#AnimasRiver: Senators seek repayment for mine spill response — The Farmington Daily Times

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

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

A half dozen U.S. senators are backing an amendment to expedite federal reimbursements to states, tribes, local governments and individuals for expenses incurred during the Gold King Mine spill.

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., led the effort on Monday with senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and John McCain, R-Ariz., in introducing an amendment to a Senate bill for the Water Resources Development Act.

In addition, the amendment calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work with states, tribes and local governments to develop and implement a water quality program to monitor the rivers contaminated by the Aug. 5, 2015 spill…

The water quality program would be responsible for collecting water samples and sediment data, and releasing that information online for the public’s review, according to the amendment.

In a joint press release on Monday, the senators said they support holding the EPA accountable for the spill, and they emphasized that reimbursements to government entities and individuals are needed.

Udall said reimbursements to state and tribal governments “have taken far too long,” and the amendment will start the reimbursement process.

“It also takes important steps to help rebuild confidence in the quality of the water in the San Juan and Animas rivers through long-term monitoring,” Udall said.

Heinrich called the rate to repay individuals “unacceptable.” He also called for action to reform “outdated policies” to clean up contaminated mines in the West and on tribal lands.

“Western communities deserve full and complete protection of their water, land and livelihoods,” Heinrich said.

The bipartisan effort received support on Wednesday from Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, who continued his calls for reimbursing Navajo farmers.

Begaye said in a press release that funds received as a result of the amendment would be used to build a laboratory in Shiprock that would be used to study the water quality of the San Juan River.

“This amendment sets forth funds to be provided for monitoring of the San Juan River and irrigation canals. We need for our farmers to be confident that the water quality is irrigable,” the tribal president said.

#AnimasRiver: EPA creates the Bonita Peak Mining District superfund site #GoldKingMine

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
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

Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Laura Jenkins):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will add the Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) site in San Juan County, Colo., to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites on September 9, 2016. Superfund is the federal program that investigates and cleans up the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites to protect public health and the environment.

“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District on the National Priorities List is an important step that enables EPA to secure the necessary resources to investigate and address contamination concerns of San Juan and La Plata Counties, as well as other downstream communities in New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation,” said Shaun McGrath, EPA’s Regional Administrator. “We look forward to continuing our efforts with the State of Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, Tribal governments, and our community partners to address the impacts of acid mine drainage on the Animas River.”

EPA proposed the BPMD site for addition to the NPL on April 7, 2016, and conducted a 68-day public comment period on the proposal. After reviewing and responding to all comments in a responsiveness summary, EPA has added the site to the NPL. To view the responsiveness summary (Support Document) and other documents related to the addition of the Bonita Peak Mining District to the National Priorities List, please visit: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/current-npl-updates-new-proposed-npl-sites-and-new-npl-sites.

The Bonita Peak Mining District site consists of historic and ongoing releases from mining operations in three drainages: Mineral Creek, Cement Creek and Upper Animas; which converge into the Animas River near Silverton, Colorado. Mining began in the area in the 1860s and both large- and small-scale mining operations continued into the 1990s, with the last mine ceasing production in 1991. The site includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings impoundments, and two study areas where additional information is needed to evaluate environmental concerns.
Water quality in the BPMD has been impaired by acid mine drainage for decades. Since 1998, Colorado has designated portions of the Animas River downstream from Cement Creek as impaired for heavy metals, including lead, iron and aluminum. EPA has waste quantity data on 32 of Bonita Peak’s 48 sources. These 32 sources have waste rock and water discharging out of mining adits at a combined rate of 5.4 million gallons per day. Cadmium, copper, manganese and zinc are the known contaminants associated with these discharges.

“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District is critical to addressing historic mining impacts in San Juan County and our downstream communities,” said Martha Rudolph, director of environmental programs for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “We are committed to working closely with our Federal and state partners to achieve an effective cleanup, while ensuring that all our affected communities have a voice in the process as this moves forward.”

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the law establishing the Superfund program, requires EPA to update the NPL at least annually and clean up hazardous waste sites to protect human health with the goal of returning them to productive use. A site’s listing neither imposes a financial obligation on EPA nor assigns liability to any party. Updates to the NPL do, however, provide policymakers with a list of high-priority sites, serving to identify the size and nature of the nation’s cleanup challenges.

The Superfund program has provided important benefits for people and the environment since Congress established the program in 1980. Those benefits are both direct and indirect, and include reduction of threats to human health and ecological systems in the vicinity of Superfund sites, improvement of the economic conditions and quality of life in communities affected by hazardous waste sites, prevention of future releases of hazardous substances, and advances in science and technology.

For more information on the Bonita Peak Mining District site please visit: http://www.epa.gov/superfund/bonita-peak

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Farmington Daily Times:

A Colorado mine that spewed 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into rivers in three Western states was designated a Superfund site Wednesday, clearing the way for a multimillion-dollar federal cleanup.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the inactive Gold King Mine and 47 other nearby sites to the Superfund list…

The Colorado Superfund designation is the beginning of a years-long effort to clean up the wreckage of a once-booming mining industry in the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state. Abandoned mining sites send millions of gallons of acidic wastewater to creeks and rivers every year…

The spill triggered a storm of criticism of the EPA and at least three lawsuits.

New Mexico has sued both the EPA and Colorado over the spill, while the Navajo Nation sued the federal government. Utah officials say they also plan to sue…

An investigation last year by the Interior Department, which is independent of the EPA, said the cleanup crew could have avoided the spill but rushed its work.

Interior officials said they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. A separate criminal investigation is still underway, along with an internal EPA inquiry.

Congress has conducted multiple hearings on the spill and is considering several bills to address hundreds of old, leaking mines nationwide.

The EPA said Wednesday it’s too early to say how long the cleanup will take and what it will cost.

Authorities will first gather data including water and sediment samples and assessments of fish and wildlife habitat and other information. That process will probably end next year, said Rebecca Thomas, EPA’s manager for the project, known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site.

The EPA will then study different cleanup methods, choose a preferred option and ask for public comment. Work would then start on designing and implementing the cleanup.

Fixes could include water treatment plants for acidic waste draining from the site, plugging abandoned mines that are leaking and moving mine waste piles away from streams, Thomas said.

The Superfund listing marks a dramatic shift in public sentiment in Silverton and surrounding San Juan County, where many residents first feared the designation would stamp the area with a stigma and hurt its vital tourism industry. The EPA does not designate Superfund sites without local support…

Esper said Silverton could become a research center for cleaning up leaking mines across the nation. The Government Accountability Office estimates that at least 33,000 abandoned mines across the West and in Alaska are contaminating water or causing other environmental problems.

The cleanup might also improve the town’s finances, which have been in decline since a mine and mill closed in 1991, Esper said.

From The Silverton Standard (Mark Esper):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will add the Bonita Peak Mining District (BPMD) site in San Juan County, Colo., to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites on September 9, 2016. Superfund is the federal program that investigates and cleans up the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites to protect public health and the environment.

“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District on the National Priorities List is an important step that enables EPA to secure the necessary resources to investigate and address contamination concerns of San Juan and La Plata Counties, as well as other downstream communities in New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation,” said Shaun McGrath, EPA’s Regional Administrator. “We look forward to continuing our efforts with the State of Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, Tribal governments, and our community partners to address the impacts of acid mine drainage on the Animas River.”

EPA proposed the BPMD site for addition to the NPL on April 7, 2016, and conducted a 68-day public comment period on the proposal. After reviewing and responding to all comments in a responsiveness summary, EPA has added the site to the NPL. The responsiveness summary can be found here: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=EPA-HQ-OLEM-2016-01522

#AnimasRiver: Remediation of mine sites around Silverton become a priority — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday its will add the district of mines around Silverton to its National Priorities List as a Superfund site this week.

In a press release, the EPA said it would add the “Bonita Peak Mining District” – a group of about 50 mine waste sites in San Juan County – to the NPL on Friday.

“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District on the National Priorities List is an important step that enables EPA to secure the necessary resources to investigate and address contamination concerns of San Juan and La Plata counties, as well as other downstream communities in New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation,” Shaun McGrath, EPA’s regional administrator, said in a prepared statement.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA officials said they’ll announce the prioritization of these sites along Animas River headwaters above Silverton – “the Bonita Peak Mining District” – in the federal register on Friday. These are among 10 new sites nationwide targeted for cleanups — dependent on Congress providing funds. The federal Superfund program involves investigating and cleaning up the nation’s worst environmental disasters to protect human health and the environment.

“Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District on the National Priorities List is an important step that enables EPA to secure the necessary resources to investigate and address contamination concerns of San Juan and La Plata Counties, as well as other downstream communities in New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation,” EPA regional administrator Shaun McGrath said in a prepared statement.

“We look forward to continuing our efforts with the state of Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S Forest Service, tribal governments and our community partners to address the impacts of acid mine drainage on the Animas River.”

The district consists of 35 dormant mines, seven tunnels, four heaps of tailings and two study areas — sites located along Mineral Creek, Cement Creek and the Upper Animas. These waterways flow into the Animas River just below Silverton…

EPA data on 32 sources in the area, discharging contaminants at a combined rate of 5.4 million gallons per day, identify contaminants including cadmium, copper, manganese and zinc.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine update

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The EPA has stabilized the collapsing mouth of the Gold King Mine, cementing heaps of rock and sediment dug up during mining’s glory days, trying to prevent another blowout and pioneer a solution to the West’s continuing acid metals contamination of coveted water.

And as the feds push through this work, they face once-resistant Colorado communities that are increasingly keen on having a clean watershed.

The action this summer in the mine-scarred mountains above Silverton is raising expectations that, whatever final fix may be made at the Gold King, it will build momentum for dealing with toxic mines elsewhere.

That all depends on Congress lining up funding.

At the Gold King’s timberline portal, an EPA team sprayed gray cement across an area 50 feet high and 30 feet wide to secure entry. Initially, EPA workers crawled into the mine on hands and knees over planks put down to keep them from sinking into orange-hued acid metals muck. They installed cement blocks and a wooden dam to divert a 691 gallons-a-minute toxic discharge…

Then the EPA team welded steel frames 63 feet deep into a cleared 18 foot-wide tunnel. They buttressed the tunnel deeper, another 67 feet in, drilling in expanding screws, steel bolts and grates. They’re pumping that acid metals discharge through a partially buried pipeline that runs 4,000 feet to a temporary waste treatment plant.

At the plant, EPA contractors — mixing in a ton a day of lime to neutralize the 8.3 pH acid flow to 3.5 pH — recently sliced open bulging sacks filled with reddish-brown sludge. They spread 3,500 cubic yards of the sludge across a flat area to dry, trying to extend the plant’s capacity to clean Gold King muck.

Generators rattle. A canary-yellow air tube snakes out the mouth as workers in helmets with head lamps hike in.

Down in town, Silverton and San Juan County leaders’ recent about-face — from a tribe-like mistrust of the EPA toward eagerness to get cleanup done at the Gold King and 46 other sites — is becoming more adamant. Some locals say they see economic benefits if mining’s toxic hangover can be cured. And Silverton’s town manager is broadening his appeal to the nation’s most ambitious geologists to make this a hub for hydrology research…

Next, the EPA must officially designate a National Priority List disaster and find a Superfund or other way to cover cleanup costs — action that’s delayed until fall. Then in the Superfund process, the EPA would start studies to find the best way to fix each of the Animas sites.

At issue is whether final cleanup should rely on water plants, costing up $26 million each, to treat mine drainage perpetually, saddling future generations with huge bills — or aim for a more complicated “bulkhead” plug approach that could contain acid muck inside mountains, perhaps using pressure sensors to give early warning of blowouts…

But Silverton and San Juan County leaders last month said they’re mostly pleased with EPA progress at the mine, though federal muzzling of front-line crews and access restrictions have impeded close-up inspection.

Outstanding issues include locals seek assurances water treatment will continue until final cleanup is done; a demand for reimbursement of $90,000 they spent — “They did pay one tithing, and promised more,” Kuhlman said; and a desire to close off an ore heap used by motorcross riders along the Animas…

A solution based on plugging likely would be controversial. State-backed bulkheads installed near the Gold King Mine “are what started this whole problem,” Commissioner Kuhlman said, referring to the plugs in the American Tunnel of the Sunnyside Mine, which backed up mine muck and doubled discharges from mines in the area — setting up the Gold King blowout. A bulkhead installed in the adjacent Red and Bonita Mine hasn’t been closed.

The appeal is that holding water inside mountains means the acidic muck, which forms when natural water leaches minerals exposed by mining, does less harm.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine Citizens’ Advisory Committee hears update — the Farmington Daily Times

Health and environmental officials in San Juan County are evaluating the Animas River after roughly 1 million gallons of mine waste water were released Wednesday. August 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy San Juan Basin Health Department)
Health and environmental officials in San Juan County are evaluating the Animas River after roughly 1 million gallons of mine waste water were released Wednesday. August 6, 2015. (Photo courtesy San Juan Basin Health Department)

From The Farmington Daily Times (Joshua Kellogg):

The Gold King Mine Citizens’ Advisory Committee heard an update on the quality of the drinking water during its meeting today at San Juan College.

Stephanie Stringer, chief of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Drinking Water Bureau, gave a presentation to the committee on the status of public water systems in the Animas and San Juan watersheds.

The committee includes 11 volunteers who monitor efforts to document the long-term effects of the mine spill, which in August 2015 released more than 3 million gallons of towaste water with heavy metals into the Animas Rivers.

About 89,000 San Juan County residents’ water systems were affected by the mine when intakes were closed to protect treatment plants and water reservoirs, according to Stringer’s presentation. That figure does not include water systems on the Navajo Nation, which are not monitored by the state agency.

But in the year after the mine spill, the affected public water systems have remained in compliance with drinking water quality standards, Stringer said.

She said no metal contamination was found in any of the drinking water samples collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“With a couple of minor exceptions of failing infrastructure systems, the public water systems are doing their job, and the water is safe to drink,” Stringer said after the meeting.

While not related to the mine spill, poor infrastructure maintenance is behind the failing treatment systems of the Morningstar and Harvest Gold water systems, Stringer said. Operated by the AV Water Co., the two systems serve nearly 7,000 residents in Crouch Mesa and areas outside Bloomfield. Those customers have been under a boil advisory since May 25 because of the failing treatment plants.

Drinking water from all other public water systems is safe for all uses, according to Stringer.

In her presentation, Stringer also detailed the bureau’s efforts to monitor the quality of the drinking water systems after the mine spill. Stringer said some public water systems are developing plans in case an emergency again threatens drinking water.

“We are encouraging all the public water systems to develop source water protection plans to ensure they know what to do in an event such as this,” Stringer said after the meeting.

The Gold King Mine Citizens’ Advisory Committee will meet next at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Nenahnezad Chapter house in Fruitland.

Navajos sue feds over Gold King Mine spill — The Durango Herald

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

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:

Leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as their attorneys sued Tuesday, claiming negligence in the cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill that tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye stood on the bank of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico and explained his people’s link to the water and the economic, cultural and psychological damage inflicted in the wake of the August 2015 spill, which occurred in an inactive mine north of Silverton.

“EPA, we’re holding your feet to the fire,” Begaye said, promising that generations of Navajos are willing to fight. “We will not let you get away with this because you have caused great damage to our people, our river, our lifeblood.”

[…]

The Navajo Nation joins New Mexico in pursuing legal action over the spill. The state of New Mexico sued the EPA and Colorado earlier this year, citing environmental and economic damage.

Tribal officials at the news conference and in the lawsuit pointed to delays and resistance by the EPA, saying the agency has failed to compensate Navajos for their losses or provide any meaningful recovery efforts over the past year.

The EPA has dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the spill and for monitoring, but much of that is going toward stabilization and ongoing drainage at the mine. Reimbursement of state, local and tribal costs is underway, but the tribe has received only a fraction of the nearly $1.6 million doled out to all the parties.

Begaye said Navajo farmers have felt the brunt of the spill. Some crops went unplanted this year and cultural practices such as the gathering of corn pollen were skipped…

He called the actions of the agency, its contractor and the mining companies reckless and reiterated his disappointment that Navajos have yet to receive a phone call or letter of apology from President Barack Obama.

Navajo officials said the government has denied repeated requests for everything from compensation for farmers to resources for long-term monitoring and an on-site laboratory for real-time testing of river water.

“They have not done a thing,” Begaye said during his impassioned address.

