Local groups call for plugging of discharging mines
Todd Hennis, owner of the Gold King Mine, is not happy about the proposed Superfund cleanup around Silverton, saying the suggestion to plug more mines only redistributes potentially toxic water and doesn’t solve the problem…
In December, two community groups formed to help guide the Superfund process – the Citizens Advisory Group and the Silverton-San Juan County Planning Group – submitted letters to the EPA with a similar recommendation.
The main message: focus on the sites – namely the Gold King, American Tunnel, Mogul and Red & Bonita – which are contributing the most amount of contaminated metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.
According to data from the now-defunct Animas River Stakeholders Group, almost half of all metal loading from the 120 draining mines sampled around Silverton comes from these four sources.
And the suggested solution? Place more bulkheads.
“While currently the (Bonita Peak) enjoys high-priority status as a Superfund site, the (community group) is quite concerned its priority could change in the future,” the CAG wrote. “… Bulkheads can be funded with manageable, annual budgeting, unlike a large water treatment facility, which may need a big financial infusion all at once.”
Hennis, for his part, has long maintained that the original bulkheads placed on the American Tunnel caused his mines to start to discharge mine wastewater. Sunnyside Gold has adamantly denied the Sunnyside Mine is connected geologically to Hennis’ mines.
Regardless, Hennis said he was “shocked and appalled” to learn the community groups were in favor of more bulkheads as a main treatment option.
“Bulkheading doesn’t work,” Hennis wrote. “It appears all they accomplished in the long term was to re-distribute acid mine water flows elsewhere, and in the same volume as the original problem.”
Hennis says that if the Gold King and Red & Bonita are plugged, it could shift water back into the American Tunnel, where bulkheads there could be overwhelmed.
“Rolling the dice on a potential catastrophic failure of the American Tunnel bulkheads makes no sense whatsoever,” he said. “If a release of 3 million gallons of mine water from the Gold King raised absolute havoc downstream, a potential release of billions of gallons from the Sunnyside Mine Pool would have unthinkable consequences.”
Hennis instead said the only long-term solution would be to drain the Sunnyside Mine pool, treat the water and shut off spots where water gets into the Sunnyside Mine network.
But this could be costly.
Richard Mylott, spokesman for EPA, said the agency is working to understand the impacts that bulkheading would have on water quality and water levels within the Cement Creek area…
Mylott said EPA has installed several wells to monitor the groundwater system when it tests the closure of the Red & Bonita.
Gold was panned throughout 1870 until winter arrived. The following spring a new rush of prospectors came into the area, but poor yields discouraged most, and by the end of the summer, they left the area.
[J.L. Wightman] plus two others remained and took their gold dust to Denver, receiving $170.
They did not give up and when the source of the gold was discovered, it led to the establishment of Summitville and underground mining.
A post office opened in 1876, and the town grew to become the largest gold producing camp in Colorado. The town’s population fluctuated from 300 to 600, enough to support 14 saloons and the publication of the Summitville Nugget…
Summitville was reborn when large-scale mining to remove low-grade ore resumed in 1934. The post office reopened, and 70 new homes were constructed of milled lumber along with a bathhouse, bunkhouses and large dining hall. Summitville also got its own school and its population swelled to an estimated 1,500.
The mine continued to operate, but due to the harsh weather and deterioration of its buildings, Summitville was again abandoned. Miners and mill workers were brought in by bus from Del Norte…
Mining ended in 1992 after a cease and desist order by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Part of the problem was overflow from the heap leach ponds combined with leaks in the liner allowing potassium cyanide to flow into the nearby stream.
A much bigger problem, however, was the toxic contents of the water coming from the open pit mine and old abandoned tunnels. The water in this area is naturally acidic and for that reason, it dissolves the metals found in the ground and in waste rock. The combination rendered the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River void of aquatic life for many miles.
The mine owner, Canadian Galactic Resources, soon filed for bankruptcy.
The Environmental Protection Agency was left holding the bag for the cleanup to the tune of around $255 million including $18 million for a water treatment plant.
Galactic Resources paid around $30 million in a settlement. Colorado has now taken over the operation of the plant costing taxpayers about $2 million per year potentially forever.
A visitor to Summitville will see about two dozen abandoned buildings sitting in a meadow and with a beautiful backdrop of high mountains. The ramshackle cabins are split into two groups: one by the road and the other on the hillside.
