US Supreme Court declines to hear #GoldKingMine lawsuit, #NM v. #Colorado

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 Naitional Law Review:

On June 26, the US Supreme Court denied New Mexico’s petition seeking to institute an original action against Colorado for the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. An original action in the US Supreme Court is a lawsuit between states. Invoking that rarely used procedure, New Mexico sought to hold Colorado liable for the Gold King Mine spill. New Mexico asserted claims under the intricate provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA). New Mexico also sought analogous relief against Colorado under federal interstate common law.

Attorneys assisting the State of Colorado, successfully argued that the US Supreme Court should not entertain New Mexico’s novel lawsuit. As explained in Colorado’s briefing, New Mexico’s RCRA claim failed because a CERCLA response action had been initiated to address the relevant hazardous substance release. New Mexico’s CERCLA claim failed, Colorado argued, for a number of reasons, including that once a site is under investigation under CERCLA authority, several of New Mexico’s claims are barred because they would interfere with the CERCLA investigation and remedy decision making. Colorado additionally argued that Congress displaced New Mexico’s putative federal common law claims through its enactment of comprehensive environmental statutes, most importantly the Clean Water Act, but also CERCLA and RCRA. Finally, Colorado’s briefing also explained that Colorado should not be held liable for its regulatory activities in remediating and managing abandoned mines…

Colorado’s victory at the US Supreme Court protects Congress’s carefully constructed statutory scheme for the effective management and remediation of water pollution across the country. It also protects Colorado’s sovereign ability to remediate abandoned mines.

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

@EPA and the State of #Colorado release proposed plans for environmental cleanup at the Eagle Mine Superfund site

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Jennifer Chergo):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) today released two Proposed Plans for environmental remediation at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site. Both Proposed Plans focus on further reducing heavy metal contamination created by nearly one hundred years of mining activity at the site.

“The cleanup proposals represent both EPA and CDPHE’s commitment to protect human health and the environment at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site,” said Acting Regional Administrator Deb Thomas. “These plans also highlight EPA’s commitment to bringing contaminated lands back to health and reuse.”

The Eagle Mine Superfund Site is located in Eagle County, Colorado. The site is defined as the area impacted by past mining activity along and including the Eagle River between the towns of Red Cliff and Minturn. Mining activities at the Eagle Mine began in 1879 and continued until 1984. EPA listed the site on the National Priorities List (NPL), commonly known as the list of Superfund Sites, in 1986 because of the mine metals discharge, uncontrolled mine waste piles and the close proximity of the population to the mine and associated features. To better manage the site, EPA divided it into operable units (OUs). OU1 focuses on protecting surface water by reducing metals loading from the site to the Eagle River. OU2 focuses on potential human health risks from contaminated soils in the abandoned company town of Gilman. OU3 focuses on soil remediation necessary to protect human health due to planned future development by the current landowner.

EPA issued a final Record of Decision (ROD) for OU1 in 1993 and a final ROD for OU2 in 1998. Over the years, all required environmental cleanup work has occurred at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site under a number of state and federal directives. Response actions at the site addressed the major sources of metals contamination to the Eagle River, including the old and new tailings pile, rex flats and various roaster waste piles near Belden. In 2001, EPA declared all cleanup construction activities complete at the Eagle Mine Superfund Site, except for ongoing operation and maintenance of remedial features like the water treatment plant. Remediation conducted to-date resulted in significant improvement in water quality and reduction in risk to human health and the environment. Continued operation of the existing remedy, including drawdown from the mine pool and treatment at the water treatment plant, is required to maintain this condition. Contaminant concentrations in surface water and groundwater have decreased, and the aquatic ecosystem continues to show signs of recovery.

In 2009, water quality standards established by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission specifically for the Eagle Mine site became effective. Water quality monitoring in the Eagle River revealed that the water quality standards for cadmium, copper and zinc are not attained in March and April of most years. In response, the Proposed Plan released today for OU1 describes a number of alternatives designed to further reduce metals loading to the Eagle River. The preferred OU1 alternative includes the collection and treatment of groundwater from Belden and at the mouth of Rock Creek.