While the lawsuit doesn’t include an exact dollar figure for damages the tribe is seeking, Begaye said Navajos are owed “millions” and that the scope of the contamination is still unknown.

A criminal investigation into the spill is being conducted by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Justice Department, but it’s unclear how long that probe could take.

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
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

#AnimasRiver: #NewMexico Officials urge EPA to hasten #GoldKingMine response — The Farmington Daily Times

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

From The Farmington Times (Brett Berntsen):

Local, state and tribal officials gathered at the Sycamore Park Community Center gym in Farmington today for a roundtable discussion aimed at prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address lingering concerns from the Gold King Mine spill.

The meeting was convened by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who billed it as an opportunity to combine voices and “hold the EPA accountable for damages.” Topping the list of grievances for most parties was the struggle to secure compensation for response efforts and losses in the wake of the spill.

“To this day, many farmers haven’t been reimbursed,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said. “That’s been an ongoing battle.”

[…]

Farmington officials also noted that the city has not received full compensation for the $516,000 it spent on spill response measures, including the purchase of a $260,000-sensor system to protect the city’s drinking water supply from lingering contamination in the Animas River. Mayor Tommy Roberts said the city has received $110,000 so far.

Alexis Strauss, acting director of the EPA’s Region 9 office, represented the agency via a video feed. She said the EPA has allocated $3 million to states and tribes for emergency response costs. She said additional claims are currently under review and handled by the U.S. Justice Department rather than the EPA’s regional offices.

“Those decisions are imminent and will be announced very soon,” Strauss said.

According to a retrospective report compiled by the agency for the one-year anniversary of the spill, the EPA has dedicated a total of $29 million toward response measures. Costs include $7.3 million for sampling and analysis, and $5 million for agency personnel. The report states that the EPA is currently in the process of awarding $2 million in grant money to states and tribes for water quality monitoring.

Funding such programs has become a divisive subject between the state and the federal agency. The New Mexico Environment Department has criticized the scope of the EPA’s long-term monitoring plan, pushing for funding to develop its own.

Bruce Yurdin of the NMED’s Surface Water Quality Bureau told officials at the meeting that the department has only received 10 percent of what it considers necessary to study the impact of contaminants released during the spill.

Such disparities prompted the recent lawsuits filed by New Mexico against the EPA, the state of Colorado and several mining companies. Begaye said today that he supports the string of legal actions, and the Navajo Nation is considering filing litigation of its own.

In addition to the issue of restitution, the discussion also delved into methods to address future incidents.

“There’s a large possibility that this could happen again,” San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said…

As the meeting drew to a close, Rep. Luján asked officials to compile a list of their concerns for submission to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. He said the spill has captured the attention of congress, and efforts to fund response programs have drawn bipartisan backing.

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
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

#AnimasRiver #GoldKingMine roundup from The Durango Herald

The Durango Herald has been all over this story for a year now. Click here for their roundup of articles.

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
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
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

#AnimasRiver: The Navajo Nation will receive about $445,000 for field evaluations, water quality sampling, laboratory work and personnel costs

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

From The Farmington Daily-Times (Joshua Kellogg):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Friday it is awarding about $1.2 million in reimbursements to tribal and government agencies in the Four Regions region, including the Navajo Nation, for costs associated with the response to the Gold King Mine spill.

The announcement issued by the EPA came on the one-year anniversary of EPA crews accidentally triggering the release of about 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into a tributary of the Animas River near Silverton, Colo., while cleaning up abandoned mining sites.

According to the press release, the Navajo Nation will receive about $445,000 in reimbursements for costs associated with the response to the spill, including field evaluations, water quality sampling, laboratory work and personnel costs. The tribe previously was awarded about $158,000 by the EPA.

About $710,000 will be distributed to state, tribal and local governments in Colorado and Utah, according to an EPA press release.

The state of New Mexico was not included in the latest round of funding under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund. New Mexico was previously awarded about $1.1 million in a previous round of funding, according to the EPA’s website…

Some of the response costs included about $130,000 to support the Navajo Nation Emergency Operations Center, about $72,000 to monitor drinking water and haul water, and about $71,000 to support visits by the Navajo Department of Agriculture to investigate possible needs for water and feed for farmers.

According to its press release, the EPA has dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the incident with the majority of the funds dedicated to stabilizing the mine and reducing the acid mine drainage at the Gold King Mine site.

The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill (Part 2)

Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.
Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

From Colorado Public Radio (Ann Butler):

A federal criminal investigation into the spill is now underway, and local governments and businesses are frustrated with the slow pace of compensation from the EPA one year later.

Matt Wilson, owner and operator of 4 Corners Whitewater, estimates he lost about $30,000 in revenue last year because of the spill. His was one of about six Colorado rafting companies affected from canceled trips and no customers for over a week.

“So after that it was hard to kind of reboot and get people back on the water after all that publicity,” Wilson said.

Wilson is now one of 68 individuals and businesses across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation that filled out financial claims with the EPA.

Samples show water quality on the Animas River has returned to pre-spill conditions and the 2016 summer rafting season has been strong. But Wilson and others are still waiting to hear back on their claims.

Durango City Council member Dean Brookie said his city’s government is in another holding pattern. It spent over $440,000 responding to the spill. The tab includes everything from water-quality monitoring to “personnel that we assigned to the clean-up effort.”

He said Durango’s budget is strong without those funds, but other smaller communities may not have as much in reserves.

EPA Response

Laura Jenkins, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency continues to work with local governments on reimbursing costs.

“We’re limited by what the regulations allow us to reimburse communities for,” said Jenkins. “They have to meet the requirements that are in the statutes.”

The EPA says laws like the Clean Water Act govern what is reimbursable for communities. Overall it has spent $29 million responding to the spill, with $3.7 million going to local governments to reimburse expenses like overtime pay and local water quality monitoring.

There are other issues that aren’t covered, and in some places like New Mexico, talks have broken down.

“It was just continual failed efforts,” said Tania Maestas, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs in the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

New Mexico sued the EPA this spring and the state has received $1.64 million from the EPA so far. The agency has made another $5.67 million available in unallocated funds to the state, but Maestas said it only covers a fraction of $130 million in estimated damages. The lawsuit covers everything from water quality monitoring to payment to local businesses for their losses.

“It’s our experience that the EPA met all these requests with either challenges, resistance or delays,” Maestas said about local business owners frustrated with the claims process

Maestas said other states could follow New Mexico’s path to court.

The Navajo Nation may be at the front of that line. Last August, it hired the California law firm Hueston Hennigan LLP to represent its claims. Attorney John Hueston said the firm has pursued multiple avenues resulting in some payment, but at the one year mark he said the window for cooperation is closing and the time for legal action is quickly approaching.

Rock cracked Cotter pipeline; contaminants contained at mill site — The Pueblo Chieftain

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

Cotter Corp. Uranium mill officials say a leak that dumped about 7,200 gallons of contaminated water on the mill property was caused by a rock that punctured a hole in a feeder line.

The feeder line connects to the main pumpback pipeline above a Soil Conservation Service dam that helps prevent rainwater runoff from leaving the mill site. The pipeline carries contaminated water that seeps past the earthen dam and returns it to an impoundment.

“When Cotter personnel excavated the area of the leak, a large rock was discovered above the feeder line. The rock had punctured the pipe, causing the leak,” said Stephen Cohen, Cotter Mill manager.

“Because the puncture and associated crack were small, only a relatively minor percentage of the total actually leaked. Most of the flow continued into the pumpback pipeline,” he explained.

Cotter maintains a pressure monitoring system on the pumpback pipeline that deactivates pumps in the event of a sudden, large pressure drop. However, the feeder is isolated from the main pressure monitoring system, Cohen said. The leak could have occurred on Saturday and continued for 48 hours until workers discovered it on Monday.

It is believed that none of the contaminated water seeped off the mill site, according to Warren Smith, a state health department spokesman.

Cotter officials are replacing the broken section of pipe and the feeder line should be reactivated today, Cohen said. The main pumpback system continues to operate, Smith said.

Because leaks formed in the main pipeline on two separate occasions late last year, Cotter and state health officials are working to finalize a proposal to build a new pipeline.

“Cotter’s original plan does not include replacing any feeder lines. Because this line has broken, however, company (officials) plan to replace this entire section of feeder line when they replace the main pipeline,” Smith said.

Federal and state health officials also are working with Cotter representatives to come up with a plan to clean up and decommission the now-defunct uranium mill site.

The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill

Click here to read the first Coyote Gulch post about the spill.

Click here to view a video retrospective from the The Durango Herald.

Here’s a photo gallery from The Denver Post.

Ann Butler’s article in The Durango Herald explains that the, “Gold King Mine spill recovery better in some areas than others.” Here’s an excerpt:

The full impact of the Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5, 2015, may not be known for years on any front, and recovery is far from over. And some of that isn’t environmental, governmental or economic – it’s healing invisible trauma in the people and communities affected…

“If there’s good news to a bad news story, awareness of the river, the river basins and how it all works is through the roof,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. “Not only from a local level or a Colorado level, but the whole western U.S. level. That is really going to pay some dividends because none of us understood the spillage was ongoing.”

[…]

Real-life lessons
If there was another silver lining to the spill, it was the material it provided for teachers and professors. Several Durango School District 9-R schools, including Durango and Big Picture high schools and Escalante Middle School, Animas High and Mountain Middle charter schools and Fort Lewis College incorporated the spill in science, math and humanities courses.

“As an educator, the event of it inspired me to localize my curriculum, and it was more meaningful to them,” said Jessica McCallum, junior humanities teacher at Animas High. “The students, on reflection, said, ‘Wow, this is really complex.’ Some students are very deeply affected still.”

McCallum’s students interviewed more than 70 people, including second-graders, decision makers and tourism employees, about the spill for Story Corps and met with high school students in Silverton to understand the spill from a different point of view. The interviews are available online, and they tell the story from many perspectives.

Some common themes were: Distrust of and anger at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose workers caused the spill; fear, whether it’s financial, safety or concern for other community members; and, as Kunkel put it, an awareness of the river and the watershed in a bigger picture way.

‘Technological’ disaster
Sad. Betrayed. Devastated. Scared. Grief. Blame. Anger. Hostility.

“There’s a uniqueness to what happened in Durango, but there’s also a pattern,” Fort Lewis College sociology associate professor Rebecca Clausen said. “My experience after the Exxon (Valdez) spill (in Alaska) gave me a good context for not seeing this as an isolated event.”

Social science has identified two kinds of disasters: natural – such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, and technological or environmental – and human-made disasters such as Chernobyl, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gold King Mine spill, Clausen said. Communities tend to pull together and heal more quickly from the “acts of God,” she said, but technological disasters can rip them apart and have impacts that last generations…

A group of volunteers, including Clausen and hydrologist Jack Turner, without funding from any governmental agency or nonprofit, took on the task of addressing the mental health stresses on the communities impacted by the spill. Calling themselves the Animas Community Listening and Empowerment Project, they held listening sessions in Durango and Farmington.

“People tend not to go seek out a counselor for this kind of grief or anxiety,” Clausen said. “They’re hesitant to talk about it at the supermarket. We gave them an opportunity and permission to talk.”

[…]

River businesses
“From a tourism standpoint, it’s over,” Kunkel said. “For tourists, it ended like somebody pulled the shade down as soon as the river reopened. They essentially said, ‘All I want to do is get my family on the river, I don’t care about your local hooha.’”

The most affected, Kunkel said, were the river rafting companies.

“We’ll have a better answer in a year or so about how much it impacted us,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep. “I expect it to have an impact for three to five years before it’s totally gone from people’s consciousness, but not catastrophic, not enough to put us out of business, and probably quite small in the third year.”

Two factors helped his rafting business get through, Mickel said, adding that his business is up slightly in June and up in July this year over 2015.

“We were having a really good season before the spill,” he said. “And I’m glad we have a clean and safe river to recreate in this summer, not just for the business but because our kids play in the river, and it’s just part of our lives.”

The big question is what would this summer’s business have been without the spill?

“We’ve had people call and not go because of it or cancel because of it,” Mickel said about this year’s bookings, with tourists concerned about the safety of the river. “But the hardest number to pin down is the people who are not calling. Our business really ties into how the state’s tourism goes, and Colorado is having a banner year. How much of that growth have we missed because of this?”

One indicator is how many people stayed in Durango’s hotels and motels during August 2015. Lodgers tax declined by about 5 percent, but the drop may not be attributable to the spill, Tim Walsworth of the Durango Business Improvement District said when the numbers came out in October 2015. Some of that was because the Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest of the year for visitors, fell totally in September.

Lodgers tax numbers for this summer will not be available until fall, but it has been a good season, Kunkel said…

Ongoing monitoring
Many organizations continue to monitor the river for water quality and health of fish and insects that call it home.

Nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute is collaborating with the city of Durango on Animas River monitoring. One big concern was whether spring runoff would re-suspend the sediment lining the riverbed.

“Our monitoring program aims to understand whether water quality this spring is any different than previous years,” said Marcie Bidwell, institute director, “and if metal concentrations in the river pose any threat to human health, agriculture or aquatic life. Results from the spring samples are encouraging.”

At least twice during the spring runoff, concentrations of manganese and lead, some of the metals contained in the spill sediment still lining the riverbed, surpassed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality standards of the Animas River as a source for domestic drinking water. All other results for all other purposes fell below screening levels.

The science is one part of the puzzle, Turner said. Another, individual use of the river, is something unmeasureable, but he believes it is down significantly.

“To see the river like that was piercing, and it made me feel insignificant, really small and helpless, in shock,” he said. “I’m waiting to see the river go down to see if the yellow ‘bathtub’ stain is still there. I don’t know if I’ve put my feet in the river yet, and I keep asking what’s happening to this community if we’re not going to the river?”

The EPA has proposed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in the aftermath of the spill and superfund status is warranted according the EPA project manager. From The Durango Herald:

Rebecca Thomas told more than 100 participants at the 2016 San Juan Mining Conference that she expects the Superfund designation to be finalized by this fall.

The sixth annual mining conference, which brings together people involved in mining in the Animas, Rio Grande, San Miguel and Uncompahgre watersheds, was held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango

The events of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King spill, in which an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew caused a release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River, dominated the discussions.

“Just 363 days ago we were bracing ourselves for a river disaster with a lot of concern,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt in her opening statements. “The color orange now has a whole new meaning for me. Yes, it was a lesson about our mining legacy, but it was also a lesson about our river’s health.”

Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle, too, acknowledged that the anniversary of the spill was a fitting backdrop to the conference, and a chance to provide insight on how communities affected by the event responded…

Speaking around noon, the EPA’s Thomas made the case for Superfund.

Thomas, based in Denver, said she worked in the highly-mineralized mountains around San Juan County about a week each month this summer, with crews sampling on a regular basis.

“Even though the (Superfund) site is just proposed, that hasn’t stopped us from beginning our work,” she said.

Thomas said that although there was resistance to federal intervention for years, she believes the only viable step toward improved water quality in the Animas River is through a Superfund designation.

She argued the federal listing would allow potentially responsible parties, such as mining companies, to be held financially liable for cleanup, and given the scope of the project, only the EPA could provide the funds necessary.

Thomas tried to quell frustrations that it can take more than 20 years for a Superfund to finish.

“This process … is one of the main criticisms of Superfund,” she said. “But we don’t want to wait 20 years to see improved water quality in the Animas, and we’ll take every opportunity we can to fast-track some of this stuff.”

The conference also showed how the spill affected communities around the region, all with a legacy of mining.

Randy Barnes with the San Miguel Watershed Coalition said the EPA recently steered away from remediating a draining mine near Ophir.

“They are not super enthusiastic about going and poking fingers into mines right now,” he said.

Barnes added that the project led by Griswold, which would clean up a mill tailings pile beneath the mine entrance, was canceled for undisclosed reasons.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

Silverton is staging “Super FunDays” this weekend, a play on the Superfund cleanup expected to get underway in the distant future.

It includes “Environmental Pork Agency” sandwiches and a locally brewed India pale ale — or IPA — called EPA IPA.

Here’s where things stand in the aftermath of the spill:

SILVERTON’S PARTY

Bars and restaurants are serving up “EPA Fungi” ravioli, “Orange Creek-sicle” fruit smoothies and other specials for Super FunDays.

Silverton’s Golden Block Brewery brewed 10 gallons of spill-colored EPA IPA.

