Daily Times (Magdalena Wegrzyn , Leigh Black Irvin , Joshua Kellogg and Noel Lyn Smith):

    Federal lawmakers, tribal leaders and state and local officials presented a rare unified front today as they vehemently denounced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement that it will not pay more than $1.2 billion in claims filed against it in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

    The EPA said the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents the agency from paying claims that result from “discretionary” government actions. Congress passed the law to allow government agencies — and in this case, contractors working on their behalf — to act “without the fear of paying damages in the event something went wrong while taking the action,” according to a press release from the EPA.

    Three federal lawmakers representing New Mexico denounced the news in a joint statement, calling the agency’s reasoning a “shameful legal interpretation of liability.” Meanwhile, Navajo Nation officials questioned who would take responsibility for reimbursing tribal members hurt by the spill, which on Aug. 5, 2015, released more than three million gallons of toxic wastewater into a tributary that feeds the Animas River, which flows into the San Juan River, ultimately emptying into Lake Powell.

    The EPA said the work contractors conducted at the mine near Silverton, Colo., is considered a “discretionary function” under the law.

    Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrats, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., issued a statement saying they would continue pushing for legislation to hold the EPA accountable. They also said it would be up to the courts to determine whether the EPA’s defense is legitimate.

    Heinrich said in a phone interview that he intends to introduce legislation to ensure the EPA pays claims that have already been filed, as well as future claims.

    “I’m going to speak to all of the senators from Colorado and Arizona, and we’re going to introduce legislation to do this right,” he said.

    An EPA agency official said paying the claims would discourage cleanup efforts — such as the one being conducted at the Gold King Mine when it was breached — in the future…

    Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will continue pursuing its lawsuit against the EPA and several other entities. He said the tribe plans to work with president-elect Donald J. Trump’s administration to address claims tied to the spill.

    “It doesn’t stop here,” Begaye said shortly after attending an inauguration ceremony in Shiprock for recently elected Northern Agency chapter officials. “This is one step, and we will continue taking the next step and if we have to, we’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.”

    […]

    An EPA official said 73 claims related to the mine spill were filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Four were from governmental agencies and the rest were from individuals and companies…

    Joe Ben Jr. served as the Shiprock Chapter’s farm board member when the spill occurred. Ben, a farmer himself, said he did not file a claim but knows several other farmers who submitted claims for lost crops and revenue…

    The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
    The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

    … collecting compensation doesn’t weigh heavily on [Earl] Yazzie. Instead, the farmer said he’s more concerned about whether to plant crops this spring and if he’ll irrigate with water from the San Juan River…

    Included in the $1.2 billion is about $154 million in tort claims that are part of a lawsuit filed by the state of New Mexico, according to the EPA official. She said the EPA’s defense will be used in court to deny payment of those claims…

    The EPA official acknowledged the announcement was slow in coming, adding “we spent a lot of time trying to see if there was any other way to address this because this is obviously an answer that leaves a lot of people unhappy who have been hurt.”

    From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

    The EPA said the claims could be refiled in federal court, or Congress could authorize payments.

    But attorneys for the EPA and the Justice Department concluded the EPA is barred from paying the claims because of sovereign immunity, which prohibits most lawsuits against the government.

    “The agency worked hard to find a way in which it could pay individuals for damages due to the incident, but unfortunately, our hands are tied,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said.

    The EPA said it has spent more than $31.3 million on the spill, including remediation work, water testing and payments to state, local and tribal agencies.

    The January 2017 “Headwaters Pulse” is hot off the presses from @CFWEWater

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

    Across the country, drinking water crises are making the news—from toxic algae to lead poisoning to a growing number of communities facing contamination from a class of manmade chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs—raising concerns about whether the nation’s current drinking water regulations do enough to protect us.

    While there are clear rules pertaining to 93 federally regulated drinking water contaminants, there are no national drinking water standards for algal cyanotoxins, PFCs, or a host of other potentially harmful unregulated contaminants of emerging concern.

    Read this article and more in the recently-released issue of Headwaters magazine, where we explore the connection between public health and water, the regulations in place to keep us safe, and the question of whether those go far enough.

