Lowry Landfill Superfund Site update

Lowry Landfill 2008

From The Aurora Sentinel (Grand Stringer):

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.

Dioxine plume Lowry Landfill via The Denver Post.

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.

#AnimasRiver: “@EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project” — Kevin Roach

Prior to mining, snowmelt and rain seep into natural cracks and fractures, eventually emerging as a freshwater spring (usually). Graphic credit: Jonathan Thompson

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Sunnyside Gold Corp. is refusing to carry out work ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton.

“Enough is enough,” Kevin Roach, with Sunnyside Gold, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald. “EPA has a clear conflict of interest and has wrongfully targeted SGC (Sunnyside Gold Corp.) … (and) SGC will no longer be a pawn in this never-ending science project.”

In June, the EPA ordered Sunnyside Gold to install five groundwater wells and two meteorological stations at mining sites around the headwaters of the Animas River as part of the investigation into the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site…

Sunnyside Gold has denied any responsibility but has been willing to work with the EPA in limited ways during the past three years. On Tuesday, however, Roach sent a letter to EPA staff saying Sunnyside Gold “declines to undertake the work,” arguing the company no longer has any liability for mining pollution issues in the Animas River watershed.

Peterson said Wednesday morning that EPA has not yet received the complete letter from Sunnyside Gold…

In 1996, Sunnyside Gold entered an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three plugs to stem the flow of acid drainage out of the American Tunnel, which served as the transportation route for ore, as well as mine runoff, from the Sunnyside Mine to facilities at Gladstone, north of Silverton.

By 2001, however, it was thought the water had backed up and reached capacity within the Sunnyside Mine network. Now, several researchers and experts familiar with the basin believe water from the Sunnyside Mine pool is spilling into adjacent mines, like the Gold King.

Sunnyside Gold, which was purchased by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. in 2003, has adamantly denied that its mine pool is the cause of discharge from other mines, saying there is no factual evidence for the assertion.

Much of the work EPA ordered Sunnyside to do, however, seeks to gain more insight into the issue. EPA, too, intends to drill into the American Tunnel this month to better understand groundwater conditions in the area.

Earlier this year, Sunnyside Gold called for the EPA to be recused from leading the Superfund cleanup, arguing it is a conflict of interest for the agency to do so after it caused the blowout at the Gold King Mine in August 2015.

EPA’s Peterson said at the time the agency “will continue to require the company to take actions to ensure that financial responsibility for cleanup is not shifted to taxpayers.”

Update on #AnimasRiver water quality, Gold Medal Waters status

Screen shot of Animas River debris flow July 2018 aftermath of 416 Fire (CBS Denver).

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo) via The Cortez Journal:

Colorado has more than 300 miles of streams with Gold Medal status, which is intended to highlight the state’s rivers and creeks that provide outstanding fishing opportunities.

To qualify, a waterway must meet two criteria: have a minimum of 60 pounds of trout per acre and at least 12 trout measuring 14 inches or longer.

In 1996, a 4-mile stretch of the Animas River from the confluence of Lightner Creek down to the Purple Cliffs by Home Depot gained the Gold Medal tag and, ever since, has been marketed as a premier destination for fishing…

The water quality issues in the Animas are complex, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife based in Durango.

A combination of factors – heavy metals leeching from abandoned mines in the Animas headwaters around Silverton, above-average water temperatures, sediment loading and urban runoff – have had a detrimental impact on aquatic life.

As a result, fish in the Animas River are unable to naturally reproduce, and the waterway must rely on annual stocking of rainbow and brown trout by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

In 2014, the Animas River started showing signs it was not meeting Gold Medal criteria, when a fish survey found a disappearance of large, quality-size trout in the stretch.

It was thought aquatic life would take a devastating hit from the Gold King Mine spill in 2015, which sent an estimated 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River. Ultimately, however, subsequent studies showed the tainted waters had no effect on fish.

But in 2018, “everything went to hell,” White said.

Fish and other aquatic life were already stressed from low flows and high water temperatures when torrential rains in July 2018 hit the burn scar of the 416 Fire, sending a torrent of black mud and ash down the Animas River, which killed most of the fish in the waterway downstream of Hermosa Creek.

White said it may take up to four years to again meet Gold Medal standards in the Animas as the river recovers. Still, there’s been no discussion about delisting the impaired waterway, he said…

…Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, has said it generally takes one to 10 years for a watershed to recover after a wildfire, but because only a small percentage of the 416 Fire burned at high intensity, he expects the timeline for recovery to be on the short end.