“It’s unclarified, so it looks kind of muddy, and we added a tiny bit of blood orange,” brewery co-owner Molly Barela said.

A fun run and community party are also planned.

Asked about the jovial tone, town spokeswoman Blair Runion said Silverton went through a long and serious debate before endorsing a Superfund cleanup.

“We need to turn it into something positive that we can embrace,” she said.

The EPA declined to comment, but it will have an information booth at the party Saturday.

Shane Benjamin (The Durango Herald) asks the question, “Who profited from the Gold King Mine Spill? Here’s an excerpt:

…the environmental mishap wasn’t all bad news for La Plata County businesses; in fact, several companies, including motels and restaurants, profited as government agencies opened their pocketbooks to help manage the disaster.

In the two months after the spill, La Plata County government spent $115,000 on goods and services related to the spill, much of which went to local businesses, according to receipts obtained through an open records request.

Several other agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has authorized $23.3 million in spending as of July 15, including reimbursement to local communities but not including payroll or travel expenses. The agency, which triggered the spill, was not able to provide a detailed accounting of its expenses in time for this story, but county expenses provide a snapshot of how local businesses profited during the spill.

The county has received reimbursement for some expenses and is seeking compensation for others.

The county’s first expense occurred on Aug. 6, 2015 – the same day the mustard-yellow water snaked its way through the county – to purchase a case of copy paper for $27.65 from Office Depot. The county made several return trips that month to Office Depot, purchasing $2,020 worth of supplies, including six easels, 12 easel pads, sticky notes, ink cartridges, a wall clock and much more. The county is seeking reimbursement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The county also purchased hundreds of meals for government employees. They were fed at at least a dozen different restaurants, including Macho’s, J. Bo’s, Carvers, Doughworks, Steamworks, Raider Ridge Café, Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, Rice Monkeys and Hot Tomatoes Café, to name a few. Many of the purchases fed dozens of people, including tabs for $305 at Domino’s Pizza, $517 at Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, $325 at Raider Ridge Café, $400 at Schlotsky’s, and $1,309 for a “thank you lunch” for city of Durango and La Plata County employees catered by Zia Taqueria. The county is seeking reimbursement for the food, including the thank you lunch, from the EPA.

Dozens of snacks and meals were purchased from area grocery stores, including Albertsons, Walmart, City Market and Nature’s Oasis. Receipts suggest some less-than-healthy eating habits, including large quantities of Lays potato chips, candy, doughnuts and soda pop.

The county also picked up several hotel bills, but it appears most employees sought reimbursement from their individual agencies rather than the county, because the county paid only $4,533 to house eight people, according to the open records request. The bills range from $79 a night at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton to $720 for six nights at the Super 8 in Durango.

Several other businesses profited as a result of the Gold King Mine blowout, including:

  • Fast Signs, which charged about $1,125 to make vinyl signs used to close the river.
  • Best Cleaning, which billed $2,522 to clean the La Plata County Fairgrounds after the EPA used it as a headquarters.
  • Durango Party Rental, which charged $746 for a temporary room divider.
  • Durango Joe’s, which charged $45.75 to serve 45 people coffee.
  • But the company that profited the most is Wright Water Engineers, which raked in about $70,000 to provide consulting and water sampling on behalf of the county.

Overall, charges appear to be fairly well spread out between businesses, without a preference for specific vendors, restaurants or grocery stores.

Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said that is a good thing, but it’s likely a result of luck, preference and necessity rather than policy. Most people don’t want to eat the same meal every day, she noted, so multiple restaurants were visited.

“This was an emergency situation, so I think those decisions were made in the moment by the folks who were needing to acquire whatever the goods or services were,” Spina said.

A Year After The #GoldKingMine Spill, US Still Grapples With Abandoned Mines — #Colorado Public Radio

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The Gold King Mine Spill has exposed a bigger problem whose solution seems incredibly complex. Hundreds of abandoned mines in southwestern Colorado have leached tainted water into nearby streams for decades. The EPA has been trying to get a handle on the issue for years. That’s why the agency had crews working at Gold King Mine last August.

It’s emblematic of a much larger problem that exists across the Western United States. One GAO report estimates 33,000 hard rock abandoned mines are causing environmental problems. And one year after the Gold King Mine spill, many experts say the country is no closer to a solution.

The proposed Bonita Peak Mining District contains 48 mining-related sites in the region. But local officials said it wasn’t easy getting on board with the Superfund idea.

“There was a lot of sleepless nights,” said Willy Tookey, San Juan County administrator. For more than a decade, the government here shied away from Superfund status.

The two biggest concerns for local leaders was that a listing would cause a drop in property values and a drop tourism.

Tookey said intense negotiations with the EPA over this past year led to new confidence. And assurances.

“Because of the circumstances I think we were able to get these answers that we weren’t able to before,” he said.

The EPA expects to make a final decision on whether Superfund status will be approved this fall. From that point, it could take years for the agency to approve a work plan and funding.

#AnimasRiver: Sunnyside asks judge to dismiss #NewMexico lawsuit

General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library
General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

On Friday, Sunnyside – now owned by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. – called for New Mexico’s lawsuit over the Gold King Mine spill’s impact to the state to be dismissed.

“We see no basis for us even being named in this litigation,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino wrote in an email.

In May, the state of New Mexico, seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, naming the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractor, as well as Sunnyside and its parent company, as responsible parties for the Aug. 5, 2015, mine blowout.

In the complaint, New Mexico state officials claim the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside’s attempt to block waste water drainage by building bulkheads in tunnels below the vast Sunnyside Mine network north of Silverton…

In its July 29 motion to dismiss, Sunnyside argued that installing the American Tunnel bulkhead was done at the direction of the state of Colorado, and that New Mexico officials “point to no facts to support that historic discharges from the Sunnyside Mine pool in Colorado, unrelated to the Gold King Mine blowout, somehow impacted New Mexico.”

The motion further alleges New Mexico has no personal jurisdiction over Sunnyside; the state of Colorado is a required party in the case and is not named (Colorado was sued by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court); and New Mexico is not entitled to punitive damages.

Sunnyside has long dismissed claims that water backed up behind the American Tunnel has seeped to other mine workings, though most experts in the region suspected the opposite.

Regardless, as a result of the proposed Superfund listing, the EPA plans to enter the mine and investigate, which should provide clarity, EPA officials previously said. It is unclear if those efforts have started this summer.

And Sunnyside’s involvement does not end with the New Mexico lawsuit, as the company has emerged high atop the list of potentially responsible parties that the EPA would seek financial costs from should a Superfund be declared.

Though Sunnyside claims an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three bulkheads in the 1990s would release the company of further liability for pollution in the district, officials familiar with the Superfund process say otherwise.

“It’s a different law,” Doug Jamison, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a previous interview. “(Sunnyside) was relieved of their liability from a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. It has nothing to do with Superfund liability.”

It’s been a convoluted, and expensive, quarter century since the company last hauled gold, silver, copper and other precious metals from the highly mineralized mountains surrounding San Juan County.

After the mine shut down in 1991, a number of remedial efforts began, with Perino estimating about $15 million has been directed to cleaning up sites around the basin.

Still, ever since Sunnyside’s water treatment plant shut down in 2004 (a result of a sale to local Steve Fearn, who was evicted by current Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis), water quality in the Animas River has degraded.

The town, too, felt the departure.

“It was a wrenching time,” Silverton native Bev Rich said.

Rich said nearly 150 workers lost high paying jobs. The only school in the small mountain hamlet of about 600 full-time residents went from 150 students to about 50, and San Juan County lost $300,000 – about one third – of its annual budget.

Meanwhile the U.S. Attorney General’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill. Here’s a report from Jesse Paul writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Federal authorities have confirmed for the first time that a criminal investigation into the 2015 Gold King Mine spill is underway, saying their probe involves the U.S. Attorney’s Office and came at the request of members of Congress.

The announcement Monday came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) as it released letters sent to lawmakers about the status of its work to analyze the disaster. Documents reviewed by The Denver Post on Monday indicate the probe has been in progress for nearly a year.

Jeffrey Lagda, spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said the OIG is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the criminal investigation. It was “based on requests from several members of the House and Senate,” he added…

In a June 29 letter to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the inspector general’s office said a number of investigations into the spill “have been underway.”

Gardner said Monday in a statement that he appreciates the criminal review and urged the expedited release of a full report on the disaster. He added: “I look forward to a response to my questions surrounding EPA’s insufficient and untimely recovery efforts immediately following the spill.”

In recent letters to members of Congress, the OIG wrote: “There is investigative material that we cannot reveal in any report about our program evaluation until the investigation reaches a point where the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA’s OIG’s Office of Investigations inform us that we may do so. Many of your questions to us, including those that go to the heart of what you asked us to address, directly implicate and will have to be answered in part by investigative results that are not currently releasable.”

[…]

Also Monday, the EPA released a 23-page retrospective report on the Gold King and its efforts since the incident to restore and protect impacted communities.

The agency said that as of July 15 it has dedicated $29 million in response efforts and for continued water quality monitoring. Officials say they are also evaluating more incident-related expenses and that they are working to expedite the distribution of those funds.

“We have been responsive in terms of doing the cleanup and demonstrating how we’ve done the cleanup,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s assistant administrator, told The Post in an interview Monday.

He added that 68 claims that have been filed against the EPA, which include a mixture of individuals, businesses and local and state governments, are pending review…

The National Wildlife Federation on Monday proclaimed “no meaningful effort has been made” since the Gold King spill to address the ongoing threats from hundreds of mines across the country. Jim Lyon, the federation’s vice president of conservation policy, called for legislation to stop the clock from ticking toward another similar catastrophe.

Stanislaus said the universal problem is broader than the EPA and is being examined from many federal levels.

“I think the EPA can only take on an extremely small subset of the abandoned mine situation,” Stanislaus said. “We only get involved in the highest risk situations where you have this high risk (to) ecological and public health.”

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

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

In a July 22 interview with the Telluride Daily Planet, Hays Griswold, speaking of a cleanup project set to begin at a mine near Ophir, cautioned residents there that work might cause some discoloration in the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River.

“You may see some yellow water. Don’t get excited like they do in Durango,” Griswold said.

EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison wrote in an emailed response that Griswold’s comments do not reflect the views of the agency. Requests for an interview with Griswold were ignored, and independent attempts to reach him Thursday were unsuccessful…

Griswold last August was charged with taking over cleanup efforts at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton while the EPA’s permanent on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, was on vacation.

Just days into his command, Griswold gave the EPA’s contracted crews orders to dig into the loose pile of dirt and rock that covered the entrance to the mine – despite clear instructions left by Way to postpone any such work due to the inherit risk of a blowout…

Griswold is now tasked with cleaning up 15,000 cubic yards of mill tailings at the Carribeau Mine, west of Ophir, according to the Telluride Daily Planet. He will not, however, be touching the mine’s adit, which is leaking anywhere from 600 to 800 gallons of mine drainage a minute.

The EPA’s Harrison wrote that the remediation plan for Carribeau Mine is under review by the regional office, and no final decisions have been made about the work.

The EPA’s efforts in the Silverton mining district, now proposed for Superfund listing as the Bonita Peak Mining District, are under the direction of Rebecca Thomas, remedial project manager.

From Reuters (Keith Coffman):

At the urging of congressional leaders, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the rupture from the Gold King Mine above Silverton, Colorado, that fouled waterways in three states and Native American lands, the agency said in a statement.

“Based on requests from several members of the House and Senate, the OIG is conducting both a program evaluation and a criminal investigation of the Gold King Mine spill,” the EPA said in a statement.

The OIG is an independent office that audits, investigates and evaluates the agency’s activities, the EPA statement said…

Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA’s Inspector General, told Reuters that the probe has been ongoing for some time, and that investigators are working with prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.

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
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

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill update

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
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

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Federal steps toward a Superfund cleanup still consist mostly of meetings. The EPA decision on whether to designate the Gold King and other nearby mines a national priority disaster — crucial to secure cleanup funds — still hasn’t been made.

While the Gold King blowout boosted awareness of the tens of thousands of dormant mines draining into western waterways, Congress continues to debate remedies, failing so far to create a national cleanup fund and reduce Clean Water Act liability to encourage voluntary cleanups.

And Colorado lawmakers, too, have been considering the problem but haven’t yet acted to increase state mining regulators’ capacity. State inspectors have not begun planned visits of 140 leaking mines, those causing the worst harm along more than 1,800 miles of streams classified as impaired.

“The Gold King Mine release has prompted some activities, like the draining mines inventory and characterization efforts through the Mining Impacted Streams Task Force — but no new money for the Inactive Mines Program that the program wouldn’t potentially have received absent the Gold King release,” said Ginny Brannon, director of Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

“There’s nothing we can do now that we could not do before,” Brannon said.

So what is the overall legacy, one year later, of the Gold King disaster? It prompted Silverton and San Juan County to reverse their long opposition to a federally run cleanup. Numerous local forums have been held for planning what might be done. But conditions at the Gold King and hundreds of other inactive mines, steadily contaminating waterways to the point that fish cannot reproduce, remain the same as on Aug. 5, 2015, when EPA-led contractors botched efforts to open the portal and triggered a 3 million-gallon deluge.

“There’s much more awareness about the issue of abandoned mines,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the Animas River Stakeholders Group that for two decades drove efforts to deal the acid metals draining into mountains above Silverton.

Conservation groups acknowledged the lag but are hoping robust conversations after the disaster will lead to getting cleanups done.

“We really need a sense of urgency on this. Many of these old mines are leaching poisons into our rivers, day in and day out,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s southwestern Colorado coordinator.

“It’s good to see some momentum in Washington, D.C. to address two big needs: liability protection, and funding for mine cleanups. We’re eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work on cleanups, but we need the tools to do it,” Churchwell said, referring to efforts by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton, to push legal changes that would hold mining companies more accountable. “The sad truth is, mining pollution is forever. We need a sustainable, long-term fund for dealing with this long-term problem.”

No one at EPA has been punished. The Gold King site coordinator, Steve Way, retired in June. He was on vacation on Aug. 5, 2015, and fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold led efforts to gain access to the Gold King. A Government Accountability Office investigation and an internal EPA probe, demanded by House Republicans, haven’t been completed…

Nor have owners of the Gold King and adjacent Sunnyside mines been cleared as potentially responsible parties. Gold King owner Todd Hennis, and Canada-based Kinross, owner of Sunnyside, could be forced to pay cleanup costs if the EPA decides on a Superfund cleanup…

EPA officials would not discuss their efforts.

That agency has made internal changes to be more careful around toxic mines. EPA chiefs this year issued orders that, whenever anyone is working to open up a collapsed mine that could release fluids, senior officials in Washington D.C. must sign off first. EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus issued a statement saying “additional consultation, coordination, and technical review prior to site work being conducted will help minimize the potential for uncontrolled fluid releases.”

Yet in other ways the EPA approach, working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, still involves considerable expense and delay. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, visiting Colorado after the spill, vowed greater transparency. The agency communicates with reporters mostly through prepared statements, discouraging direct conversations, with instructions to reporters to attribute statements to officials. Neither McCarthy nor Denver-based regional director Shaun McGrath were made available for interviews.

And requested public documents — The Denver Post asked for Gold King-related records on Aug. 20, 2015, under the Freedom of Information Act — still are being reviewed by agency lawyers who said they are limiting the requested documents to about 75 that the EPA deems “responsive” and then redacting portions of those documents.

CDPHE water qualify officials have not received any new funding to deal with mines draining into streams, the agency’s senior hydrologist Andrew Ross said. However, the Gold King Mine incident has led to “a more coordinated effort between local, state and federal agencies that will, over time, be more successful at addressing water quality impairments from abandoned mines,” Ross said.

This month, EPA officials announced they’d work at the Gold King portal and 30 feet inside, the stabilization initiated after the EPA-run crew triggered the disaster. “EPA initiated these stabilization efforts immediately following the August 5, 2015 release and continued efforts through November 2015, when winter weather inhibited further action,” according to an agency statement attributed to spokeswoman Nancy Grantham.

EPA crews have been sampling water and sediment and the agency gave funds for locals to test water. The EPA also is working on plans for “stabilizing a waste pile on site and installing steel bracing and concrete to continue stabilizing the portal,” the statement said. “This work is designed to prevent collapses and ensure safe access for future work.”

EPA officials said the portal should be safe by October.