The Proposed Plan for OU3 presents cleanup alternatives focusing on soil remediation necessary to protect human health should future development occur. EPA created OU3, after a developer purchased a large portion of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site in 2004 with plans to develop the property into a private, residential community. The preferred alternative includes a combination of the following elements for areas at OU3 proposed for development: placing a soil exposure barrier; grading the site; placing institutional controls and conducting monitoring; and/or demolishing structures.

Public information meeting for Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site, April 20, 2017

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill Site via The Denver Post

From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Liz Forster):

Cañon City community members will meet again with Cotter Corp. on Thursday to hear about the former uranium mining company’s pilot groundwater cleanup project.

Cotter hopes the project will reduce uranium and molybdenum contaminates to safe levels, but so far, community members have had mixed feelings about the effectiveness of the program.

Doni Angell, a member of the Lincoln Park Community Advisory Group that hosts the meetings and frequently comments on Cotter projects, said the proposed project, known as the Organic Bioreactor Work Plan, will only create a more concentrated toxic environment…

The project proposes an organic method using wet hardwood mulch to remove contaminates from the groundwater, rather than synthetic chemicals that most uranium mills use. The mulch, Cotter believes, would remove oxygen from water flow areas, causing the uranium to separate from the water. Because the water is migrating down slope through the mulch, Cotter anticipates successful contamination reduction using the natural aquifer as opposed to a mechanically propelled system.

“This is the simpler solution based on our tests, and sometimes the simple solution is the better solution,” Cotter project manager Steve Cohen said, adding that capital costs for this type of project are much lower than synthetic chemical-based ones.

Community Advisory Group member Carol Dunn said she does not know enough about the details of the project to make an assessment.

She said her hope going into Thursday relies on the relationship the community has developed with Cotter – a unique aspect of the Cotter/Lincoln Park site in relation to other Superfund sites where the responsible party is usually no longer present…

The project is in the informal public comment period, which was extended by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment from April 21 to May 7 last week after a request from the Community Advisory Group. The EPA and CDPHE – which oversees activities at the site because of its designation as a Superfund site in 1984 – are reviewing the details of the project and will provide comments following the May 7 comment deadline.

At that time, the agencies will also evaluate comments received from other agencies and the public, include the Community Advisory Group…

The original groundwater contamination in the Lincoln Park community was caused by the discharging of the uranium tailings into unlined tailing ponds. The ponds were closed in the early 1980s when the EPA listed the area as a Superfund site, and the waste was excavated and put into new lined ponds. The new ponds cut off most of the groundwater contamination, and, since then, the EPA has since declared the contaminated ground water status as “under control.”

The EPA is currently administering its 5-year review of the site to ensure that the site decision remedies are continuing to protect human health and the surrounding environment. The Community Advisory Group also has contributed to that project, providing the EPA with people to interview in the community about the impacts, or lack thereof, of the remaining contamination.

(The Community Advisory Group meeting will take place on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Abbots Room at the Abbey Events Complex, 2951 East U.S. Highway 50. The meeting is open to the public.)

#AnimasRiver: Losses from #GoldKingMine spill revised downward

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)

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Aurora Sentinel:

The total now appears to be about $420 million. A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million

Farmers, business owners, residents and others initially said they suffered a staggering $1.2 billion in lost income, property damage and personal injuries from the 2015 spill at the Gold King Mine, which tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

But the total now appears to be about $420 million. A single law firm that originally filed claims totaling $900 million for a handful of New Mexico property owners told the AP it had lowered their claims to $120 million.

It’s still uncertain whether the White House and Congress — both now controlled by the GOP — are willing to pay for any of the economic losses, even though Republicans were among the most vocal in demanding the EPA make good on the harm.

Under former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, the EPA said it was prohibited by law from doing so.

Now that they’re in charge, Republicans have vowed to slash spending on the environment, leaving the prospects for compensation in doubt…

The EPA said it received 73 claims for economic damage or personal injuries. The AP obtained copies of the claims through an open records request, although many details were redacted.

The Albuquerque, New Mexico, law firm Will Ferguson & Associates filed claims totaling $900 million for about a dozen residents of Aztec, a town of about 6,100 on the Animas River in northwestern New Mexico. The residents say the contaminated water damaged their wells, soil and plumbing and caused health problems including chronic intestinal pain, rashes and memory loss.