And, many wildlife officials, like Japhet and White, are hopeful the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup of mines around Silverton will help with metal contamination issues. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the work in the Bonita Peak Mining District will reduce the frequency of elevated metals in the Animas River, as well as the pulses of metals the agency suspects are being released from the mines.

White said this year’s high runoff will do wonders for aquatic life in the long run. He said wildlife officials plan to stock the Animas this summer and early fall.

@EPA to drill into the American Tunnel to assess water levels and underground interconnections #AnimasRiver

American Tunnel Terry Portal via MinDat.org

From the Associated Press via Colorado Public Radio:

The EPA said it will drill into the American Tunnel next month to measure water levels and investigate how the passage is connected to other shafts.

The agency is looking for ways to stop or treat contaminated water pouring into rivers from old mine sites in the Bonita Peak Superfund area north of Silverton…

The EPA said it would follow strict safety guidelines when drilling the test well into the American Tunnel.

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 provides update on Bonita Peak Superfund site water treatment plant and sampling data — Global Mining Review #AnimasRiver

The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

From the EPA via Global Mining Review:

Yesterday, EPA released preliminary water quality sampling data related to the temporary shutdown of the interim water treatment plant at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site at Gladstone (Colorado). EPA’s analysis confirms that there were no adverse impacts to downstream drinking water or agricultural users associated with the short-term shutdown of the plant based on data that indicate minimal to no changes in water quality at sampling points downstream of Silverton in Durango. There were no observed impacts to aquatic life. Any impacts to aquatic life would be limited to the Animas River near Silverton.

The water treatment plant went offline on the evening of 14 March due to extreme weather conditions resulting in a power surge that tripped critical circuit breakers at the facility. The same weather event triggered an avalanche and several snow slides across the county road and prevented access to the plant. After a period of less than 48 hours, EPA brought plant back online and resumed normal operations on the afternoon of 16 March.

“EPA appreciates the efforts of our partners in San Juan County Colorado and the water plant operators for working quickly to minimise the length of time the facility was out of operation and limit any localised impacts to water quality,” said EPA Regional Administrator Doug Benevento.

“During and after the treatment plant shutdown, real time measurements of turbidity, pH and electrical conductivity from sondes in the Animas River provided no indication that downstream water users would be adversely impacted,” said New Mexico Environment Department Chief Scientist Dennis McQuillan.

“EPA’s laboratory test results confirm the interpretation of real time sonde data.”

EPA collected water samples at four locations along the Animas River from Cement Creek to Durango from 15 – 21 March. A preliminary analysis of the sampling data from 15 – 20 March shows a measurable elevation of metals concentrations, particularly copper, at the confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River, about six miles below Gladstone. Levels of metals were slightly elevated at a location on the Animas River approximately one mile south of Silverton.

Heavy metal concentrations in the Animas River at two sampling locations in Durango were well within the range of concentrations previously observed when the treatment plant is operating. The detections of low concentrations of metals in the Animas River may be associated with the temporary closure of the plant, but they may also be related to several other factors that should be considered when evaluating these data.

These include snow and avalanche debris being deposited in Cement Creek, the Animas River and local waterways which potentially introduced metals containing soils and sediments. There is also the potential for the ongoing rain and runoff at lower elevations to mobilise metals containing sediments from the 416 fire at locations below the confluence of Hermosa Creek and the Animas River.

Preliminary data can be viewed at https://response.epa.gov/GladstoneWTP. Data from samples collected on 21 March will available on this website later this week.

Mining industry water #pollution: “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer” — Amanda Goodin

From The Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

Every day many millions of gallons of water loaded with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals flow from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. and into surrounding lakes and streams without being treated, The Associated Press has found.

That torrent is poisoning aquatic life and tainting drinking water sources in Montana, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and at least five other states.

The pollution is a legacy of how the mining industry was allowed to operate in the U.S. for more than a century. Companies that built mines for silver, lead, gold and other “hardrock” minerals could move on once they were no longer profitable, leaving behind tainted water that still leaks out of the mines or is cleaned up at taxpayer expense.

Using data from public records requests and independent researchers, the AP examined 43 mining sites under federal oversight, some containing dozens or even hundreds of individual mines.

The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons (189 million liters) of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon (76-million-liter) daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.