At other toxic mines, EPA-run cleanups typically take more than 20 years.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and local leaders repeatedly have urged EPA officials to commit to keep running a temporary water treatment plant below the Gold King, reducing contamination of Animas headwaters until a final cleanup is done.

EPA officials say they’ll run the treatment system until November, but that they haven’t decided what to do after that.

“The EPA’s water treatment plant at the Gold King Mine is operating now to protect Colorado’s waterways and communities. We are assisting EPA on mine sites in the area and on the national priority listing, and we trust that cooperation will continue,” Hickenlooper said.

“We’re working with the EPA and others to ensure that an appropriate long-term plan is in place that ensures the health and safety of our waters and communities. The temporary water treatment facility is one part of that process.”

In Washington D.C., environment groups steadily pressed for a more aggressive approach to the mines that pollute western waterways.

“The main thing that has changed” is that the problem has received attention, said Alan Septoff of the advocacy group Earthworks. “In Congress, both the left and the right have focused attention on the issue of abandoned and inoperative mines in a way that hasn’t occurred since the early 1990s,” Septoff said.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

#AnimasRiver: Sen. Gardner wants to fast-track reimbursements for #GoldKingMine spill

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

From The Durango Herald (Kate Magill):

Senators Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on Thursday called for a hearing on a bill that would expedite reimbursements to communities impacted by last year’s Gold King Mine spill.

In a letter to senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the pair called for a hearing on Gold King Mine Accountability and Compensation for Taxpayers legislation that they introduced in May.

The bill would require the EPA to fully reimburse communities for expenses caused by the spill. It would also expedite the payout of emergency response costs for tribes, local and state governments. The letter asks for the “swift consideration” of the bill.

It is one of several pieces of legislation pending approval in Congress concerning the spill, as well as good Samaritan legislation for mine reclamation. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, introduced a similar EPA reimbursement bill in September last year that would also require the EPA to compensate those affected by the spill.

Here’s the release from US Senator Gardner’s office.

@RockiesProject: Student Researchers Study River Governance, Management

The Colorado Rockies.
The Colorado Rockies.

Here’s the release from the State of the Rockies Project:

Five Colorado College State of the Rockies Project student researchers are in the field this summer, studying and comparing issues of river governance and river management.

Joseph Friedland ’17, Emelie Frojen ’17, Lea Linse ’17, Mollie Podmore ’17, and Amy Rawn ’17, along with Program Coordinator Jonah Seifer ’16 and Associate Director Brendan Boepple ’11, are working in two of the West’s largest river basins, the Colorado River Basin and the Columbia River Basin. The focus of the 2016-17 State of the Rockies is “Inclusive River Governance in a Changing West,” with the core this year’s project being a comparative study of water issues in the Southwest vs. Northwest,

The State of the Rockies Project research team recently spent four days in Silverton and Durango, Colorado, where they examined how governance systems allow for the incorporation of traditionally under-represented values in water management. These issues are particularly important in an increasingly water-stressed future, affected by climate change and growing populations throughout the West.

“We were fortunate to meet with a diverse set of stakeholders involved with the Animas River on the trip, and were also able to sit in on a meeting of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, the local watershed group that has been working to address the region’s mining legacy for the last 20-plus years,” says Boepple, who has been with the project for five years.

“The trip not only allowed the students to further their research and see some of these important issues firsthand, but it also allowed them to see how actual management decisions are made,” says Boepple. “Additionally, the Gold King Mine spill, which occurred last August, provided an interesting backdrop to conversations and research discussions about the Animas River and its management.”

While in Silverton, the team visited the Mountain Studies Institute, which conducts scientific research and environmental restoration in the area, and emphasizes the need for communicating that research to a wide audience in the San Juan Mountains region. Boepple says they have some of the most complete data on the Animas River before, during, and after the Gold King Mine spill, and have been sharing that information with the local community to help residents understand the impact of the spill.

The State of the Rockies team will head next to the Pacific Northwest, where they will spend two weeks researching tribal water issues, the debates surrounding regional dam deconstruction, and the important role that salmon play in the management of the Columbia River system.

This summer’s research will be published in the 2017 State of the Rockies Report, due out in the spring.

Colorado’s Superfund Sites Stretch From Silverton to East Colfax Avenue — Westword

From Westword (Ana Campbell):

Superfund sites dot Colorado; arguably the most well known is the long-dormant Rocky Mountain Arsenal, the chemical weapons and pesticide manufacturing plant once dubbed the most contaminated square mile on earth and now home to a wildlife refuge.

Many other past and present Superfund sites are tougher to spot, including the Denver radium sites.

Radium, once thought to be a miracle cure for cancer, was big business in Denver before the industry went belly up in the 1920s. Years later, all that remained of the industry were the 65 properties around Denver contaminated with radioactive material, which an EPA official discovered in the late ’70s. Soil at the sites was contaminated with radium, thorium and uranium, the radioactive decay of which produces radon gas, according to a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report.

In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, which set up an EPA-managed fund dedicated to paying for the cleanup of hazardous sites around the country. That included the Denver radium sites, which in 2010 were finally released from the EPA’s National Priorities List, “the list of national priorities among the known releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants throughout the United States and its territories,” according to the EPA’s website.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials still test groundwater at the former Shattuck Chemical Co. site in south Denver, which falls under Denver radium’s Superfund, and they will continue to test water every five years until it meets department standards.

The radium sites have all been cleaned up, the contaminated asphalt and soil scraped off and hauled away.

But there are other active Superfund sites in Colorado…The EPA has a full list of proposed, final and deleted sites in Colorado.

#AnimasRiver: Navajo Nation Endorses Superfund Cleanup Of Colorado Mines — CBS Denver

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
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

From the Associated Press via CBS Denver:

The Navajo Nation has formally endorsed a Superfund cleanup of southwestern Colorado mines, including one that released millions of gallons of wastewater into a river on Navajo land.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is considering a Superfund designation for the Gold King Mine and other sites, released the letter Monday…

A Superfund designation could release millions of dollars for a cleanup. The EPA says a decision could come as early as this fall.

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

#AnimasRiver: Bringing geoscience to bear on the problem of abandoned mines — Earth Magazine

From Earth Magazine (Sara Pratt):

Not much happened around the Silverton Caldera in southwestern Colorado between 26 million years ago — when hydrothermal alteration of the caldera’s fractured granitic rocks left behind extensive veins of metal-rich ores — and 1871, when those deposits were discovered by prospectors. That’s when Silverton really started to boom. From 1871 to 1991 — when the Sunnyside Mine on the east side of Bonita Peak, the largest of dozens in the area, closed — an estimated $530 million worth of gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc were extracted from the Silverton Caldera. Most of the prospectors and mining companies that extracted that wealth are long gone, but a legacy of widespread environmental impacts remains…

A map of the results of the water and sediment sampling published by the Arizona Geological Survey indicates that only a handful of samples, mostly in the upper reaches of the watershed in the early days of the spill, had pollutant levels that exceeded maximums established for drinking water standards. While the Animas and San Juan rivers remained closed to use for irrigation, drinking water and recreation for about 10 days, the impact to agriculture along the banks of the river was minimal although future crop yields could suffer from the shutdown of irrigation, according to the University of Arizona researchers, led by Karletta Chief, a hydrologist and tribal extension specialist in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science.

The report also put the 3-million-gallon spill into perspective. Each year, Silverton mines collectively discharge more than 330 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the Animas River watershed — more than 100 times the volume of the Gold King spill. In other words, the Animas River is experiencing a Gold King-sized spill, albeit less concentrated, roughly every three days.

After more than a century of largely unmitigated mining in the West, Gold King is just the latest example of the slow-motion environmental problem that has been unfolding in hundreds of mines and along thousands of kilometers of waterways. The EPA’s involvement in this particular spill, however, is an unusual twist that has brought controversy and attention, but at least, researchers say, it is shining a light on the larger problem of abandoned mine lands and the complexities surrounding their regulation and remediation.

In recent decades, the movement to remediate abandoned mine lands has gained momentum, and geoscientists from many different fields, from environmental scientists and hydrologists to geologists and mining engineers, are bringing their expertise to bear in characterizing abandoned mine sites, monitoring their environmental impacts, and assessing and prioritizing them for reclamation. But regulatory, legislative and funding issues remain — and a looming geoscience workforce crisis may leave future cleanup projects in the lurch.

The Impacts of Abandoned Mine Lands

Today, the U.S. has an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 abandoned mine sites mostly concentrated in eastern coal mining regions, like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and western hardrock and coal mining regions like Colorado and Wyoming.

“Abandoned mines” are those abandoned before 1977 by owners who pulled up stakes when the veins tapped out or market economics changed, making the mine no longer profitable to work. Prior to 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) established the national Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, few regulations held former mine owners accountable for the environmental consequences of abandoning a mine. SMCRA assesses fees on active coal mining operations to pay for remediation of abandoned coal mine sites. There is, however, no similar program for hardrock abandoned mines.

Geologic map of the Silverton Caldera showing the Animas River, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek, which outline the ring-shaped caldera. Much of the mineralization occurs in radial and graben faults. Credit: USGS/Church, von Guerard and Finger, 2007 (modified from Casadevall and Ohmoto, 1977).
Geologic map of the Silverton Caldera showing the Animas River, Cement Creek and Mineral Creek, which outline the ring-shaped caldera. Much of the mineralization occurs in radial and graben faults. Credit: USGS/Church, von Guerard and Finger, 2007 (modified from Casadevall and Ohmoto, 1977).

Abandoned mines can range from small prospect pits that merely pock the surface, to deep underground mines with kilometer upon kilometer of adits, shafts, drifts, stopes and tunnels. Such underground cavities often intersected the water table — the surface, or top, of water stored underground — requiring drainage tunnels or pumping during active mining. When mines were abandoned, however, the pumping often stopped, and drainage tunnels — which were graded to allow water, as well as loaded ore cars, to passively flow downslope — continued to drain.

Seeping groundwater can then pool in the mine and possibly escape into the surrounding environment, potentially leading to the most prominent and far-reaching of the many health, safety and environmental dangers posed by abandoned mines: the degradation of water resources by acid mine drainage.

Acid rock drainage can occur naturally, without mining, when rocks containing gold, silver, copper and other valuable metals — which also usually contain pyrite, an iron sulfide that, when exposed to air and water, creates sulfuric acid that further leaches metals from the rock — are exposed via weathering and erosion, fractures or exhumation. But mining accelerates and scales up this natural weathering, exposing vast amounts of fresh rock surfaces both inside and outside the mine to oxygen and water.

Until the 1930s, it was common practice to dump mine tailings directly into streams. When acid mine drainage flows into creeks or streams, it can impact reaches of a watershed far downstream, often leaving trails of iron-hydroxide deposits — “yellow boy” in mining terminology — that stain rocks and riverbanks red, yellow and orange. Today, tens of thousands of kilometers of U.S. rivers and streams are still affected by acid mine drainage.

In addition to water-quality impacts, other hazards that also require mitigation include spoils and tailings piles, open portals and shafts, underground fires, ground subsidence, explosive gases and rusting equipment, just to name a few.

In addition to Gold King, Colorado alone has more than 23,000 other abandoned mines posing varying degrees of threats. More than 6,000 have been remediated by the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety in cooperation with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — but $66 million worth of unfunded projects remain listed on the national database of abandoned mine lands. Other states have similar backlogs.

In Pennsylvania, the state most impacted by acid mine drainage and with a long history of remediating it, abandoned mines discharge 300 million gallons of acid mine drainage per day, affecting more than 8,800 kilometers of streams, says Eric Cavazza, director of the state’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation and past president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs.

The Watershed Approach

The problem may seem vast and intractable, but the science of acid mine drainage is well understood. And, over the last few decades, a well-stocked toolbox of mitigation techniques has been developed, including treating acid mine drainage waters with lime (calcium carbonate) to buffer the water’s pH to normal levels and channeling mine discharges through settling ponds to allow metals to precipitate.

Gold King mine treatment pond via Eric Vance/EPA and the Colorado Independent
Gold King mine treatment pond via Eric Vance/EPA and the Colorado Independent

The bigger challenge is determining where and how to allocate limited resources, says Geoffrey Plumlee, a geochemist with USGS in Denver who testified before Congress in November 2015 on the role geoscientists can play in assessing and prioritizing remediation of abandoned mines.

In his testimony, Plumlee emphasized the importance of involving geoscience expertise at every stage: identifying and assessing sites, determining remediation options, and prioritizing projects based on the potential return. The task is figuring out which sites pose the greatest hazard and possess the greatest potential for improvement, he says.

Plumlee cites the example of Colorado’s Summitville Mine, a hardrock gold mine about 100 kilometers southeast of Silverton, where mining had occurred on and off since the late 1800s. In the 1980s, open-pit mining began using a new cyanide-leaching technique to dissolve gold from lower-grade ores. Almost from the beginning, heavy-metal discharges, pH levels lower than 3, and cyanide leakage plagued the operation.

In 1992, the mining company declared bankruptcy and was unable to meet its remediation responsibilities. In 1994, to prevent a major spill into the Alamosa River, the state of Colorado asked the EPA to designate it a Superfund site and take over cleanup, the cost of which has since exceeded $100 million.

The ore geology at Summitville — massive sulfide-rich volcanic deposits, with no underlying carbonates to help buffer and neutralize acidity — “was basically a geologic recipe for extreme acid rock drainage,” Plumlee says. Meanwhile, the ore geology at other mines can result in discharges near drinking-water quality. Although not all mine drainage is acidic, it can still carry substantial amounts of toxic elements.

“Not all mine drainage is created equal,” Plumlee says. “This is why understanding the geology of the deposits is so important to helping predict mine drainage chemistry.” That is just one way geoscientists can help prioritize different sites for cleanup. Another example of how geoscience may be brought to bear is the interdisciplinary “watershed approach,” exemplified in a 10-year pilot study of the effects of more than a century of historical mining in two watersheds: Boulder Creek in Montana and the Animas River in Colorado, which includes Gold King. In the comprehensive study, which ran from 1997 to 2007, researchers examined “the geology and geochemistry of rock and sediment, the hydrology and water chemistry of streams and groundwater, and the diversity and health of aquatic and terrestrial organisms” in each watershed.

Diverting mine drainage into settling ponds allows iron oxides, heavy metals and other suspended particles to precipitate. Credit: EPA.
Diverting mine drainage into settling ponds allows iron oxides, heavy metals and other suspended particles to precipitate. Credit: EPA.

In the study, undertaken when the USGS implemented a new program in cooperation with federal land-management agencies called the Abandoned Mine Lands Initiative, researchers inventoried mine sites, analyzed an array of water, rock and mine waste samples, and characterized the geologic conditions controlling acidity and the release of toxic metals.

The results of the study, published in a 2007 report edited by USGS scientists Stanley E. Church, Paul von Guerard and Susan E. Finger, demonstrated the full potential of a comprehensive geotechnical assessment of watersheds impacted by mining, Plumlee says. Eight years later, that report became a vital resource for the teams investigating the Gold King Mine spill, helping to establish both pre-spill and pre-mining conditions.

Determining the natural conditions that existed in an environment prior to mining is important, Plumlee says, because it provides a baseline for the conditions that are technically feasible to achieve with remediation. This, in turn, can help planners set realistic goals for reclamation plans.

During mining (top), the water table is often lowered to access ore, exposing the rock to oxygen and creating acid mine drainage. Sealing off a mine can return the water table to pre-mining levels (bottom), creating anoxic conditions inside the mine and preventing further acidification. Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

In establishing those conditions, it is important to remember that nature is not always pristine when left to its own devices. In Colorado, for example, the first European settlers gave streams names like Iron Creek, Alum Creek and Bitter Creek: names that alluded to natural acid rock drainage. In 1875, prior to intensive mining, the topographer of the Hayden Expedition noted the “iron-sulfate” waters of Cement Creek and Mineral Creek were not fit for drinking.

In 2011, the Colorado Geological Survey released a study identifying a number of streams whose headwaters, lying at elevations high above where mining impacts are felt, were acidic with high metals concentrations due to the hydrothermally altered metal-sulfide rocks in the surrounding geology. “Natural acid rock drainage has been active in Colorado for thousands, possibly millions of years,” the authors wrote.

In addition to understanding surface geology, knowing a site’s underground history is also crucial for remediation decision-making. Pairing historic documents with modern geoscientific technologies can help uncover that history.