A statewide anti-fracking group looked to Aurora when crafting more efforts to keep fossil fuel drilling away from homes and schools — and now, Superfund sites.
Activist group Colorado Rising submitted six possible ballot initiatives to the Secretary of State’s office earlier this week. Voters could decide in November on one these six proposals. All are variations of Colorado Rising’s earlier ballot initiative to increase drilling setbacks in 2018, Proposition 112, which voters turned down by a wide margin.
The next year, however, Senate Bill 181 was passed into law, ceding regulation to local governments, now able to increase setback distances and more…
Currently, the statewide setback between drilling and homes is 500 feet, but local governments, such as Aurora and other counties or municipalities, have the power to increase that distance.
Now, Colorado Rising wants to protect Superfund sites from drilling — a move partially inspired by drilling around the Lowry Landfill Superfund site in Aurora, said spokeswoman Anne Lee Foster.
The 507-acre Superfund site contained about 138 million gallons of toxic waste dumped there for decades, although some has leaked out in what scientists call a “plume.” Activists fear more drilling could disrupt the area geology and release waste.
Aurora Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who represents the region near the Lowry Landfill, said she supports the decision to include Superfund sites in the list of possible ballot initiatives. Of the six proposed initiatives, four would create a 2,500-foot buffer zone between well pads and Superfund sites.
A Sentinel review did not find active oil and gas wells within the proposed buffer zone from the Lowry Landfill border.
The closet oil and gas well is about 2 miles away from the site boundary, according to Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission data. However, the buffer zone proposals would still allow for horizontal drilling underneath the Lowry Landfill surface and toxic waste if the well was drilled outside the buffer.
From the Associated Press (Ellen Nickmeyer, Matthew Brown, and Ed White) via The Aurora Sentinel:
The Trump administration has built up the biggest backlog of unfunded toxic Superfund cleanup projects in at least 15 years, nearly triple the number that were stalled for lack of money in the Obama era, according to 2019 figures quietly released by the Environmental Protection Agency over the winter holidays.
The accumulation of Superfund projects that are ready to go except for money comes as the Trump administration routinely proposes funding cuts for Superfund and for the EPA in general. The four-decade-old Superfund program is meant to tackle some of the most heavily contaminated sites in the U.S. and Trump has declared it a priority even while seeking to shrink its budget…
The unfunded projects are in 17 states and Puerto Rico. They range from abandoned mines that discharged heavy metals and arsenic in the West to an old wood pulp site in Mississippi and a defunct dry cleaner that released toxic solvents in North Carolina…
two former EPA officials whose work dealt with Superfund oversight said the growing backlog of stalled Superfund projects under the Trump administration, and steady or ebbing numbers of cleanup construction projects completed, point to a different picture.
“They’re misleading Congress and the public about the funds that are needed to really protect the public from exposure to the toxic chemicals,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who worked for 30 years at EPA, including as director of science and technology in the water office, before retiring in 2017. ”It’s detrimental.”
This is a “regulatory failure,” said Judith Enck, who served as the EPA’s regional northeastern U.S. administrator under President Barack Obama…
Asked what the EPA spent money on instead, and why the agency didn’t ask Congress for more to deal with the growing backlog, EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage offered few specifics Thursday.
The EPA’s Superfund program “will continue to prioritize new construction projects based on which sites present the greatest risk to human health and the environment,” Sauerhage said in an email. “Further, the agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.”
She pointed to some areas where Trump’s Superfund effort was more on par with that of his predecessors. Long-term remedial efforts to make sure contamination didn’t rebound at existing Superfund sites, for example, averaged 64 a year under Trump. That compares with an average of 60 a year in Obama’s last five years.
But overall, the backlog of 34 unfunded projects is up from only 12 in 2016, Obama’s last year , and the most at least since 2004.
At the site of another of 2019’s unfunded Superfund projects, Montana’s Upper Tenmile mining region, which includes the community of Rimini and a subdivision downstream, the EPA has been providing bottled water to residents for the past decade in response to water supplies polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines.
Pollution still flows from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek more than 20 years after the area was added to the Superfund list.