Will Ferguson, the firm’s managing partner, said the $900 million represented an opening position, and the attorneys never expected to recover that much.

Kedar Bhasker, another lawyer with the firm, said the claims were refiled in December. Bhasker called the lower amount “more reasonable.”

In January, the EPA was still using the $1.2 billion total for all the claims, which didn’t reflect the law firm’s revisions. EPA officials didn’t immediately provide an explanation in response to emails seeking comment.

The other claims ranged from river guides asking for a few hundred dollars in lost wages to the Navajo Nation seeking $162 million for environmental and health monitoring, among other things. The state of New Mexico asked for $130 million in lost taxes and other revenue. The state and tribe also are suing the EPA separately in federal court.

Ten tourist-dependent businesses filed claims, saying they lost money when travelers stayed away. Farmers and ranchers said crops died because the river couldn’t be used to irrigate and that they had extra expenses from hauling untainted water to livestock.

Some property owners said the value of their land plummeted because of the stigma attached to the spill…

The agency noted it had already spent more than $31.3 million on the spill, including remediation work, water testing and payments to state, local and tribal agencies for their emergency response to the disaster.

But lawmakers were infuriated — especially Republicans, some of whom portrayed the spill as a glaring example of EPA mismanagement. They have pressed the new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, to reconsider the decision not to pay damages.

At his confirmation hearings, Pruitt promised to review it. The EPA didn’t immediately respond to emails and a phone call seeking comment on whether he had done so.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said he believes Pruitt “will make good on his promise to work with me and my colleagues in resolving the outstanding issues that remain from the Obama administration’s EPA.”

Colorado Democrats introduced a measure in Congress in 2015, shortly after the spill, intended to allow federal compensation for economic damages, but the bill died.

Now, Congress appears to be waiting on President Donald Trump’s administration to make its intentions known.

“We don’t know what to expect from this administration in regard to that,” said Liz Payne, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Scott Tipton of Colorado, whose district was hurt by the spill.

“It’s still a waiting game for us at this point,” she said.

Cotter Mill spill

Lincoln/Cotter Mill Park superfund site

From The Pueblo Chieftain:

Colorado Department of Public Health officials on Friday received a report of a spill that occurred at the Cotter Crop. Uranium Mill south of here.

Steve Cohen, Cotter manager, reported the spill occurred just before 8:30 a.m. as Cotter workers were trying to drain a section of pipes that connect the new and the old pipeline. A new pipeline is being installed to prevent contaminated water escaping the site.

About 5,200 gallons of water was spilled, all of which was contained within the trench and Cotter workers were able to recover most of the spilled water using a water truck, said Warren Smith, health department spokesman.

From Canon City Daily Record (Kara Mason):

It’s unclear how much “slightly contaminated” water seeped into the ground or will evaporate, but Steve Cohen, Cotter’s plant manager estimates around 3,000 to 4,000 gallons were picked up with the truck.

The spill happened when Cotter workers were attempting to drain a section of pipe where the old pipe and the new replaced pipe connect. A brittle or cracked valve is to blame, Cohen said. “Basically when the workers touched the valve it blew.”

The valve will be replaced, Cohen added.

The water was contained in the trench where pipeline construction has been ongoing for the last couple of weeks. Now, the water will return to the impoundment pond on Cotter property.

Cotter is replacing the pipeline after several leaks the last couple of years. Last August, Cotter reported a 7,000-gallon leak, which occurred over the course of 48 hours. That leak was the result of a hairline fracture in the pipleline — which is now being replaced on site.

Despite the most recent spill, Cohen said the pipeline replacement is still on track to finish the final week of March.

Cotter is required by Colorado law to report spills to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which posts the information on its website. CDPHE is expecting a report on the spill next week.

@EPA: “…abolishing the agency…I personally think it’s a good idea” — Myron Ebell

From ColoradoPolitics.com (Peter Marcus) via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The man who led transition efforts for President Trump at the EPA said the administration’s proposed budget signals a commitment to abolish the agency.

But Myron Ebell, a Colorado College graduate and an outspoken climate change skeptic who leads energy and environment policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, said it is not an overnight effort.

The administration’s preliminary 2018 budget proposal released Thursday charts a course that could lead to the end of the federal environmental agency, Ebell said, speaking to a conservative group at the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute in Denver on Thursday.