Tools & Technologies

If the Gold King spill did nothing else, it raised awareness that a better understanding of a mine’s underground structure and hydrologic conduits and connections, both man-made and natural, is needed to make effective remediation decisions.

Gold King was part of a complex of mines including the large Sunnyside Mine. During the decommissioning of the Sunnyside Mine in the 1990s, 12 bulkheads — bunker-like structures made of steel and concrete — were installed to seal off the mine. Like plugging a bathtub drain, the bulkheading prevented acid mine drainage from flowing out at the lowest levels of the mine. After bulkheading, the local water table rose 300 meters, flooding the mine.

Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.
Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

Although it might seem like flooding a mine would exacerbate the aquatic chemical reactions that result in acid mine drainage, sometimes water is part of the solution.“The idea behind the bulkheads is to raise the groundwater table back to pre-mining levels and remove oxygen from the acid mine drainage equation,” says Kirstin Brown, a geologist with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

Soon after Sunnyside was bulkheaded and the water table rose, however, acid mine drainage at nearby mines — including the Red and Bonita, Mogul, and Gold King, each of which had previously been dry or discharging minimally — began flowing again. The renewed flows of acid mine drainage into Upper Cement Creek and the Animas River were at first actively treated to raise the pH. However, in 2003 and 2004, treatment ceased when disputes among the mine companies over who was responsible for its cost led to litigation, and streamwater quality again declined.

In 2010, in an effort to better understand the flow of mine drainage into Upper Cement Creek, the Bureau of Land Management, the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment contacted the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety about creating a three-dimensional model of how the mine workings might be intersecting the water table.

The task fell to Brown, who worked with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, to learn and use EarthVision software to create the model, which drew on data from historic mine maps, some of which the researchers had to track down and “dig out of people’s basements in Silverton,” she says.

After scanning and georeferencing the old maps, groundwater data was then overlaid on the workings. Researchers can’t see the groundwater surface underground, but they can see where it flows out on the surface. If a mine portal, spring or stream is flowing at the ground surface, it shows researchers a fixed point on the surface of the groundwater table. Researchers also can check groundwater head pressures on some bulkhead gauges to see the current pressure and depth of the water table.

The result was a model that can be manipulated in three dimensions that gives officials the ability to “better visualize and understand the groundwater in the mountain and to help communicate the problem [of acid mine drainage] to the public,” Brown says. The model could also “help make predictions for the best practices for remediation.”

Understanding the hydrology at work in a mine can also allow for the most potent remediation technique: controlling the water at its source to prevent contamination in the first place. Sealing off mine entries with bulkheads can help prevent water from entering mine workings, and the flow of water inside the mountain can be manipulated to direct acid water away from clean water sources, Brown says.

Remediation teams employ other tools and technologies to investigate what’s going on belowground. Salt and dye tracer solutions can be introduced into mine waters to follow the hydrological connections among the workings. Drilling boreholes to send cameras, sensors or other instruments down into a mine is another common technique, often used to check the pressure and depth of a mine pool prior to beginning work.

“We do a lot of mine pool evaluations and mine pool monitoring, which is what didn’t happen at Gold King that resulted in uncontrolled releases of mine water,” Cavazza says. “Before we open up an abandoned underground mine, we almost always drill and put in monitoring wells so we have a good understanding of exactly how large [the mine pool] is, what the volume is, and how to contain and control it if we decide to open it.”

Another way to figure out what’s going on is to go underground with an engineering team, says Brown, adding that this is only done after ground conditions have been assessed, stabilized and deemed safe. Once underground, teams can map faults and fractures, collect information about water quality and water sources underground, and assess how to control those sources, for example, by determining where to place bulkheads.

But, it turns out, it is getting harder and harder these days to find engineers trained to work in mines.

Mining Engineers: A Depleted Resource

Since 1982, the number of accredited mining engineering schools has shrunk from 25 to 14 and for the last decade they have produced fewer than 200 graduates a year.

“Here in Pennsylvania, we have had a very difficult time recruiting new mining engineers to replace our mining engineers who are reaching retirement age,” Cavazza says. “There are fewer mining engineers being trained nationally, and there is probably going to be a continued need for them into the future.”

Last fall, in response to the Gold King spill, three bills were introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources chaired by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who noted in his opening remarks the importance of having mining engineers on staff at agencies tasked with acid mine drainage cleanup.

“In the Committee’s investigation of the Gold King Mine spill, we discovered that, out of 15,326 employees, [the EPA] has no mining engineers and only 68 geologists, two of [whom] are assigned to [EPA] Region 8 where the spill occurred,” Lamborn said.

One bill, H.R. 3734, the Mining Schools Enhancement Act, would require the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to direct 70 percent of its research funding to mining schools to help train the next generation of mining engineers.

In addition to mining engineers working on abandoned mine lands cleanup, it is “crucial to have economic and structural geologists who can help the mining engineers interpret and address the complexities of the geology, and hydrologists who can develop the detailed hydrologic models for groundwater flow,” Plumlee adds.

Legislative Will

The other two bills introduced last fall, H.R. 3843 and H.R. 3844, propose to assess a maintenance fee on mineral claims for the next seven years, establish a federal “Good Samaritan” law, and establish a foundation that would oversee private gifts and bequests to fund abandoned mine lands remediation projects.

The bills are not the sweeping legislation that has been called for to replace the current law governing hardrock mining — the General Mining Act of 1872. Signed into law by Ulysses S. Grant to promote the settling of the West, it was enacted a century before the environmental movement took hold and made no provision for funding or regulation of remediation. “It’s never been updated, which is a very long time for an environmental law to be on the books,” Cavazza says. But, he says, “some people don’t want it updated.”

The most recent legislation proposing to update the 1872 mining act, H.R. 963, the Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015, was referred to subcommittee, where it remains. It would have, among other things, assessed reclamation fees to establish a fund for future cleanups and established a federal Good Samaritan law to waive some liability for private citizens, groups or companies who want to become involved in mine cleanup projects. Opponents contend that while domestic coal producers can pass the additional cost of reclamation fees onto consumers, U.S. mineral producers competing in a global market would suffer a competitive disadvantage if additional fees were imposed.

“There’s really never been the legislative will in Congress to enact a hardrock abandoned mine lands program,” Cavazza says.

Thus, hardrock abandoned mine lands are instead overseen by an alphabet soup of local, state and federal agencies, each with its own rules and guidelines. And funding to remediate a particular site may come from a hodge-podge of sources, including federal, state, and private partners who, in turn, get funding from a variety of sources, including SMCRA, Superfund, and the Clean Water Act Grant Program.

“Currently, no single source of funding, whether it be federal, state, tribal or private, is adequate on its own to address the magnitude of the problem that exists,” the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) reported in 2007. As of 2011, according to a General Accounting Office report, BLM, USFS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement had spent at least $2.6 billion to reclaim abandoned hardrock mines on federal, state, tribal and private lands.

Good Samaritans

Some of the private funding comes from corporations or groups — like Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving trout fisheries — that have a vested interest in cleaning up their local waterways. However, under certain laws anyone involved with mine cleanup in any way over the years can potentially be held responsible for environmental damage, even that which preceded their involvement with cleanup, and be liable for legal damages and cleanup costs.

Thus, Good Samaritan laws offer permits to waive or reduce the liability of private parties that want to participate in environmental cleanup projects. For example, if a group helped remediate a polluted stream that was previously unable to support aquatic life to the point that fish could survive in it, but not necessarily to the point that the water met the standards of the Clean Water Act, Good Samaritan laws might exempt the company from the more stringent requirement.

South Dakota and Pennsylvania are currently the only states with “Good Sam” laws. In Pennsylvania, Cavazza says, the 1999 law increased the number of private parties participating in acid mine drainage cleanup projects. But, he says, he suspects that many potential corporate partners are still dissuaded by legal teams who do not want to risk federal liability.

“I don’t know why you would want to discourage anybody from going in to try to clean something up that they had nothing to do with creating, that they are not in any way liable for, and for which they are providing their own resources,” says Cavazza, who last fall testified in his capacity as past president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs (not in his role as a state official) to the benefits of Good Sam laws before the House subcommittee.

The Legacy of Gold King

Whether the Gold King spill will provide the impetus to create a national program for hardrock abandoned mine lands remains to be seen. The case of Gold King is currently mired in litigation and hearings. At the site, the EPA has set up a temporary water treatment plant in the nearby ghost town of Gladstone to treat Gold King discharge before it reaches Cement Creek. Downstream, state and federal public health agencies and other researchers continue to monitor the Animas watershed, especially during spring runoff and high-water events that may mobilize sediments laden with heavy metals.

“Although there appear to be no short-term effects to health or the environment following the Gold King Mine spill,” the University of Arizona researchers wrote last November, “we will not understand the long-term impacts of this highly concentrated release of metals into our environment for quite some time.”

In April, in response to a request from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and towns, counties and tribes in the Animas and San Juan watersheds, the EPA proposed listing 48 historic mine sites in the Silverton Caldera as a Superfund site. Some residents of Silverton had long resisted the designation, despite the fact that it would bring additional federal resources for remediation, because it was thought that associating the town’s name with Superfund, often synonymous with hazardous waste, could threaten tourism. But after seeing the Animas run orange, many changed their minds.

If approved, the Superfund site will be called the Bonita Peak Mining District.

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
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

#AnimasRiver: EPA weighs options for dumping Cement Creek treatment plant sludge

The EPA's wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 -- photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio
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 (Jessica Pace):

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday they are deciding where to haul sludge from the temporary water-treatment plant for Gold King Mine wastewater.

The EPA periodically has updated the communities of San Juan and La Plata counties in recent months as a Superfund proposal moves forward, and most aspects of the agency’s work has been in the evaluation stages thus far.

On Wednesday, the EPA told La Plata County commissioners that the agency is considering whether to dispose of nontoxic sludge produced by the temporary treatment plant at a mining district site or a landfill.

La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake said he opts for the least expensive option.

“It’s not toxic waste, so it can go anywhere,” he said.

Commissioners inquired about the life of the plant, which is supposed to end this fall.

“It was designed and constructed to be an interim measure,” Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas said. “We’ll continue to evaluate options, but we’ll come up with a comprehensive remedy for the entire mining district.”

Thomas said for now, the temporary plant is operating as usual, and a long-term solution could include a permanent water-treatment facility.

The EPA also is evaluating what Superfund designation will mean for private property owners, officials said Wednesday.

#AnimasRiver: Utah looking for link between San Juan River, Lake Powell water quality and #GoldKingMine spill

On April 7, 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
On April 7, 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

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

State regulators are calling for more study of Lake Powell and sections of the San Juan River in light of unusual test results that may or may not be tied to last summer’s Gold King Mine spill.

Two sections of the San Juan River were added to the state’s list of “impaired” waters in the latest state water quality report. Those portions of the river were found to have concentrations of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead and mercury that exceeded state water quality standards on at least two occasions last fall.

The state also added portions of Lake Powell to the list — a move that greatly increased the overall percentage of freshwater lake acreage deemed as impaired, said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ). In the state report, released this week, 71 percent of Utah’s freshwater lakes did not meet the water quality standards for their designated uses, which include providing drinking water, recreation or wildlife habitat.

The overages in the San Juan River were detected by the Environmental Protection Agency while the feds were sampling the river to evaluate the fallout from the Gold King Mine blowout upriver, and are possibly related to the Aug. 5 incident, said Erica Gaddis, assistant director of the DWQ.

Gaddis said the department had feared this spring’s runoff could dislodge even more contamination and flush it downstream, but so far, the division hasn’t found evidence of that. And though portions of Lake Powell are listed as impaired, it’s unlikely that it’s related to the Gold King Mine, Gaddis said.

Water directly downstream of the mine saw decreased pH levels — becoming more acidic — immediately following the Gold King spill in August, but Lake Powell has had unusually high pH readings — a situation that itself is a mystery.

Now, the division’s scientists are also wondering where the estimated 880,000 pounds of heavy metals released during the August 2016 Gold King Mine incident ended up.

The common thought, Gaddis said, is that the metals were deposited in sediment somewhere upstream, on the Animas River in Colorado — and that they remained there, waiting for high river flows to flush them out.

It’s possible that those metals are already making their way downstream, she said, and increased river flow could be diluting the metals so that concentrations remain below the state’s screening values.

The potential for further contamination pushed the state to develop a long-term monitoring plan for the San Juan and Lake Powell, the likely final resting place for all that sediment, should it make its way farther down the river.

As part of that plan, the state has installed devices on the river capable of measuring the amount of sediment in the water in real-time. That data is available to the public at water data.usgs.gov.

It’s not yet clear how the amount of mobilized sediment correlates to the concentration of metals in the river. Gaddis said it could take another year for the DWQ to create a working model that will be used to issuing warnings when the river may be contaminated…

The primary concern, Gaddis said, is aquatic life. The state is also watching aquatic life in the region to determine whether metals in the river, or in the river’s sediment, are potentially harming fish or other creatures that live in the river. Gaddis said the DWQ has yet to see direct evidence of metals poisoning.

The long-term monitoring plan is anticipated to cost $1.2 million altogether, Gaddis said. So far the EPA has offered Utah $645,000 related to the Gold King Mine spill. Gaddis said the state intends to apply all of that money to its monitoring initiatives.

The state also intends to sue the EPA for its role in the Gold King Mine incident. Wade Fairway, an assistant Utah attorney general, told lawmakers during a Tuesday interim legislative meeting that his office was still in the process of hiring outside legal counsel to assist with the suit.

Meanwhile, Gaddis said, the DWQ has begun to turn its attention to the chronic effect of mining in the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado and on the San Juan River and its tributaries. The Gold King Mine alone, she said, could have released between 500 million and 850 million gallons of contaminated water over the past decade, and it’s just one of 48 old mines in the Bonita district.

The EPA proposed making the entire Bonita district a superfund site this past April.

AnimasRiver: Deadline for comments on Superfund status passes

On April 7, 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
On April 7, 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

From the Associated Press via The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Time is up for people to comment on a proposed Superfund cleanup for leaking mines in southwestern Colorado, and not many have spoken up.

A few hours before the Monday deadline, 34 people had submitted comments

to the Environmental Protection Agency on the planned Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

The site would include the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, which released 3 million gallons of acidic waste into Colorado, New Mexico and Utah rivers last August.

A finally tally on comments is expected later Tuesday.

The low number of comments came as a surprise after years of controversy over a Superfund site. Some worried it would hurt the region’s tourist economy or give the federal government too much power over local affairs.

Has the Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill groundwater reached Pueblo Reservoir?

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Anthony A. Mestas and Tracy Harmon):

Pueblo County Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen is calling for sediment testing along the Arkansas River and at the bottom of Lake Pueblo to see if there is possible contamination from the now-closed Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill in Fremont County.

McFadyen said Tuesday during a press conference that she is concerned about the impact the possible “growing uranium and molybdenum plumes could have on Pueblo County.”

However, state health officials say the concerns are unfounded. But McFadyen remains concerned.

“This has been going on for 40 years and we can see that the situation is not getting any better and it’s time for us downstream from Canon City to take a stand,” McFadyen said, referring to the ongoing battle over the Cotter Mill cleanup.

Jeri Fry, director of the Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste Inc., shared the history of the Cotter controversy and presented maps from a 1987-89 study sowing ground uranium and molybdenum plumes that stretch from the Cotter Superfund site toward the Arkansas River.

“It’s likely that the molybdenum and the uranium plumes have grown since then. We just want answers,” McFadyen said. “And if the Arkansas isn’t contaminated, then that’s a very positive finding . . . We don’t find what we don’t look for.”

However, the concerns are unfounded, according to Colorado Department of Public Health Public Information Officer Warren Smith and Cotter Corp. Mill Manager Steve Cohen. They agree that Arkansas River water is not impacted by contamination from the Cotter mill.

“The Arkansas River is sampled routinely and the results have been showing that the river water quality has not been impacted,” Smith said.

“We constantly collect samples and data every quarter and there is no evidence that Cotter has impacted the Arkansas River.”

Both state and federal health officials study the data and “nobody has ever found anything to suggest that,” said Cohen.

“I am personally disgusted that the Pueblo County commissioners would have a meeting about this and not invite us to speak on the topic,” Cohen said.

And Jennifer Opila, Colorado Department of Public Health site director, said:

“I understand that the sediment has not been sampled (since 2004), but without impact on the water quality, there is no information that would lead us to believe the sediment would be contaminated. There is no contamination of the Arkansas River near the Cotter site, so Pueblo Reservoir would not be impacted.”