The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years, often with little hope for reimbursement…

At many mines, the pollution has continued decades after their enlistment in the federal Superfund cleanup program for the nation’s most hazardous sites, which faces sharp cuts under President Donald Trump…

TAINTED WELLS

In mountains outside the Montana capital of Helena, about 30 households can’t drink their tap water because groundwater was polluted by about 150 abandoned gold, lead and copper mines that operated from the 1870s until 1953.

The community of Rimini was added to the Superfund list in 1999. Contaminated soil in residents’ yards was replaced, and the EPA has provided bottled water for a decade. But polluted water still pours from the mines and into Upper Tenmile Creek…

Estimates of the number of such abandoned mine sites range from 161,000 in 12 western states to as many as 500,000 nationwide. At least 33,000 have degraded the environment, according to the Government Accountability Office, and thousands more are discovered every year.

Officials have yet to complete work including basic risk analyses on about 80 percent of abandoned mining sites on federal lands. Most are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which under Trump is seeking to consolidate mine cleanups with another program and cut their combined 2019 spending from $35 million to $13 million.

PERPETUAL POLLUTION

Problems at some sites are intractable.

Among them:

— In eastern Oklahoma’s Tar Creek mining district, waterways are devoid of life and elevated lead levels persist in the blood of children despite a two-decade effort to clean up lead and zinc mines. More than $300 million has been committed since 1983, but only a small fraction of the impacted land has been reclaimed and contaminated water continues to flow.

— At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.

— In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, site of the Gold King blowout, some 400 abandoned or inactive mine sites contribute an estimated 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of acid mine drainage per day.

This landscape of polluted sites occurred under mining industry rules largely unchanged since the 1872 Mining Act.

State and federal laws in recent decades have held companies more accountable than in the past, but critics say huge loopholes all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups…

QUESTIONS OVER WHO SHOULD PAY

To date, the EPA has spent an estimated $4 billion on mining cleanups. Under Trump, the agency has identified a small number of Superfund sites for heightened attention after cleanup efforts stalled or dragged on for years. They include five mining sites examined by AP.

Former EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus said more money is needed to address mining pollution on a systematic basis, rather than jumping from one emergency response to another…

Democrats have sought unsuccessfully to create a special cleanup fund for old hardrock mine sites, with fees paid by the mining industry. Such a fund has been in place for coal mines since 1977, with more than $11 billion in fees collected and hundreds of sites reclaimed.

The mining industry has resisted doing the same for hardrock mines, and Republicans in Congress have blocked the Democratic proposals.

Montana Mining Association director Tammy Johnson acknowledged abandoned mines have left a legacy of pollution, but added that companies still in operation should not be forced to pay for those problems…

In 2017, the EPA proposed requiring companies still operating mines to post cleanup bonds or offer other financial assurances so taxpayers don’t end up footing cleanup bills. The Trump administration halted the rule, but environmental groups are scheduled to appear in federal court next month in a lawsuit that seeks to revive it.

“When something gets on a Superfund site, that doesn’t mean it instantly and magically gets cleaned up,” said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. “Having money immediately available from a responsible party would be a game changer.”

#AnimasRiver: Which was worse for water quality: #GoldKingMine spill or #416Fire floods? — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Study compared metal loading in both events; results surprised researchers

A new report shows that runoff from the 416 Fire burn scar this summer dumped higher concentrations of potentially toxic metals into the Animas River than the Gold King Mine spill three years ago…

It has been a rough couple of years for the Animas River.

In August 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally caused the Gold King Mine, near Silverton, to blow out, sending 3 million gallons of toxic waste down the Animas River, turning it orange.

Then, this July, heavy rain fell over the 416 Fire burn scar in the Hermosa Creek drainage, just north of Durango, and sent a torrent of black mud, rocks and other debris down the Animas River.

After both events, Mountain Studies Institute, an environmental research and education nonprofit, extensively monitored and researched the impacts on aquatic life and water quality in the Animas River.

Though only a few months removed from the July floods, the preliminary data show the impacts of the Gold King Mine spill pale in comparison to the mudslides and debris flows from the 416 Fire burn scar.

Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group said that point was made clear when the 416 Fire runoff caused nearly all the fish in the Animas River to die.

By comparison, there has never been any evidence that the tainted Gold King Mine water caused any die-off of aquatic life.

Roberts’ study backs this with data.

The study took samples at the height of the 416 Fire debris flows on July 17 and July 24 on the Animas River, near Rotary Park, and compared it to samples taken during the mine spill as it passed through the same spot Aug. 6 to Aug. 9, 2015.