Ebell had proposed Trump make a 10 percent cut to the EPA in his first budget request. The proposal unveiled Thursday would cut the agency by significantly more, up to 31 percent. It represents about a $2.6 billion cut to the agency’s relatively small, when compared to other federal agencies, $8.2 billion budget.

The cuts would result in about 3,200 employees being laid off in the initial wave, which could include many regional staff. Denver is home to Region 8 headquarters, a multi-state jurisdiction that covers much of the Intermountain West, which employs about 500 people.

“I think there’s a serious commitment here to draining the swamp,” Ebell, calling upon a popular Trump campaign mantra, said to applause.

The preliminary budget request would eliminate as much as a fifth of the agency’s workforce, which stands at around 15,000. More than 50 programs would be eliminated, including energy grants that help to fight air pollution. Scientific research would also face massive cuts.

Environmental interests had feared Trump’s budget proposal would start to chip away at the EPA, ultimately leading to closure. News of the preliminary budget sent many into a tailspin, as it potentially signals a much faster outcome.

Trump also proposed a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department and a 5.6 percent cut to the Department of Energy.

“The president’s budget is a moral document, and President Trump has shown us exactly where he stands. These unprecedented cuts will hamper the ability of our park rangers, scientists, those who enforce the law against polluters, and other Coloradans from doing their important work,” said Jessica Goad, spokeswoman for Conservation Colorado.

“This is not just cutting the fat, this is a complete butchering of programs and jobs that are critical to Colorado.”

The move leaves specific uncertainty in Colorado, where the EPA has promised to cleanup toxic leaking mines that are spilling into the Animas River in Durango. The Gold King Mine spill in August 2015 was triggered by an EPA engineering error, causing about 3 million gallons of mustard yellow sludge to pour into the river.

In the aftermath of the spill, the EPA declared the area a Superfund site, which allows it to spend significant resources to implement a long-term water quality cleanup effort. Some worry those efforts would be diminished by reductions at the EPA.

But Ebell said a pushback to the EPA’s “regulatory rampage” does not mean that environmental controls would go away. He said regulations would still be enforced – especially on the state level – including around Superfund sites and clean drinking water.

“The question is, why do we need 15,000 people working for the EPA?” asked Ebell. “I understand why we need some … Maybe abolishing the agency is something that President Trump … would want to have a discussion about … I personally think it’s a good idea.”

Busting up the EPA is not a good idea, Myron.

Across party lines, Western governors see a partner in Pruitt — @COindependent

Colorado abandoned mines

From The High Country News (Elizabeth Shogren) via The Colorado Independent:

Just a few days in office, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency hosted an early Sunday morning breakfast for 11 Western governors. Scott Pruitt told them face-to-face what he’s said repeatedly since he was nominated: Under his leadership, the EPA will defer to states much more than it has in the recent past.

Pruitt made a similar vow to profoundly transform the agency the day before at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “We’re going to once again pay attention to the states across this country,” Pruitt told a gathering of Republicans. “The future ain’t what it used to be at the EPA.”

This message resonated with the Western governors, regardless of their political affiliations, according to several members of the governors’ staffs. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-Independent whose state is 66 percent federal land, was “encouraged by (Pruitt’s) emphasis on state’s rights,” Grace Jang, Walker’s communications director, says.

The Western governors’ unanimity is striking in an era of intense partisanship and reflects the commitment they have to work together through the Western Governors’ Association. The breakfast was an annual event of that group, a rare hub of bipartisanship and consensus building in a polarized nation. The governors are in the midst of a major effort to transform the relationship between the federal and state governments to give them more input into federal regulations.

“The Republican governors were on the same page with their Democratic colleagues in telling Pruitt, we want it to be a partnership,” says John Swartout, senior policy advisor to Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. “We haven’t been happy that the EPA hasn’t always treated us as a full partner. We can make progress together.”

As they ate scrambled eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and donuts at a square table in EPA’s Washington, DC, headquarters, the governors one-by-one told Pruitt their priorities. Over the course of two hours, many mentioned their desire to have more sway over federal environmental regulations.