“This issue and all other potential issues will be looked at as part of the remedial investigation as we work toward final cleanup,” she said.

McFadyen said she is aware of water testing, but is calling for sediment testing and if it is positive, “Cotter should pay to treat it.”

McFadyen said in 1986, the USGS suggested on behalf of the federal government that sediment and not only the water be tested in the Pueblo reservoir.

“With the plume growing toward the Arkansas River, it’s time. It’s time to take action,” McFadyen said.

She said the possible contamination also could affect Colorado Springs because of the Southern Delivery System, which pipes water from Lake Pueblo up to that community.

State health officials overseeing the Cotter Corp. mill have not felt the study of Minnequa and Pueblo reservoir water quality pertinent since 2004.

“A 2004 review of water quality of the (Minnequa and Pueblo) reservoirs as well as the Arkansas River and associated drainages concluded that they are not impacted by the mill contaminants,” Smith said.

Part of the reason that the downstream reservoirs have not been tested since 2004 is due to the absence of high levels of radium-226, thoium-230, molybdenum and nickel in bodies of water much closer to the mill.

“Sediment sampling in Sand Creek (just north of the mill site), the Arkansas River and the Fremont Ditch indicate that constituents of concern are similar to (natural) background data. These locations are closer to the mill than the Pueblo reservoir and the Minnequa Reservoir,” the state health review concluded.

While the legacy contamination is still present in Lincoln Park groundwater plume (though declining), remedial measures have been effective in preventing public exposure to the Lincoln Park plume. A 2008 water use survey concluded that only one Lincoln Park water well exceeded a drinking water standard for contamination.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry draft public health assessment in 2010, conducted at the request of Colorado Citizen’s Against Toxic Waste, found that Cotter contamination did not present a current threat to human health or the environment, according to state health documentation.

“We need to understand all of the materials and how they are moving through the groundwater and how after these 30-40 years they have reached the river and if they are moving on downstream,” Fry said.

“That is a terrible trick to play on our neighbors. When you see a barn burning, do you go tell the authorities or do you just turn your head? And I am telling the authorities. Let’s all band together and get this tested.”

More From KOAA.com (Lena Howland):

“This site is leaking into the neighboring community and it has contaminated the wells and it is a slow moving problem and because of that, people aren’t aware of it,” Fry said.

Fry is calling for more testing of water near the site and they’re looking for help from the community.

“Until we know where it is, we can’t realistically, effectively clean it up,” she said.

She fears the waste may have spread downstream through the Arkansas River and to the Pueblo Reservoir, which has caught the attention of Pueblo County Commissioner Buffie McFadyen.

“I do believe it’s time for Pueblo to get involved and work with the citizens of Fremont County to not only demand a remediation plan that’s realistic to cleanup the site, but also to demand testing along the Arkansas in the sediment and in Pueblo Reservoir,” she said.

McFadyen, now also demanding more testing of the sediment specifically.

And the possibility of tainted water is unsettling to some locals in Pueblo.

“This water comes from the same area, I imagine it passes through, so it’s picking up stuff definitely,” Patricia Hitchcock, a Pueblo resident said.

While others say, this isn’t anything to worry about just yet.

“I think there’s always a little bit of concern about stuff in the water, it wouldn’t keep me out unless it was really serious, but a little bit of concern. In 10 years, I haven’t gotten sick once from the water,” Daniel Rottinghaus, a Pueblo kayaker said.

Cotter officials tell News5 these claims of contamination in the Arkansas River are simply not true and that they routinely test the water and sediment.

From the Colorado Springs Independent (Pam Zubeck):

Tuesday morning, Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste gave a presentation to commissioners about their suspicions that the toxic substances have leaked into Pueblo Reservoir.

Why should we in Colorado Springs care? Because one source of water for Colorado Springs and Fountain is the Pueblo Reservoir, via the Fountain Valley Authority line and the Southern Delivery System pipeline.

Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen is, Pueblo County Commissioner is overseeing efforts to learn more about the situation.

Here’s a community newsletter about the issue.

And here’s a presentation made today by the citizen group.

Scientists at conference at San Juan College compare notes about #GoldKingMine spill, #AnimasRiver drainage

On April 7, 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
On April 7, 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

From the NMSU News Service (Jane Moorman) via The Albuquerque Journal:

Nine months after mining sludge from the Gold King Mine turned the Animas and San Juan rivers yellow, scientists and researchers gathered here recently to share what they have learned so far regarding the contamination of the rivers from the spill in August 2015.

“Immediately during and after the Gold King Mine spill, different groups started monitoring the river water, shores and irrigation systems,” said Sam Fernald, director of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University.

“As they have gathered data, they realized there’s a lot of questions about the history of the watersheds, the natural state of the rivers, and the long-term impact. They immediately came up with all of these questions beyond the initial response,” Fernald said.

The conference last month at San Juan College was a time for 150 scientists from state and federal agencies, New Mexico universities, Native American tribes and numerous cities and counties to exchange information from their early stages of research.

While the spill sparked fear among those whose livelihood depends on the water, it has proven to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the scientists.

“This was a historic event,” said Kevin Lombard, a horticulturalist stationed at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington who is conducting two studies regarding the impact of the spill on the agricultural land. “We have the opportunity to record the impact of the contaminants that were in the mining sludge.”

Recording of the impact is proving to be a collaboration of researchers.

“We have a common goal of figuring out what the questions are and figuring out how to address them and how to get the information out to the public,” Fernald said.

Since the spill, the scientists have gathered data regarding river water quality before, during and after the spill; private wells accessing ground water; the impact of the water quality on the fish; and the impact of irrigated river water on the agricultural land.

The greatest challenge is the perception of health risks that the spill caused.

The early finding is that the levels of heavy metals being monitored are within federal standards. Only when rainwater increases the rivers’ water levels do the metal levels increase briefly from the riverbank contamination in Colorado.

Conference collaborators in the long-term monitoring include the state Environment Department, NMSU, UNM, New Mexico Tech, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District, San Juan Watershed Group, San Juan County, the city of Aztec and the city of Farmington.

#AnimasRiver: #NewMexico sues EPA and others over #GoldKingMine disaster — The High County News

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson):

“Corn are thirsty and dying, damn the EPA, damn the government, damn the industry!”

— Duane “Chili” Yazzie, Navajo farmer, activist and President of the Shiprock Chapter, from his poem “Yellow River”

On May 23, the State of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the owners of the Sunnyside Mine near Silverton, Colorado, over damages caused by last year’s Gold King mine blowout. It’s likely just the first volley in what could be a long legal fracas emerging from both the spill and the impending Superfund listing for the Gold King and surrounding mines.

The action was hardly a surprise: New Mexico had expressed its intention to take legal action when the impacted rivers — the Animas and the San Juan — were still orange from the spill of 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage and iron oxide sludge. Initially, however, the state was targeting not just the EPA, but also the State of Colorado, the owner of the Gold King Mine and others. The only defendants in the actual complaint are: the EPA and its administrator Gina McCarthy; the contractor working on the mine when it blew out; and Sunnyside owner Kinross, a Canada-based global mining company, and its subsidiary Sunnyside Gold Corp.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

While the EPA has accepted blame for inadvertently causing the spill, Sunnyside’s culpability in the matter is murky. After being almost dry for years, the Gold King mine started draining water in the late 1990s or early 2000s, most likely a result of water backing up behind one or more of the three bulkheads that Sunnyside installed in the American Tunnel, below the Gold King. Yet still unknown is which bulkhead, in particular, is causing the drainage, and whether Gold King water is just being returned to its historic course, or Sunnyside mine water is somehow infiltrating the Gold King. (See our extensive, interactive timeline, which clearly helped inform the New Mexico complaint, for details.)

The complaint alleges that the “garish yellow cloud of contamination wrought environmental and economic damage throughout the Animas and San Juan Rivers” and that it deposited sediment that could be re-mobilized during spring runoff, causing a potential repeat. Perhaps more damaging than the metals contained in the plume and sediment was the psychological impact, and the “uncertainty and anxiety generated by widely-circulated images of a sickly yellow river.” The state seeks reimbursement of all of its costs related to the spill, which it says exceed $100 million.

At a recent regional water quality conference in Farmington, New Mexico, one speaker noted that the “river would never be the same” after the spill. Yet water sampling and fish counts conducted since the spill have shown that things haven’t changed significantly. At the conference, a presentation by Jim White, aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, noted that fish counts showed “no discernible changes in species composition, biomass, and/or quality of trout or native fishes POST Gold King Mine spill.” And an analysis conducted by the Mountain Studies Institute in Durango this spring showed that metal concentrations in the Animas River have increased during spring runoff, but not noticeably more than in past years.

On April 7, 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
On April 7, 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

#AnimasRiver: “Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance” — Hector Balderas

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

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

New Mexico launched a legal fight against the EPA and owners of a Colorado gold mine Monday, demanding action, contending the Gold King disaster caused catastrophic harm to downriver people, aquatic insects and fish.

“Not only is this an environmental crisis, but it is a crisis in poor governance. … Governments need to be accountable to neighboring communities as well as their own community,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said after filing a lawsuit in federal court.

The lawsuit does not specify monetary damages, but state attorneys said New Mexico is entitled to at least $7 million to reimburse communities for emergency expenditures after the disaster and for independent, third-party monitoring of water quality. In addition, the attorneys estimated New Mexico suffered economic harm of $140 million.

It spares Colorado, for now. Balderas said he’s “having a conversation” with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and hopes legal issues between the states can be resolved.

EPA officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but agency officials said the EPA has paid $1.3 million to help New Mexico cover costs related to the disaster. Coffman declined to comment.

The lawsuit contends New Mexico, tribes and Utah suffered catastrophic damage from the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 spill into Animas River headwaters, a “sickly yellow plume of contamination” that flowed out of southwestern Colorado into New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, Utah and eventually Lake Powell atop the Grand Canyon.The spill damaged water that is the lifeblood of downriver communities’ economy and culture with devastating impact, the lawsuit said.

It demands tougher water-quality testing — using “the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation” — by someone outside the EPA.

Compensation would go for remediation and to help agricultural and cultural communities that depend on the river for irrigation and drinking water. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy,” the lawsuit said.

New Mexico blames the plugging of the Sunnyside Mine, currently owned by Kinross Corp., as the root cause of the Gold King disaster because this action backed up acidic, metals-laden water, causing water levels to spread to nearby mines, including the Gold King Mine. The lawsuit also targets Environmental Restoration, the EPA’s contractor, involved in work to try to drain the Gold King when workers accidentally caused a blowout.

From The Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the complaint today on behalf of the New Mexico Environment Department in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.

The EPA has admitted responsibility for the Aug. 5 mine blowout. Employees of an EPA contractor, Environmental Restoration, released millions of gallons of mine waste laced with heavy metals into the Animas and San Juan rivers during a cleanup operation. The plume carried more than 880,000 pounds of toxic metals including lead, cadmium, copper, mercury and zinc through state and tribal lands.

In addition to the EPA, the lawsuit names EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold USA Inc. and Sunnyside Gold Corp.

New Mexico is demanding the defendants “abate the imminent and substantial threats” from the Sunnyside Mine network and remediate residual contamination from mine releases. The state is also seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages.

The complaint alleges the state is experiencing “enormous economic losses” because of the spill.

“The indelible images of a mustard-hewed toxic plume meandering downstream – into the habitat of several endangered species and superb sport fishing and recreational grounds – will linger long after the visible impacts of the release have vanished,” the complaint states.

The “lingering stigma” will result in reduced economic activity and a decline in taxes, fees and income because of lost tourism, fishing and land use, according to the complaint.

State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the federal Tort claim notice filed this month included an estimate the state has suffered and will suffer $130 million in lost income, taxes, fees and revenues.

In a telephone interview Monday, Flynn said the department tried to work with the EPA to address ongoing concerns — including monitoring heavy metals levels in the river — but were unable to resolve those matters.

“We tried over seven months to pursue a diplomatic path forward,” he said adding the agency has to be accountable for its promises to address the spill and its aftermath.

A press release from the attorney general’s office states New Mexico and the EPA have been unable to “mutually agree” on a monitoring plan that “appropriately protects” state and tribal lands.

“It is inappropriate for the EPA to impose weak testing standards in New Mexico and I am demanding the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation to protect the health and well-being of our citizens,” Balderas said in the release.

In a statement emailed to The Daily Times Monday, EPA Region 6 spokesman David Gray said the agency takes responsibility for the cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and provide funding for monitoring plans developed by state and tribal governments.

“EPA’s longstanding practice has been not to comment on pending litigation filed by external parties,” Gray said.

He added the EPA has paid approximately $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring costs for New Mexico. Other funding has been distributed to Colorado, Utah, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Louie Diaz, spokesman for Kinross, said in an email Monday that Kinross and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the mine spill.

The complaint names Kinross Gold Corp., through its subsidiary Kinross Gold USA, as owner of the Sunnyside Mine and neighboring properties near Silverton, Colo.

“Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action,” Diaz said.

The 51-page complaint asks the federal court to declare the defendants liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act for all costs incurred by New Mexico for its response to the releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances from the Gold King Mine and two additional locations, which are also mine sites in the mountains above Silverton.

The court is being asked to declare the named mining companies and EPA contractor in violation of the “imminent and substantial endangerment” provision in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The contractor, Environmental Restoration, did not return calls seeking comment today.

In addition, it requests EPA Administrator McCarthy to find a way to moderate pollution from inactive and abandoned mines in Colorado that discharge acid mine waste water into the Animas River.

New Mexico is asking the court to declare the mine owners and EPA contractor “negligent, grossly negligent or both” and award the state compensatory, consequential and punitive damages.

The complaint comes months after the state announced its intent to sue the EPA, the owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines, and the state of Colorado, which was not named in Monday’s complaint.

James Hallinan, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the state is still attempting to resolve issues with Colorado. Letters obtained by The Daily Times sent by Balderas to the EPA and the Colorado attorney general last week detailed some of the state’s problems with responses to the spill.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said the tribe will support New Mexico in its action and the tribe will closely monitor the lawsuit.

The president added the economic and environmental impacts and losses related to the spill, including abandoned crops, “heavily affect” the tribe, and the EPA has yet to reimburse those Navajo farmers and ranchers.

“The U.S. EPA has yet to provide significant clean-up along the river banks and in the river beds. The Navajo Nation is still very concerned that the contaminants will continue to migrate down river, particularly when there is a spike in the flow of the river,” Begaye said.

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

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Columbian:

The federal lawsuit says the environmental effects of the August 2015 spill are far worse than claimed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. New Mexico wants to be paid back for its immediate response to the disaster and receive funding for long-term monitoring, lost revenue and a marketing campaign to undo the stigma left behind by the bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals that fouled rivers in three Western states.

“The liability is crystal clear. The facts speak for themselves, and EPA for whatever reason is unwilling to resolve this outside of court,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Associated Press. “We’re going to do what we need to do to make sure New Mexicans are protected and compensated for the harm caused.”

[…]

Balderas said the spill has had a devastating effect on communities and that the federal agency should be held to the same standards it would impose on private interests accused of polluting.

“Remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water,” Balderas said. “They must be properly compensated and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and the economy.”

The EPA typically declines to comment about pending litigation but a spokeswoman said last week that the agency was taking responsibility for the cleanup…

A notice sent this month to the EPA outlined the damage and argued that heavy metals in the Animas and San Juan rivers remain at levels that “present unacceptable risks to health and the environment.”

Attorneys for New Mexico argue that the spill was preventable and that the EPA had been warned about a potential blowout nearly a year before the incident.

The state also contends its offers to lead a regional long-term monitoring project to better understand the damage and the prospects of future contamination flowing down the river system have been repeatedly rebuffed by the EPA.

The agency offered $2 million to states and tribes affected by the spill for monitoring, but New Mexico officials say that’s only a fraction of the more than $6 million that would be needed for adequate monitoring in the state.

New Mexico also estimates the spill is costing the state $130 million in lost income taxes, fees and revenue. Officials have pointed to reduced tourism, fishing and land use throughout the region.