About 6 miles from Rimini in the rural Landmark subdivision is a huge pile of contaminated soil that was removed from residential yards. It was supposed to be hauled away but now has weeds growing over it after sitting untouched for several years, said Patrick Keim, who lives nearby…
EPA has been one of the main focuses of Trump’s efforts to cut federal regulations and oversight that he sees as burdening businesses. Trump each year has asked Congress for nearly one-third cuts in EPA’s budget, and has sought much smaller cuts for Superfund.
Congress has kept both levels of funding roughly even.
The EPA Annual Meeting reporting on activities at the Superfund site will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Abbots Room, Abbey Conference Center. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Environmental Protection Agency officials will be present as well as representatives of Colorado Legacy Land to answer questions and take comments from Fremont County residents. The Lincoln Park neighborhood and the site of the former Cotter uranium mill south of Cañon City were declared a Superfund site in 1984 due to the widespread groundwater and soils contamination from the operation of the mill.
The September meeting of the Community Advisory Group for the Lincoln Park Cotter Superfund site was held Sept. 19 at the Garden Park Room.
Updates on early cleanup actions included the TCE (trichloroethylene) plume near the Shadow Hills Golf Club. The Work Plan was approved in July 2019 by the agencies. Testing of all the soil borings is complete and installation of monitoring wells began Sept. 26.
Emily Tracy, chairperson of the Community Advisory Group, states “Now that early actions toward the cleanup of the Lincoln Park Site are moving forward under the ownership of Colorado Legacy Land, the community will be able to have critical input in the process. At the meeting, you will be able to ask why these actions are being taken and how the physical action of removal, moving soils, pumping water from the primary impoundment will move the cleanup toward the Remedial Investigation of the site. That is the next step in the EPA CERCLA process which may be proposed as early as next year.”
Tracy continued: “It should be remembered that 5-6 million tons of toxic materials sit in the 157-acre impoundment ponds. According to past estimates, 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water and 1.5 million tons of contaminated soils sit waiting for cleanup, and still threaten our community if anything goes wrong.”
“If a Lincoln Park resident has a well, they are advised not to use it because of contamination from the uranium mill. Wouldn’t it be great to have the use of that water?” asks CAG member Sharyn Cunningham, who had to stop using her wells many years ago. “If there is any hope for cleaning up our Lincoln Park wells, we all need to make sure it is done and done right!”
On September 20th, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a partial deletion of the Vasquez Boulevard/Interstate 70 (VB/I-70) Superfund site in Denver, Colorado from the National Priorities List (NPL) of the nation’s most contaminated sites. EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have determined that all required cleanup activities are complete in the area proposed for deletion.
“The deletion of this area from the Superfund list represents the culmination of two decades of efforts to sample, clean up and restore residential yards affected by lead and arsenic contamination in north Denver,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “We share this residential cleanup achievement with our partners at the State of Colorado, the City of Denver and the local community.”
Under the Trump administration, EPA’s Superfund program has reemerged as a priority to fulfill and strengthen the agency’s core mission of protecting human health and the environment. In fiscal year 2018, EPA deleted all or part of 22 sites from the Superfund’s NPL, the largest number of deletions in one year since FY 2005 and a significant increase over the past few years.
EPA is finalizing the deletion of the residential area of the VB/I-70 Superfund site, also called Operable Unit 1, based on a determination that no further action is needed to protect human health and the environment. EPA received public comments on the proposed deletion from February 6th to April 8th 2019 and prepared a responsiveness summary to those comments, which is available online at http://www.regulations.gov (Docket # EPA-HQ-SFUND-1999-0010) or at the Valdez-Perry Branch Library, 4690 Vine Street, Denver, Colo.
The area will continue to be subject to regular EPA review for protectiveness. EPA will continue to address contamination concerns at remaining portions of the VB/I-70 site, which includes the locations of two former smelters. EPA proposed the deletion of Operable Unit 1 earlier this year and concluded a public comment period in March.
The VB/I-70 Superfund site includes four square miles in north Denver, including the Cole, Clayton, Swansea/Elyria, southwest Globeville and northern Curtis Park neighborhoods. EPA placed the site on the NPL in 1999 due to metals contamination, mainly lead and arsenic, associated with historic smelter operations in the area. In 2003, EPA selected a remedy for residential properties that included extensive soil sampling, soil removal, and a community health program. In completing that work, EPA has sampled more than 4,500 residential yards and cleaned up more than 800.