    Widefield aquifer pollution update

    Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities
    Southern Delivery System map via Colorado Springs Utilities

    From The Colorado Springs Independent (Nat Stein):

    ‘It’s amazing, really, how it worked out,” says Roy Heald.

    Heald, general manager of the Security Water and Sanitation District (SWSD), is referring to perhaps the only piece of good news in the ongoing story of water contamination in communities south of Colorado Springs.

    “We got into planning [the Southern Delivery System] two decades ago for redundancy, thinking we’d use it if anything happened, and then it comes online not three weeks before we really needed it,” he says.

    In May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory lowering what’s considered a safe amount of perfluorinated chemicals — a highly prevalent but unregulated toxin that’s been linked to low birth weights, heart disease and cancer. Wells drawing from the Widefield aquifer, which supplies around 80,000 people’s drinking water, then tested at nearly 20 times the EPA’s recommended threshold in some cases.

    Right away, SWSD took mitigating steps by instigating watering restrictions, fast-tracking an infrastructure project to boost connectivity between service areas and negotiating more access to surface water through the newly operational SDS pipeline. By September, all groundwater wells were shut off. But all that came at a price.

    “The exact cost is hard to pin down at this point because we’ve still got bills coming in,” Heald says, “but yeah, this was a huge unanticipated expense.” To get an idea, consider groundwater typically accounts for half the district’s total water supply. Forgoing cheap groundwater in favor of more expensive surface water, even if just for the last four months of the year, cost SWSD around $1 million in 2016, when it expected to spend $100,000. The district has deferred other capital projects, prioritized new ones and diminished its cash reserve, meaning it needs money.

    But from whom?

    At the very least, the Security, Widefield and Fountain water districts are all expecting some portion of the $4.3 million the Air Force pledged over the summer after Peterson Air Force Base admitted a chemical-laden fire retardant used for decades on base could be the source of contamination.

    Air Force spokesman Steve Brady gave the Indy a rundown of how the money’s being spent: Homes on private well water will get reverse osmosis systems installed; NORAD and Security Mobile Home Parks will get granular activated carbon systems, as will Stratmoor Hills, Fountain and Widefield public water systems; First United Pentecostal Church will tap into Security water; SWSD will construct new piping to hook into Colorado Springs Utilities; the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, private homes that don’t agree to take ownership of a filtration system once installed and the Venetucci farmhouse will continue getting bottled water.

    The Air Force’s pledge has been messaged as a “good neighbor” gesture and not a signal of responsibility, meaning that for now, available funds are finite. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is working to confirm or deny the possibility that contaminants came from Peterson Air Force Base while public health officials (and private litigants) continue to investigate other possible polluters.

    A damning outcome of those inquiries could warrant additional compensation, but until then, affected parties will have to just deal on their own.

    “I know we’ll get some share of that $4.3 million, but whatever it is won’t be enough to cover our costs,” says Heald, whose district hasn’t received a check from the Air Force yet. “There could be grants available at the state level, but those are in the thousands or tens of thousands range. We’re looking at millions. I’ve talked to our congressional representatives but I don’t know about federal sources. Maybe folks will have other ideas, because whatever the source, our ratepayers didn’t cause this so they shouldn’t have to pay for it.”

    Security residents will start seeing higher water bills immediately. Rates were already scheduled to rise in 2017 before this situation arose, but now the hike could be steeper. Unless some new windfall comes through before the next rate study gets underway in the fall, you can guess what direction rates will continue to go. Still, a typical water bill in Security during 2016 was $36 —about half of a typical Colorado Springs bill.

    Fountain is in a similar, though not identical, position. “We don’t need to use groundwater in the wintertime — that’s been the standard for years,” Utilities Director Curtis Mitchell tells the Indy, explaining that groundwater only ever flowed through taps during peak demand over the summer. Ahead of that time this year, Mitchell has negotiated extra surface water through a capacity swap with Colorado Springs Utilities. Groundwater will only enter the equation once filtration systems are installed and working reliably.