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The state sued the Environmental Protection Agency, contractor Environmental Restoration LLC, and owners of the Gold King Mine as defendants. It’s the first state to take this kind of legal action…

New Mexico officials say that about $130 million would go toward economic damages, $17 million would be spent on a marketing fund to promote the state’s image, and $6 million would be spent on long-term water quality monitoring. About $1 million would help recoup emergency response costs at the time of the spill.

New Mexico isn’t the only state struggling with covering costs associated with the spill. La Plata County, in Colorado, reports a deficit of nearly $185,849 spent on wages, benefits and water quality monitoring since the spill. San Juan County reports that it’s seeking reimbursement for $357,363 for spill-related expenses through Feb. 29, 2016.

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.):

In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, Attorney General Hector Balderas and the New Mexico Environment Department cite economic setbacks and environmental damage suffered by the state after more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste was dumped into the river.

It demands reimbursement of $889,327 for short-term emergency-response costs paid by the state, more than $6 million to pay for long-term monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers and $130 million for lost income, taxes, fees and revenues suffered by the state because of the spill.

“The river only flows one way,” said Ryan Flynn, New Mexico environment secretary. “Trouble could still be coming for New Mexico. We have been pushing for a monitoring effort since October. Our concept is $6 million plus and five years of comprehensive monitoring that would give us a firm grasp of what is happening in the watershed. All EPA has said is we will give you is $465,000. That just doesn’t cut it.”

[…]

Flynn said efforts to resolve issues with the EPA outside of court have proved fruitless.

“I couldn’t tell you what EPA is thinking,” Flynn said. “EPA seems totally unwilling to resolve this in a collaborative manner.”

Among the major impasses between New Mexico and the EPA has been appropriate screening levels for contaminant metals such as lead.

Flynn said the EPA wants to impose a recreational standard that would be safe for hikers and campers, but New Mexico believes the much more strict residential standard should be applied because people live along the affected rivers in New Mexico.

“There are a lot of people whose homes are right on the river or who use the river for a lot more than kayaking,” Flynn said.

Balderas agrees.

“It is inappropriate for the EPA to impose weak testing standards in New Mexico, and I am demanding the highest testing standards that the EPA would impose in any other state in the nation to protect the health and well being of our citizens,” Balderas said. “Additionally, remediation and compensation dollars have been far too minimal for these very special agricultural and cultural communities who depend on this precious water source for irrigation and drinking water. They must be properly compensated, and there must be appropriate independent monitoring to prevent future dangers to public health and economy.”

The EPA does not comment on pending litigation filed by outside parties. But in a statement released Monday, the EPA said the agency takes responsibility for the mine spill cleanup and has been working to reimburse response costs and fund tribal and state monitoring plans as well as conduct its own monitoring of the Animas and San Juan rivers.

“EPA has funded about $1.3 million in reimbursements and monitoring cost for New Mexico to date,” the EPA statement said. “We continue to review documentation and applications for different entities in the state and will expedite payments. New Mexico has $7.1 million available in unallocated federal funds – of which $108,000 has already been approved – to fund real-time monitors in the river.”

[…]

Flynn said the EPA has paid back more than $700,000 of the emergency-response money New Mexico shelled out dealing with the spill, but that the state is seeking another $800,000-plus from the federal agency to cover those costs.

New Mexico also wants $130 million to pay for economic losses it attributes to the mine spill.

“We asked our analyst to be as conservative as possible,” Flynn said. “But there is stigma associated with this region due to the yellow river.”

He said that stigma had hurt New Mexico in revenue lost because kayakers, fishermen, hikers and other outdoorsmen have sought other places to enjoy outdoor recreation, tourists have selected other vacation destinations and consumers of agricultural products have looked elsewhere for their purchases.

“The facts speak for themselves,” Flynn said. “They (EPA) are clearly at fault. At the end of the day the law is on our side. EPA is now on the other side of the law it has been fighting to enforce for so many years.”

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Sue McMillin):

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, names the EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, Environmental Restoration, LLC, Kinross Gold Corp., Kinross Gold U.S.A. Inc., and Sunnyside Gold Corp. as defendants. Kinross is the parent company of Sunnyside.

Along with seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages related to the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill, the lawsuit “demands that the Defendants abate the imminent and substantial threats emanating from the mines in Colorado, and remediate residual contamination from the Gold King Mine releases in New Mexico’s surface waters and sediments.”

James Hallinan, communications director for the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, said he could not comment on open litigation, but the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office is in “ongoing communication” with the state of Colorado over the Gold King spill. The state of Colorado and the owner of the Gold King Mine were not named in the lawsuit filed Monday, although in March the New Mexico Environment Department filed notice of its intent to sue those parties as well.

Colorado Attorney General Office spokeswoman Erin Lamb declined to comment on the lawsuit.

A spokesman with Kinross Gold Corp. responded in an email to a request for comment: “Kinross Gold and Sunnyside Gold were not involved and have no responsibility regarding the incident on August 5th, 2015 and Kinross and Sunnyside never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. We will vigorously defend ourselves from this legal action.”

The lawsuit claims the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside Gold’s attempt to block acid mine drainage by building bulkheads in drainage tunnels below the mine. The owners of the Gold King and Sunnyside mines have disputed the source of the wastewater buildup.

“These bulkheads impounded possibly billions of gallons of acid mine drainage and wastewater in Bonita Peak Mountain and caused the water to flood several adjacent mines,” the complaint says. It accuses Sunnyside Gold of using the mountain to store its waste rather than properly treating it.

General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library
General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

A federal grant will fund an economic development coordinator to help Silverton and San Juan County businesses during the potential Superfund cleanup of historic mines.

“They are totally reliant on tourism, and we don’t know how that will be impacted,” said Laura Lewis Marchino, the deputy director of the Region 9 Economic Development District.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration is providing about $115,600 to pay a coordinator for two years and cover expenses such as marketing materials and travel, Marchino said.

The coordinator will be focused on supporting existing businesses through the federal cleanup of the Bonita Peak Mining District, which could include 48 mine-related sites.

The mining district was recommended for a Superfund listing in April following the Aug. 5 mine blowout, and the proposed designation is nearing the end of a 60-day comment period.

Easing the housing shortage when Superfund workers come to town will likely be another priority for the coordinator, she said.

During the construction of the temporary water-treatment plant near the Gold King Mine, there was not enough housing, she said.

The town needs more rentals so that hotel and motel rooms aren’t used as permanent housing.

The five-member San Juan Development Association Board that includes representatives from the town of Silverton, San Juan County, the Silverton Chamber of Commerce and Region 9 will hire the new coordinator.

Region 9 will manage the two-year grant, and Marchino would like to have the position filled by late summer.

“We needed to do what we could to help,” she said.

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

#AnimasRiver: #NM slighted in #GoldKingMine spill aftermath?

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

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

On the second and final day of a mining conference in Farmington, a question borne out of mounting frustration was raised by a New Mexico representative: “Are we going to benefit from Colorado’s Superfund designation? And if not, do we have to apply?”

The inquiry, posed by Rich Dembowski, chairman of the New Mexico Gold King Mine Citizen’s Advisory Committee, stems from lingering resentment that as the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado pursue the federal hazardous cleanup program, New Mexico, and its concerns, are being ignored.

Dennis McQuillan, chief scientist of New Mexico’s Environmental Department, said requests for an informational meeting about the Superfund listing in New Mexico have gone unanswered by the federal agency.

Yet when New Mexico officials see EPA hearings scheduled in Silverton, Durango and Ignacio, McQuillan said it feels like an outright slight toward downstream interests.

“It’s a reoccurring theme – we’re not treated like stakeholders down here because we’re not in Colorado,” he said. “We’re basically forgotten. But we are stakeholders. Our people use the water.”

For two days, researchers from New Mexico and Native American tribes pored over the science behind the spill, the highly mineralized Silverton mining district, and the possible short and long-term effects of sediment loading in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

McQuillan said the conference was a bit of an attempt to play catch-up to years of research well-known in Southwest Colorado through groups such as the Animas River Stakeholders Group. He hopes next year’s conference will have more data to compare.

“I think the Gold King spill brought a lot of attention to the existing situation down here,” he said.

“We have this shocking visual of yellow river, and yet the issue’s been around a long time.”

E.coli Bacterium
E.coli Bacterium

McQuillan said instead, the state environmental department has been more concerned over the high levels of E. coli found in the stretches of the Animas and San Juan rivers within New Mexico, which pose a more immediate risk to human health.

“The Gold King spill took a lot of the attention away from that issue that’s still out there,” he said. “That’s why we need a holistic approach to the entire watershed. Maybe this single event will cause that holistic response.”

The EPA listed 48 mining-related sites in its Superfund proposal, all around the Silverton area. However, New Mexico officials maintained Wednesday a real cleanup of the watershed should include other contaminating sites from Silverton to Lake Powell.

“The elephant in the room right now is we don’t trust the government, and that’s focused at the EPA,” Dembowski said. “Why aren’t they answering questions?”

New Mexico officials claim the EPA hasn’t justified important data, such as metal levels in the water returning to pre-spill conditions, and failed to answer simple questions about the temporary water-treatment plant, which led the state to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

San Juan County Commissioner Kim Carpenter, who referred to the post-Gold King spill world as “hell,” made it clear he too is no fan of the EPA.

“There’s a lot of resentment over the mine spill,” he said.

“In every state there’s a fight about water. And sometimes we overlook the fact we have to fight for what we have, not just what we want.”

stopcollaborateandlistenbusinessblog

However, Carpenter said New Mexico communities along the Animas and San Juan watershed are “at the mercy of where it all starts,” and for real cleanup efforts to begin, “the blaming has to stop.”

Virginia McLemore, with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, begrudgingly agreed that although relationships between communities along the watershed might not historically be fair, they must work toward a shared goal.

“For years, Colorado gets the financial benefits, and we have to deal with the metal laden sludge,” she said. “But this is a problem that affects us all, and we have to trust the federal agencies will do their part.”

What can the American Dipper tell us about the #AnimasRiver? — The Durango Herald

The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com
The habitat of the American Dipper (Cinclus americana) is usually clear, rushing, boulder-strewn, mountain streams, within tall conifer forests. Photo via http://birdingisfun.com

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was John Muir’s favorite bird.

“He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows,” he wrote in 1894.

On and off for 30 years, Muir, regarded as America’s most influential naturalist, noted the American Dipper in his explorations of Yosemite, and saw the bird as intrinsically tied with the life of the rivers.

“They scarce suggest any other origin than the streams themselves; and one might almost be pardoned in fancying they come direct from the living waters, like flowers from the ground.”

And now, more than 120 years later, a community reeling from a mine spill that has reinvigorated questions over the Animas River basin’s health will monitor the bird to gain a better understanding of the local watershed.

“I think the spill served to highlight we live in a really contaminated watershed,” said Kimberly Johnson, a volunteer with the American Dipper Project. “So a group of us bird aficionados got together to look at the river from a wildlife point of view.”

[…]

While the spill caused no immediate die-off of fish and other aquatic life, the heavy-metal laden sediment deposited in the river has raised concerns about the long-term health of aquatic species.

University of Saskatchewan biologist Christy Morrissey said the American Dipper – a bird she researched to earn her doctorate – is the “perfect indicator of water quality.”

“Basically, just the presence of dippers will indicate the suitability of the habitat. Then you can measure a lot of things, contaminate-wise, which are useful for understanding the effects of something like a mine spill.”

The American Dipper, a sooty gray bird with a tail that points upward, lives its entire life on a river, rarely straying more than a few meters from the fast-moving, cold water.

Weighing about 2 ounces, North America’s only aquatic songbird can dive and spend up to 30 seconds under water, upturning rocks for aquatic insects, such as stoneflies, mayflies and caddisflies, midges and even small fish.

Yet for how stalwart the bird is – it’s been noted to withstand negative 40-degree air temperatures in Montana – the avian diver is extremely vulnerable to instability in a river’s ecosystem.

Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, said if a dipper’s food source begins to decline, the bird has been known to decrease in numbers along rivers, and in some cases, completely abandon waterways.

In a reverse situation, after a dam in Washington was removed, Marra said a flailing population of dippers almost immediately rebounded as salmon were able to reach upstream and reproduce, thereby providing an essential food source for the bird.

“We used dippers to show how rapidly a river system can rebound,” Marra said. “But they can also be used as evidence of how contaminant releases affect ecosystems.”

A 10-month study on aquatic bugs, which are known to accumulate metals over time, will be released later this week, said Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, which is part of a multi-year monitoring program on the Animas.

And while the institute and others look below the surface, a group of self-organized volunteers operating under the name The American Dipper Project will keep a lookout above this summer.

The project extends along the Animas from behind Home Depot all the way to Silverton. Volunteers are assigned a stretch of the river and asked to visit three times throughout the summer, for a minimum of 20 minutes.

“Not long enough to disturb but long enough to observe what they’re doing,” said Kristi Dranginis, an organizer and owner of Bird Mentor.

Dranginis said the project’s first-year goal is to identify where nests of the American Dipper are located along the Animas. And then in following years, since the bird is non-migratory, behavior such as reproduction can be further analyzed.

“There was a feeling after the spill of what can we do?” said Shelley Silbert, executive director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, which is supporting the effort. “This project offers people who are not scientists, or even really skilled bird watchers, to get involved and contribute.”

With no historical data on the bird, Dranginis hopes to correlate the dipper’s habitat with state and federal findings on metal levels. If a particular dipper’s behavior takes a downturn, the group would ultimately like to test the bird – either through blood or its feathers – for any abnormalities or bio-accumulations.

But that’ll be difficult, Morrissey said. Field studies are almost never sufficient to pinpoint the effect of contaminates on a species, she said, and other environmental factors further entangle research.

“That said, it’s additional evidence that’s supposed to get regulators info that can give some clues,” Morrissey said. “And if the pattern holds, even with variations, then you have a greater support for your hypothesis that it’s whatever the disturbance is that’s caused the problem.”

Bugs offer clues on #AnimasRiver health — #Colorado @TroutUnlimited

Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research

From Colorado Trout Unlimited (Randy Scholfield):

If you want some good clues about river health, check out the bug life.

Trout Unlimited, Mountain Studies Institute and partners today announced plans for a multi-year monitoring of the Animas River in southwest Colorado to gauge the overall health of the Animas River and whether the Gold King Mine spill in 2015 is impacting aquatic health in the world-class trout waters through Durango.

“We’re lucky that our community’s Gold Medal trout fishery wasn’t immediately damaged by the Gold King spill,” said Ty Churchwell, TU’s San Juan Mountains coordinator, in a release. “But long-term, it’s unclear what the effects of the spill might be. Trout Unlimited wants to make sure the aquatic health of the river—and specifically, its bug life—is closely monitored in coming months and years.”

Why look at bugs? Scott Roberts, aquatic biologist with MSI, pointed out that aquatic macroinvertebrate orders—such as mayflies, caddis and stoneflies—provide the foundation of the aquatic food chain, not just for trout but for a range of wildlife, from birds to mammals.

“Aquatic bugs are widely considered an excellent indicator of water quality,” said Roberts. “That’s because they live in the water column as well as river sediment. We’re going to learn a lot by seeing which bugs are doing well and which aren’t.”

Salmonflies (Pteronarcys), for instance, are present in the lower Animas watershed—a good sign because they are considered sensitive to pollution.

TU is committed to following up on the Animas spill in coming months and years and making sure the EPA and others in charge of cleanup don’t lose sight of the health of this amazing recreational fishery.

For more info, check out http://www.WeAreTheAnimas.com.

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill study seeks participants — The Farmington Daily Times

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

From the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University via the Farmington Daily Times:

A study of the Gold King Mine spill being conducted by researchers from two universities is seeking participants from three communities on the Navajo Nation.

The research team is from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. The study was started last year with researchers collecting and testing water, sediment and soil samples from the portion of the San Juan River that flows through the communities.

This part of the study will focus on the short-term exposure and perception of risk of residents who were impacted by the mine spill, which saw the release of millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers last August, according to a press release.

Researchers are looking for enough participants to develop four focus groups in Shiprock and Upper Fruitland and in Aneth, Utah. Each group will consist of 10 individuals, and the names and identities of participants will remain private, the release states.

A series of community meetings to explain the study will be held for Shiprock residents at 10 a.m. Friday, at 6 p.m. Monday and at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Each meeting will be at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Meetings for Upper Fruitland residents will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Walter Collins Center and at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Upper Fruitland Chapter house.

The research team will also have meetings in Aneth, Utah, at 10 a.m. May 20-22 at the Aneth Chapter house.

