@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.

#AnimasRiver: The @EPA releases results of three year water quality study #GoldKingMine

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

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The study looked at 200 river-water samples and almost 200 sediment samples, as well as more than 100 private wells from Durango to Silverton, testing for 13 different heavy metals and other possible contaminants, the health department said.

Some findings, according to San Juan Basin Public Health:

Water quality, except in Cement Creek, is better than the minimum standards set to protect aquatic life and human uses.

Additional sampling performed as part of this study revealed that natural variability in river flows produces occasional “spikes” in certain metals that may have been missed in less-frequent sampling.

Sediment in the Animas River, including beach sediment at six popular Durango recreation sites, poses no risk to human health if common-sense precautions are followed.

About one-quarter of Animas Valley drinking water wells had naturally-occurring bacteria present, and all wells should receive filtration or treatment.

About 5 percent of Animas Valley wells had more serious contamination from heavy metals, nitrates or other forms of bacteria. Heavy metal contamination in these wells arises from the natural geology of the Animas Valley aquifer.

Summitville Mine Superfund Site update: #Colorado to take over project for $2 million a year

Summitville Mine superfund site

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

After 27 years of EPA control, Colorado is preparing to take over the full financial burden — a forever bill for $2 million a year — of a high-mountain cyanide gold mine that became one of the West’s worst environmental disasters.

The re-shaping of ravaged alpine tundra at the Summitville Mine through a $250 million federal Superfund cleanup stands out because scores of other toxic mines in Colorado still are contaminating headwaters of western rivers each day.

But this fix requires constant work. Colorado must pay the $2 million, a bill that the EPA has been handling, starting in 2021 for cleaning a fluctuating flow of up to 2,100 gallons a minute of toxic water that drains down a once-pristine mountainside.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use the money to run a silver-domed $18 million industrial water treatment plant built at 11,500 feet elevation in a wild and spectacular valley, surrounded by snow-splotched jagged peaks.

The plant houses huge stainless-steel vats of burbling brown sludge. Toxic metals are chemically coaxed and filtered out. Plant operators haul 4.1 million pounds a year of concentrated waste back up South Mountain (elevation 12,550 feet) in trucks for burial. This muck contains more than 690,000 pounds of cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, iron, manganese and zinc. It is toxic metal that otherwise would flow down and degrade the Wightman Fork of the Alamosa River.

Colorado also must oversee the artificial covering and drainage ditches across 1,100 acres of tundra scarred by open-pit mining. Mountainsides ripped and slashed to remove gold and silver have been re-contoured by contractors using bulldozers, and re-planted with native vegetation — the engineering equivalent of plastic surgery to make the place look as good as possible…

The hand-off of responsibility for Summitville from the EPA to CDPHE in 2021 will mark a turning point in dealing with a severely damaged landscape using the nation’s Superfund system for handling disasters.

This project was set in motion before Congress in 1995 killed automatic funding for Superfund cleanups.

Complete restoration to a pre-existent state is considered impossible and the government aimed at best-possible repairs.

“That was what the EPA and the state worked to do: bring it back to a sustainable protected state. Once there is mining in an area, it has long-term impact,” said Fran Costanzi, an EPA official who managed the Summitville cleanup for four years. “We worked to bring water quality back and also the vegetation into a long-term stable state.”

An EPA spokesman issued a statement placing Summitville “among the more illustrious, or perhaps infamous, examples of the environmental damage a large mining operation can cause when resources for safely managing contamination sources disappear. The EPA’s initial response was an emergency situation in which the site was literally abandoned by the operator — in winter-time conditions — with a cyanide heap leach pad eroding into a headwaters stream.

“After years of work and investment, we’ve essentially reclaimed a watershed in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. Protecting those gains will continue to require our attention.”

Alamosa River. Photo credit: Wenck

The cleanup improved water quality to where fish can live in Terrace Reservoir, about five miles below the mine, and in the Alamosa River.

CDPHE officials now are required to monitor conditions.

The financial burden falls to Colorado because the Superfund process shifts responsibility to states after initial federal remediation. Colorado lawmakers have arranged to pay about $2 million a year by tapping revenue derived from fees paid at municipal and other landfills around the state…

At Summitville, Rio Grande County eventually will own the 1,100-acre site. State and county officials have been setting up placards conveying the history of mining in the area with an emphasis on environmental damage and evolving efforts to repair harm.

Colorado’s North Clear Creek & Tuthill

For 150 years, the North Clear Creek in Black Hawk, Colorado has been contaminated from historic mining. A new water treatment plant that came online in 2017 is removing 350lbs of heavy metals every day from the stream with the hopes of reestablishing a brown trout population. The facility uses Tuthill’s Blower Packages to aerate the water to remove the heavy metals more easily. Learn more about Tuthill’s products here: https://www.tuthillvacuumblower.com/i…

The facility was built and run by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Colorado Department of Transportation was integral to this project.

@EPA finds place near Silverton to store #GoldKingMine sludge #AnimasRiver

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

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

EPA officials announced last week that the agency has entered an agreement with a property owner who owns the Kittimac Tailings, a historic mine waste pile about six miles northeast of Silverton along County Road 2.

The EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant north of Silverton in October, three months after the agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent a torrent of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Since, the water-treatment plant has been treating and removing potentially toxic metals out of water that continues to discharge from the Gold King Mine. In April, the EPA said the mine was still leaking 450 gallons a minute.

The water treatment plant adds lime to the mine wastewater to raise the pH of the water so that dissolved metals become solid and can settle in settling ponds – a highly effective process.

The process, however, generates a lot of sludge. EPA has said an estimated 4,600 cubic yards of sludge is generated a year.

The agency had been storing this sludge waste product – which is considered non-hazardous – at the site of the water treatment plant in an area known as Gladstone, about six miles north of Silverton along County Road 110.

The EPA announced this spring, however, room was running out at Gladstone for the sludge…

Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said Wednesday local residents are pleased to learn the EPA found a better solution to the sludge waste issue.

“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s almost like this big experiment.”

The EPA has said it will mix the Gold King Mine sludge with mine tailings located at Kittimac.

The EPA believes this will reduce high water content of the sludge, and will allow more efficient management, while at the same time immobilize heavy metals found in the tailings pile…

The EPA said it is conducting a bench-scale testing of the sludge and tailings mixture to ensure the maximum reduction of metals leaching from the tailings. The agency plans to conduct a pilot test of this transfer process for one week in mid-June.

The Kittimac tailings pile for years has been used illegally by dirt bikers and ATVers who have disregarded “no trespassing” signs to ride on the mine waste that looks like a pile of sand. Now that the EPA is using the site, access will be more guarded, Tookey said…

While the short-term problem of where to put the sludge is temporarily solved, Fetchenheir said there remains the larger, more complicated matter at hand: what to do for long-term treatment of the mines draining into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River considered the worst polluter in the headwaters.

While lime treatment plants are effective, they are also expensive to operate ($1 million a year) and have to be run in perpetuity. The EPA has yet to release its plan for long-term treatment options.

“It’s hugely open-ended,” Fetchenheir said. “The true hope is some new technology arrives that removes metals without generating a huge amount of sludge. But I haven’t seen anything like it.”

For now, the EPA said it will transfer the sludge via truck using the County Road 110 bypass. The agency said it hopes to reduce negative impacts, such as noise and dust suppression.

After the pilot test in June, the EPA will resume transferring the sludge to the Kittimac tailings after the tourist season, around early fall, for a duration of about five weeks.