    Widefield has been off well water since November, according to department manager Brandon Bernard, who says four pilot projects are underway to find the best technology for filtering out PFCs. He’s aiming to get a small treatment facility built by May and another, bigger one “in the near future.” (Because Widefield isn’t an SDS partner, it has limited surface water, hence the primary focus is on treating well water.)

    “All of the capital costs to pilot and build the treatment will be taken from cash reserves,” Bernard wrote by email. “The only costs the customers will incur through rates will be to cover operation and maintenance of these facilities. … We aren’t sure how much of the $4.3 million is portioned for WWSD and have not heard when we will receive it.”

    Fountain and Security’s increased reliance on SDS may cost their customers, but it provides some relief to Colorado Springs — primary investor, owner and operator of the $825 million pipeline. As partners, Fountain and Security already contributed their share of construction costs, but moving more water through it offsets operational costs.

    “We’re running at really low levels right now, so there’s plenty of room in the pipe for our partners,” says Colorado Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry. “The bottom line is we’re one big community here in El Paso County, so we’re happy to be flexible for them, but it also takes some of the financial burden [of running SDS] off our customers.”

    The costs of getting SDS up and running have been factored into CSU’s rates over the past five years, Berry says, so Phase 1 is pretty much paid for. Phase 2, including new storage construction and reservoir resurfacing, has yet to be reflected in customers’ water bills. Other capital improvement projects like maintaining aging pipes elsewhere in CSU’s raw water system, replacing main lines under downtown and modernizing storage tanks and treatment facilities are coming later.

    So whatever reprieve Colorado Springs water users get will be overshadowed by other expenses. “Unfortunately, base rates typically don’t go down — they either stay constant or they increase,” says Berry, who emphasizes that partners’ usage won’t compromise CSU’s access to water. CSU still has precious “first-use” water rights and plenty of redundancy built into its overall system. “But to have a high-quality, reliable water source requires a hefty investment,” Berry adds.

    Reliable is the key word there, as demonstrated by the crises playing out in Security, Widefield and Fountain, and communities across the country where drinking water is compromised. Part of the trend is having better detection instruments and part is better science showing potential harm, Heald observes. But, he says, what remains constant is America’s “leap before you look” approach to regulating toxins in our environment — chemicals get introduced to the market before anyone really knows what risk they pose.

    Heald offers this summation: “You don’t know what you don’t know, but when you do know, you know it’s going to cost more.”

    Colorado Springs denies Fountain Creek pollution in first salvo against @EPA, CDPHE

    Fountain Creek
    Fountain Creek

    From The Pueblo Chieftain (Robert Boczkiewicz):

    The city of Colorado Springs, in response to a lawsuit that seeks court action against the city for discharging pollutants into tributaries of the Arkansas River, denies it is violating clean water laws.

    The city’s denial is its first response in court to a lawsuit that claims discharges of pollutants into Fountain Creek and other tributaries violate the laws. The discharges are from Colorado Springs’ stormwater system.

    “The City has complied with the law,” states the response filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Denver.

    The lawsuit was filed Nov. 9 against Colorado Springs by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

    The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city “to develop, implement, and enforce” its stormwater management program as specified in permits the government has issued in past years.

    Colorado Springs asserted in Monday’s filing that it “has at all times been in compliance” with permits issued by the state agency to govern the discharges and the stormwater system.

    The city contends it should not be subjected to court orders or monetary penalties that the environmental agencies want a judge to impose.

    Colorado Springs also contends that allegations in the lawsuit misrepresent the facts of issues in dispute.

    ‘As the Poudre Flows — Forest to Plains’ theme of Poudre River Forum

    Scott Hummer, general manager of North Poudre Irrigation Company, talks about how his agency worked with Fort Collins Natural Areas and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to include a fish passage when the irrigation company replaced a diversion structure on the Poudre River that was destroyed by the 2013 floods. Work was completed [in February 2016]. (Pamela Johnson / Loveland Reporter-Herald)
    Scott Hummer, general manager of North Poudre Irrigation Company, talks about how his agency worked with Fort Collins Natural Areas and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to include a fish passage when the irrigation company replaced a diversion structure on the Poudre River that was destroyed by the 2013 floods. Work was completed [in February 2016]. (Pamela Johnson / Loveland Reporter-Herald)

    Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Jim Beers):

    The Cache la Poudre River, which flows from the mountains through Fort Collins, Timnath and Windsor to the plains east of Greeley, is at the heart of countless activities: from irrigating crops and lawns to providing drinking water for more than 365,000 people and hosting numerous recreational activities.