Historically, the affected north-Denver neighborhoods were a major smelting center for the Rocky Mountain West. Two smelting plants—Omaha & Grant and Argo—operated at the site for varying lengths of time, beginning as early as the 1870s, refining gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc. As a result, heavy metals were deposited in area soils at levels that, in some cases, posed a health risk to residents. Groundwater impacted at the former smelter locations is currently being addressed as Operable Units 2 and 3 of the VB/I-70 Superfund site.
For two decades, hydrogeologist Lee Pivonka has monitored toxic waste at and around the Superfund site for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
He’s one of the most prominent voices in the state calling for more scrutiny of the site.
Pivonka told Sentinel Colorado that pollution testing wells — not private wells for drinking — north of the Superfund site boundary were found to have unacceptably high levels of contamination as far back as 1995, when city councillors gave Murphy Creek the green light. Chemicals in many wells have never returned to acceptable levels, he said.
In 2002, EPA became concerned with a chemical called 1,4 dioxane. The stuff is widely found in trace amounts in household products such as detergents and shampoos. It is probably a carcinogen if ingested in high-enough concentrations through drinking contaminated water, the EPA says, but most people will not be exposed to it that way in their lifetimes. The New York state legislature recently passed a ban on products with more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane. The bill is pending Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature.
For Murphy Creek golfers teeing off and residents, the danger is low, the WSDs said.
Further to their point, it’s unheard of for golfers to drink the creek water. The course itself, like the Murphy Creek neighborhood, is irrigated with clean City of Aurora water.
But scientists have also monitored 1,4 dioxane because it moves quickly in water. They believe that tracking the chemical could indicate other toxic waste following it.
As the state government’s lead researcher for the site, Pivonka has watched for the last 20 years and conducted more evidence about the leaking waste. In 2015, he co-authored a lengthy analysis to try and spur new fixes.
That paper mapped underground chemicals spreading down the Murphy Creek wash past East Jewell Avenue, below the edge of the Murphy Creek Golf Course and the community itself.
The paper estimated that 425.6 million gallons of contaminated water has leaked from the site in the plume, according to data from about a decade earlier. It’s a worrisome prospect for homes near the plume and on well water, such as the Raders’.
In the paper, Pivonka recommended that the EPA and the polluters try something new. The EPA recently heeded his suggestion that EPA stop injecting huge amounts of treated water north of the site.
Water was treated for various chemicals except for 1,4 dioxane, and pumped north of the site until the early 2000s. The WSDs then began treating water for 1,4 dioxane and injecting that north of the site until October 2018.
But while Pivonka and others conduct their own studies, the EPA and polluters have relied on separate studies and often come to separate conclusions. The debate over how and when the pollution has spread is rooted in a parallel universe of research at the EPA.
That agency’s conclusions, however, are often based on research commissioned by the WSDs.
The WSDs told Sentinel Colorado that, based on their information and EPA conclusions, the plan for containing the waste is currently protecting the public.
Karen Crummy of public relations firm BluePrint Strategies responded to Sentinel Colorado as the WSD spokeswoman. Crummy is routinely a spokesperson for oil and gas industry political causes.
The group believes the plume exists but is shrinking, pointing to data from a commissioned 2018 study indicating decreases in 1,4 dioxane levels at various locations north of the site.
Dave Wilmoth, a City and County of Denver official and environmental engineer, recently toured the site. He is a site expert representing Denver in the WSD group…
Wilmoth said the plan in place is working effectively. The contamination north of the site is little more than trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane, he said, blaming the outdated practice of dumping water contaminated with the stuff beyond the site’s northern barrier wall.
“No regulations,” he said of 1,4 dioxane. “No one knew.”
But that was almost two decades ago.
EPA spokesperson Rich Mylott said the containment plan is “working effectively to prevent off-site exposure to contaminants.”
However, the EPA is not sure that shallow and deep groundwater is safe from contamination, and directed the WSDs to commission their own studies of possible contamination. Two years ago, the agency declined to say in a multi-year study and report whether the site was adequately protecting the public.
The possible contamination of aquifers is a huge concern for Pivonka and Rader.
Two aquifers, the Denver and Dawson, overlap just north of the site where the plume is contaminating surface waters. The Dawson formation lies above the Denver, a 3,000-square mile table of water, separated by a leaky barrier of earth.
Both are important sources of drinking water for the dry Front Range. Serious contamination would threaten a key resource that scientists believe will become more scarce in the decades to come.