Western governors have collaborated for about 100 years. Their desire to present a unified voice to Washington is driven in part because of the vast amount of federal land in the West, which means decisions made in Washington have acute impacts on their states’ economies. “It’s largely a function of being so distant from Washington and needing to amplify their distant voices,” said Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the group.

In the Western Governors’ Association, the governors focus on shared objectives and pass joint resolutions. In December, for instance, they passed a resolution calling for a greater role in crafting federal regulations and in other decisions by the federal government. Other resolutions present their consensus positions on a wide range of issues, including endangered species, wildfire fire management, invasive species and abandoned mine cleanups.

Western governors from both parties felt the Obama administration’s EPA failed to adequately consult the states as it crafted some important environmental regulations, such as the 2015 Clean Water Rule. (That rule was temporarily blocked in 2015, pending resolution of a court challenge brought by industry groups and 31 states.) “Had the EPA worked with us on the rule upfront it could have been a better rule,” Swartout says. EPA did address some comments the governors made about how the proposed rule impinged on state authority over water management, but not all of them.

Just this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to launch a rollback of that rule and, until it’s rewritten, limit federal oversight to waterways that are navigable, leaving the rest to the states. Pruitt announced that he would rescind the Obama rule and write a new one that “restores the states’ important role in the regulation of water.”

“We believe (Pruitt’s EPA) will partner with states in a way that’s meaningful; in a way that quite frankly the previous administration did not,” says Nephi Cole, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor policy.

Many scholars caution that undoing that rule will be particularly detrimental in the arid West, where so many small streams and those that run only intermittently are crucially important for wildlife and water quality and quantity. States tend to be more responsive to local industries, because of the benefits they bring to the economy like jobs and tax revenue.

But Cole argues that it’s a “false narrative” to suggest that giving states more control equates to allowing more pollution and less environmental protection. In another resolution adopted in December, Western governors assert that they want to be the ones to decide how to balance the needs of industry in their states and the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

During the two-hour breakfast, Pruitt spent most of the time listening to governors. (Most years, the secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, Energy and other cabinet members important to Western states attend the breakfast, but as of Sunday, Pruitt was the only one of those who had been confirmed by the Senate.) Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged Pruitt to personally engage in the Gold King Mine controversy. A 2015 blowout at the mine unleashed a surge of acid mine drainage down the Animas River. Pruitt committed to visiting Colorado and meeting with local and state officials, Swartout says.
A big priority for some governors is that the EPA continues to negotiate settlements with companies responsible for creating toxic waste sites covered under Superfund.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, urged Pruitt to move forward with the plan to clean up the Portland Harbor, a Superfund site, so the city can revitalize the waterfront and create jobs. She also stressed her state’s continued commitment to fighting climate change, according to her press secretary, Bryan Hockaday.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who heads the Western Governors’ Association, wants Pruitt to keep the pressure on to finally reach a settlement on the Superfund sites in and around Butte, Montana, where historic copper mining and smelting left behind the nation’s largest toxic waste site, according to his press secretary, Marissa Perry. After many years, negotiations between the EPA and Atlantic Richfield Corporation, owned by BP, have picked up steam. Bullock wants to make sure the momentum isn’t lost.

While the Western governors break out of the hyper-partisanship that’s plagued other branches of government and see some opportunity to work with Pruitt, potential major budget cuts to the EPA may give Pruitt a lot less leeway to respond to state needs.

This week, the White House sent agencies an outline of the president’s draft budget that reportedly would gut the EPA’s $8 billion budget, cutting by 30 percent the grants it sends to the states to implement air, water and toxic waste regulations. Pruitt told E&E News that he’s asking the White House to retain more funding for the states to improve air quality, clean up Superfund sites and improve aging water and wastewater infrastructure. Programs slated for zero funding include grants to clean up abandoned industrial sites and funding to bring safe drinking water and sewer systems to Native villages in Alaska, according to the Washington Post. More details on the budget are expected later this month. It’s not clear if the White House can win approval for its vision of a much smaller EPA.

The proof of whether the governors and Pruitt will be able to work together will emerge in coming months, as the Trump administration pursues its agenda and rolls back existing rules. “We’re trying to work with him. We need to work with the federal government,” Swartout says. “It’s too early to know. We have to see how it all plays out. It’s just speculation at this point.”

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington. This story originally appeared in High Country News on March 3, 2017.