    Those with connections to and concerns for the Poudre River will gather on Friday, Feb. 3 for the fourth annual Poudre River Forum. After its first three years at Larimer County Fairgrounds, the forum is moving down the river to Greeley as a reminder that the Poudre River is important to all who benefit from it — from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Platte. This year’s forum — the theme is “As the Poudre Flows — Forest to Plains” — will be held from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the Island Grove Events Center, 501 N. 14th Ave., Greeley. Pre-registration is required for all participants.

    Understanding the river, each other

    Sponsored by the Poudre Runs Through It Study/Action Work Group, the forum serves as a community-wide gathering of people from agricultural, municipal, business, recreational and environmental backgrounds to learn about and discuss issues related to the Poudre River.

    “The Poudre River Forum brings together those who use the river for agricultural and urban diversions and those who work to improve its ecological health. In the past those groups have not necessarily seen eye to eye,” said MaryLou Smith, PRTI facilitator. “Increasingly our participants are open to the idea that it takes collective vision and action to make the Poudre the world’s best example of a healthy, working river.”

    Once again, this year’s event will be facilitated by the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “The Forum is a great opportunity for the communities connected by the Poudre River to come together to better understand the entire watershed, and each other,” said Reagan Waskom, director of CWI.

    Forests and water quality/quantity

    Laurie Huckaby with the U.S. Forest Service, will present “The last 1,000 years in the Poudre according to the trees,” to kick off the topic of how important the upper watershed is to water quantity and quality.

    “Water quality and forests are inextricably linked,” said Joe Duda of the Colorado State Forest Service, who will join Huckaby as one of the presenters. “Forest conditions and insects, disease and fire all can have profound impacts on water flow and quality. Only healthy, resilient forests can continuously supply clean water.”

    Global lessons for local success

    “Finding the Balance: Managing Water for People and Nature” is the message of keynote speaker Brian Richter. Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years, and currently serves as chief scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy in Washington D.C. Richter’s ideas about the importance of recognizing the balance of working river/healthy river are the basis for which PRTI was initially formed. He has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide, and has served as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, the United Nations, and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions. Richter co-authored,with Sandra Postel, the 2003 book Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature and in 2014 wrote Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability.

    Change affects all sectors

    An afternoon panel session will probe the impacts of change — positive and negative — along the Poudre River and how they have been similarly and differently addressed by agriculture, urban, and environmental sectors. They will discuss what anticipated future changes might these three sectors see as opportunities or incentives for mutually beneficial collaboration that could result in a healthier, working river?

    “It has been said that the only thing that is constant is change,” said John Bartholow, retired ecologist from U.S. Geological Survey, and panel coordinator/moderator. “The question is, can we learn to adapt to those changes sure to come on the Poudre in ways that benefit agriculture, municipalities, and the environment?”

    The panel will include Eric Reckentine, deputy director, City of Greeley Water and Sewer; John Sanderson, director of science, Nature Conservancy of Colorado; and Dale Trowbridge, general manager, New Cache la Poudre Irrigating Company.

    Videos, displays and music too

    The day-long forum also includes “River Snapshots” highlighting more than 15 projects undertaken by a variety of groups on the Poudre last year; “My How the Poudre Has Changed,” featuring historical 1970’s footage of the Poudre; updates from both the cities of Greeley and Fort Collins on current water programs; and over two dozen river-focused displays from community organizations and agencies. The day concludes with a social hour including food, beer and other beverages, and river-themed door prizes.

    Registration is $50 and includes lunch. Scholarships for students and reduced rates are available. The deadline to register is Friday, Jan. 27 at http://prti.colostate.edu/forum_2017.shtml.

    For more information, contact event coordinator Gailmarie Kimmel at PoudreRiverForum@gmail.com or 970-692-1443.