The EPA also acknowledges the existence of the surface water plume in the review but said the WSDs need to conduct more studies before it creates a plan.
In the years since, the polluters’ group has been doing just that. They say they are working to get the additional data EPA needs to again find the site remedy “effective and protective.”
The WSDs said it could also consider new solutions, such as drilling new monitoring wells — in addition to the 500 that already exist — changing how they monitor the groundwater, and studying the impact of injecting water north of the site.
The prospect of polluters running their own studies for the EPA worries Bonnie Rader, who is now chairing the site Community Advisory Group.
The group has long received funds from the EPA to hire out its own, independent contractors to study the pollution.
She doesn’t trust the polluters nor the EPA to reach their own conclusions.
The CAG consultant, McGinnis and Associates, reviewed a polluter-funded study of the site in 2013. Rader sent the review to a lead scientist at the EPA, who analyzed the study line-by-line, finding inaccuracies and omissions. The errors include misrepresenting levels of 1,4 dioxane in test wells.
McGinnis also believes the plume is growing, not shrinking.
It’s emblematic of an information gap that strains relationships between the various consultants and agencies.
Different studies come to different conclusions, frustrating all parties involved. Technical disagreements can turn sharky in tone.
Generally, the EPA and polluters believe they should stay the course, while CDPHE and the citizen-hired McGinnis and Associates think more should be done to contain and clean up the waste.
The EPA and polluters can press ahead with their own plans, but area residents and their consultants are extremely concerned about the leaking waste and continue to pressure them.
In the 2017 review, EPA staffers conducted interviews with locals. “All private citizens interviewed are concerned about groundwater contamination and the use of private residential wells,” the report says.
The gulf between the parties has also widened because of little trust and bad communication.
Four years after his paper’s findings, Pivonka said the EPA and polluters “have not been receptive to the recommendations, and continue the same approach to the site.”
Rader is disillusioned with the WSDs and their studies. She said she’s been hearing the same old reassurances for the last 30 years while the waste spreads north, closer to her home.
The polluters’ trust disagrees with the notion that they have not listened to residents, Crummy said. She said WSD representatives regularly attend meetings with locals.
The mass of evidence, varying conclusions and convictions on all sides leaves residents with vague concerns at best but nightmares at worse about the situation actually harming people…
…the mere possibility of pollution has encouraged new, suburban residents to forge an alliance with Rader and other environmental crusaders. While a subdivision lies close to the spreading plume, they are vehemently opposed to a new plan to house thousands of new residents on its doorstep, for reasons of their own…
The Superfund site and its leaking waste was not news to [Nicole] Johnston, who represents the eastern frontier region of the city. She actually became involved in the CAG herself before running for city council, and was interviewed in the EPA’s 2017 review study that downgraded the protectiveness of the site.
She said that 1,4 dioxane may not even be her biggest concern, compared to other chemicals dumped in the Superfund site.
“They put some really, really bad things in there,” she said. “Those other, really bad chemicals could be right behind it.”
Johnston met with Rep. Jason Crow that April afternoon when he visited the plume.
She said that, although the plume concerns her very much, the possibility of two injection wells about five miles from the site could dramatically change the area’s geology.
The wells, proposed by Wyoming- and Denver-based Expedition Water Solutions, would flush mostly saltwater and other by-products from oil and gas extraction more than 10,000 feet below the surface.
Injection wells are known to cause earthquakes in some circumstances, according to the United States Geological Survey.
But the science that the Superfund site geology could be disrupted is far from certain.
Zach Neal, a spokesperson for EWS, said the proposed location was the only possible place for the injection wells because of county zoning restrictions.
He added that the wells would be safely built and regulated. EWS would inject the waste far deeper below the surface than the Denver and Dawson aquifers.
Arapahoe County officials told Sentinel Colorado that staff are still reviewing the applications, and the state government agency charged with reviewing proposals has not taken action since EWS filed its paperwork in February.
Arapahoe County Commissioner Jeff Baker represents the Superfund site area and the residents that live in the unincorporated county. He said he’s also worried about the injection well permits and will be scrutinizing them, he said.
But Baker said he is also open to considering whether the solution to keeping residents safe from the Lowry Landfill should still be trying to contain the waste. He’s open to discussing a plan to clean up the waste, once and for all.
It’s an idea that Bonnie Rader has clamored for during the last 50 years.