For more information about the study, contact Karletta Chief, principal investigator, at 520-222-9801 or email her at kchief@email.arizona.edu.

How the #AnimasRiver disaster forced Silverton to face its pollution problem, and its destiny — The Colorado Independent

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

From The High Country News (Jonathan Thompson) via The Colorado Independent:

“Instead of a pure, sparkling stream of water, an opiate for tired mind and jaded nerves, what do you see? A murky, gray stream of filthy, slimy, polluted water, a cesspool for the waste of man.” —Durango-area farmer, 1937

On the morning of Aug. 5, 2015, a deep pool of acidic, metal-laden water was backed up behind debris in the Level 7 adit of the Gold King Mine on the slope of Bonita Peak, roughly 10 miles north of Silverton, Colorado. The pool had been rising for years, imprisoned in the dark of the mine, yearning, as all water does, to be free.

Outside, on the other side of the wall, a CAT excavator scooped jerkily at the debris and the slope. A few contractors and Environmental Protection Agency employees stood in the hard light of the high-altitude sun, watching.

For most of the summer, the crew had been working down the hill on the Red & Bonita Mine, putting in a concrete bulkhead to control the drainage of toxic water from its tunnels. In late July, workers moved on to the more challenging collapsed portal of the Gold King, which in recent years had become one of Colorado’s most polluting mines. Uncertain how to proceed, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, postponed the job, pending a Bureau of Reclamation site inspection.

While Way was on vacation, however, his replacement, Hayes Griswold, a thick-necked, gray-haired man in his 60s, ordered work to proceed. He knew the risks. In May, the contractor on the job had noted, in the action plan, “Conditions may exist that could result in a blow-out of the blockages and cause a release of large volumes of contaminated mine waters and sediment.” In situations such as this, the typical first step would be to drill in from above to assess the mine pool’s depth and the pressure it exerted on the dirt and rock. Instead, apparently unsure about where the actual mine portal was, the crew burrowed into the debris.

Around 10:30 a.m., a thin stream of water spurted out, steadily growing into a fountain, then a roiling torrent of thick, Tang-colored water. As the workers looked on, stunned, the water roared over the edge of the mine waste-rock dump, carrying tons of the metal-laden material with it, crashing into the gently gurgling stream of the North Fork of Cement Creek, far below.

“Should we get out of here?” one worried worker asked.

“Oh, he’s going to be pissed,” another answered. “This isn’t good.”

“What do we do now?” someone else asked, shocked yet oddly calm, as though a household plumbing project had gone awry.

The workers avoided the deluge, but one of their vehicles, left below the jobsite, was submerged in orange slime. Farther downstream, along Cement Creek, the 3 million-gallon “slug” of water and sludge, laden with high concentrations of iron, zinc, cadmium and arsenic, roared past the old town site of Gladstone and another six miles to Silverton, where it cannoned into the waters of the Animas River.

It took about 24 hours for the prow of the slug to navigate the narrow, steep gorge below Silverton and reach the Animas River Valley, seven miles upstream from Durango, where I live.

I spent most of my childhood summers in, on or near the Animas, and often watched the river turn sickly colors: Yellowish-gray after the 1975 tailings pond failure; almost black when Lake Emma burst through the Sunnyside Mine three years later. Back during the 1950s, a uranium mill in Durango dumped 15 tons of radioactive goop into the river daily. Surely, I thought, as news of the catastrophe hit social media, this couldn’t be any worse than that.

Curious, I raced out to examine the river, at a place where the valley, scoured flat by glaciers some 10,000 years ago, slows the Animas to a placid flow. Turbid, electric-orange water, utterly opaque, sprawled out between the sandy banks, as iron hydroxide particles thickened within the current, like psychedelic smoke. Downstream, the Animas was empty, not a sign of Durango’s ubiquitous boaters, swimmers and partiers. For 100 miles along the river, irrigation intakes were shut. After nightfall, the plume slipped through town like a prowler and continued toward the San Juan River and New Mexico and Utah.

In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of pain to go around. Durango rafting companies lost hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of potential business. In the small fields of the Navajo Nation, along the San Juan River, corn shriveled without water. For many Navajo, the water is spiritually significant, and seeing it marred was heartbreaking, a bitter reminder of the many times they had borne the brunt of upstream pollution.

Most of the vitriol was directed at the EPA and its careless actions on Aug. 5. But others blamed a federal mining law that hasn’t been updated in 150 years. In Durango, though, most of the ire was directed at its upstream neighbor, Silverton, which had long resisted federal efforts to use the Superfund to clean up the hundreds of now-abandoned mines that gave birth to the town and sustained it for decades.

Like a cathartic purge, the Gold King disaster swept most of that resistance away.

In February, the town of Silverton and the San Juan County commissioners voted unanimously to request Superfund designation, carefully calling the site the “Bonita Peak Mining District,” to divert attention from Silverton and mitigate impacts to its tourist industry. In Durango, and even, to my surprise, in Silverton, there was a palpable sense of relief, a feeling that the whole region might finally move beyond its messy past, clean up the river for good and embrace the future.

But I had my doubts. Having watched the decades-long collaborative effort to clean up the watershed, I knew that the problem was too complex, the wounds too deep and stubborn to easily heal. And I knew that “The Mining Town That Wouldn’t Quit” was too deeply attached to its extractive past to easily refashion a shiny new identity from the rubble of the industry’s demise.

So I went upstream to dig up the real story behind the Gold King Mine disaster, a tale of a community, of mining and of water, and the inextricable way they are entwined.

Acid mine drainage may be the perfect pollutant. It kills fish, it kills bugs, and it lasts forever. And you don’t need a factory, lab or fancy chemicals to create it. All you have to do is dig a hole in the ground. [ed emphasis mine]

The hole — assuming it’s in a mineralized area — will expose iron sulfide, aka pyrite, to groundwater and oxygen. And when these collide, a series of atom-swapping reactions ensues. Oxygen “rusts” the iron in the pyrite, yielding orange iron oxides. And hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen atoms bond to create sulfuric acid, which dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead, copper, aluminum, arsenic and other metals. Naturally occurring, acid-loving microbes then feast on the metals, vastly accelerating the whole process. The acids in this bisque can devour iron pipes, and the toxic metals render streams uninhabitable, sickening fish for miles downstream. Once the process is catalyzed, it’s almost impossible to stop. A Copper Age mine in southern Spain, abandoned four millennia ago, pollutes the aptly named Rio Tinto to this day.

Mining not only indelibly alters a watershed’s hydrology and chemistry, it also forever shapes the identity of the communities around it.

Miners first started drilling, blasting and digging holes into the mountainsides of the Silverton Caldera, a 27-million-year-old collapsed magma chamber, in 1872. The San Juan Mountains were still officially the domain of the Utes, who for centuries had followed the game into the high country every summer. Silverton was founded in 1874, and that same summer the Hayden Survey came through, marveling at the complicated mass of mountains, among the last piece of the Lower 48 to be invaded, or even visited, by European-Americans. What they found was a wilderness we can only imagine today. One of the surveyors, Franklin Rhoda, wrote about how, on Uncompahgre Peak, “at an elevation of over 13,000 feet, a she grizzly, with her two cubs, came rushing past us,” and about huge herds of mountain sheep stampeding across rolling, wildflower-spattered highlands.

Less than a decade later, the railroad reached the caldera, opening the doors to humanity and its detritus. Giant mills crowded the valley floors, tramlines hung across meadows. The mountains’ innards were honeycombed with hundreds of miles of mine workings, which served as vast, subterranean acid mine drainage cauldrons. Steep slopes were stripped of their trees, the waters ran gray with mill tailings. The wild lands that Rhoda had marveled at were now industrialized, the grizzly on the run, the Utes pushed onto a sliver of land to the south.

On April 7, 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
On April 7, 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

Despite Silverton’s wind-bitten perch at 9,318 feet, its isolation, inhospitable climate and lack of coal for fuel or arable land, the town blossomed. Homes sprouted across the floor of Baker’s Park, from Quality Hill to Poverty Flats. In the early 1880s, Greene Street, the main drag, was lined with businesses, from the Saddle Rock Restaurant and Stockman Barber Shop to the Wong Ling Laundry and Lewke Shoe Shop. Nearly every other hastily constructed facade was a saloon: Tivoli, Olympic, Occidental, Cohen and, surely the rowdiest, the Diamond, run by the notorious Bronco Lou, a “wily she-devil” and “enticing seductress,” who, it was rumored, killed as many as five lovers and husbands.

Silverton’s adolescent rowdiness ultimately mellowed (Bronco Lou was even run out of town), and the prosperity snowballed. At its 1907 peak, the mining industry employed more than 2,000 men — half the local population. The mélange of ethnicities fostered a rich culture, and the relatively stable flow of cash supported several newspapers, a healthy school, and strong government institutions, as well as a powerful miners’ union.

Ugliness could arise from the amalgamation, too. In 1906, a union-led mob drove the entire Chinese-American population from town. And after a protracted, bitter strike, a company-led mob drove the labor organizers from the caldera, killing the union for good. Still, the residents enjoyed an economic equality that seems these days to have gone extinct.

“It was a blue-collar town, but an upper-class blue-collar town,” remembers Bev Rich, a Silverton native, now in her mid-60s and chairman of the San Juan County Historical Society, easily the town’s most influential nonprofit. “It was a great place to grow up, because everyone’s dad worked in the mine and everyone was equal. The community was racially diverse, and it was safe.”

Yet it all hinged on one industry, mining, prone even then to the ups and downs of the national and global market. In 1924, the once wildly profitable Gold King, beleaguered by a string of disasters and bad management, went dark. The county’s biggest mine, the Sunnyside, shut down in the late 1930s, partly because of the cost of hauling ore and pumping water uphill to get it out of the mine. And in 1953, the only major operator remaining, the Shenandoah-Dives, also went quiet.

With the industry virtually dormant, Silverton struggled through what became known as the “Black Decade.”

The town clung to life, however, thanks in part to the silver screen’s mythical Wild West and a steam locomotive that had long hauled ore from Silverton to Durango’s smelter. The train itself became a movie star, along with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, and it began to haul tourists into Silverton, where they were greeted by a surrealistic spectacle — part Western movie-set, part Third World medina — that included elaborate fake gunfights. Loudspeakers blared advertisements and merchants swarmed passengers, begging them to buy hamburgers or tchotchkes.

Tourism kept the town afloat, but it was no replacement for mining. The pay was lousy, the season short, and it banked on what Bev Rich calls a false “rinky-dink, rubber tomahawk” version of history. “You develop a foul taste in your mouth when one of the gunfight participants says, as she walks away from the pile of bodies, ‘Everyone come to the Bent Elbow, the best food in town,’ ” noted a Silverton Standard editorial in 1963, summing up the sentiment of many locals.

So when Standard Metals announced in 1959 that it would re-open the Sunnyside Mine, the people of Silverton rejoiced. The plan was to extend the existing American Tunnel — started in the early 1900s but never finished — from the old town site of Gladstone two miles underground to the Sunnyside, where ore still lingered in the rock. It worked, leading a revival of mining that lasted for three decades.

Tourism continued to grow, though the locals accepted it grudgingly. “Prosperity stemming from mining is welcome,” Ian Thompson, my father, wrote in 1964 in theStandard. “Prosperity stemming from tourists is inevitable.” Miners, working underground, looked out for one another. Tourism, on the other hand, was a crassly commercial, dog-eat-dog world. Silverton was torn apart by these conflicting identities in a long-running, Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde struggle.

“The Train is the instrument of death,” George Sibley, a longtime western Colorado writer, wrote in the Mountain Gazette in 1975, referring not to the railroad itself but to the new economy it ushered in. “Among the miners, still the core of what remains of the Silverton community, there is an attitude ranging from bare tolerance to outright disgust toward The Train.”

Inevitably, though, global economics would triumph over local sentiment. Gold prices slumped, and massive open-pit mines in Chile and Nevada brought competition. By the mid-1980s, mining company bankruptcies were weekly headline fodder. Finally, in 1991, the Sunnyside shut down for good. One hundred and fifty miners lost their jobs, and Silverton lost its center. All that remained was a rich historic legacy — and the toxic water still draining from the mines.

Not long after the Gold King blowout, I sat down with Bill Simon at his earthen home north of Durango. Simon is an ecologist who has long worked to improve the environmental health of the Silverton Caldera. I first met him in 1996, when I was a cub reporter for the Silverton Standard & the Miner. Back then, Simon was leading the local effort to understand and tackle mine pollution, traipsing around the caldera, sampling streams and piloting a backhoe on remediation projects. Now, his old mop of brown hair is a roughly shorn gray, and he moves slowly and awkwardly. Simon has Parkinson’s, but its physical ravages have not affected his intellect. We talked for more than three hours, and it struck me that he carries a multidimensional map of the upper Animas watershed in his head, its geology, hydrology and history — even its politics. He’s as intent as ever on solving the caldera’s mysteries.

Simon was quick to remind me that Silverton’s pollution problem is relatively small on a global scale, paling in comparison to, say, the Bingham Canyon Mine outside Salt Lake City, which has created a 70-square-mile underground plume of contaminated groundwater, or California’s Iron Mountain Mine, the waters of which are some of the most acidic ever sampled outside the lab. More rock is scooped from a large-scale modern mine in a day than the Sunnyside Mine produced in a lifetime.

“So the problem of acid mine drainage is huge. It’s worldwide,” says Simon. “That’s why I got involved. The problem is being ignored.”

Simon’s involvement began incrementally back in 1970, when he first came to Silverton. Originally from Colorado’s Front Range, he attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, where he helped found the Environmental Studies College and worked toward a doctorate in evolutionary ecology. After the military began taking “too much interest” in his work, though, he fled, landing in southwestern Colorado’s high country.

He worked for various mining companies, doing excavation or surface work and then big welding jobs, sometimes cleaning up a site or planting trees afterward. By then, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) had pronounced most of the Silverton Caldera’s waters “dead,” thanks to natural mineralization, acid mine drainage and tailings spills. That’s why the wildlife agency had stopped stocking them with trout, a common practice in the state for decades. But Simon had noticed areas that he thought seemed fish-worthy.

So, when he became a San Juan County commissioner in 1984, Simon decided to test his theory, using fish as his guinea pigs and the watershed’s streams, beaver ponds and lakes as his laboratory. With a group of miners, who were also anglers, he hiked to backcountry waters carrying packs that held thousands of fingerling trout, donated by the state Division of Wildlife.

Even Simon was surprised by how many of those trout survived, including fish in seemingly sullied stretches of water. That meant that other stream segments might be able to support fish, too, if they were cleaned up. This realization ushered in Silverton’s next challenge — one that was less about the town’s economy or its historic past and more about ecology and the future.

Charged with enforcing the 1972 Clean Water Act, “the state health department took note,” Simon says, and began the process of setting water-quality standards for local streams. That made locals, Simon included, nervous. The state appeared to be working with incomplete data that did not account for natural sources of metal loading. That could result in unrealistic water standards, or even lead to the Silverton Caldera being designated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.

The last thing most people wanted was to be declared the nation’s next Love Canal. Locals dreaded an invasion of federal bureaucrats who would end any possibility of hardrock mining’s return, because once a mine has been listed, no company will touch it. As an alternative, the state agreed to help the community form a consensus-driven organization called the Animas River Stakeholders Group, hiring Simon as its coordinator. “We figured we could empower the people to do the job without top-down management,” Simon explained, “and develop stewardship for the resource, which is particularly useful in this day and age.”

Members spanned the spectrum from environmentalists to miners. Some of them — such as Steve Fearn and Todd Hennis, past and present owners of the Gold King Mine — hoped to mine here in the future.

Fearn, in particular, believed that active mining could actually result in cleaner water in a place like Silverton, which was already pocked with abandoned, draining portals. Any new mining is likely to occur in existing mines (more destructive open-pit mining is not considered feasible here) where drainage is already a problem. Re-opening such a mine would require a discharge permit, as mandated by the Clean Water Act, and a plan for treating the drainage, bringing in a responsible party — a company — where none currently existed.

Working with a team of U.S. Geological Survey scientists and intent on identifying all the ingredients of the watershed’s acid-drainage chowder, Simon and other stakeholders took thousands of water samples, studied draining mine portals and natural springs, counted bugs and subjected fish to doses of metal and acid.

They found that the concoction was considerably more complicated than just a couple of spewing mines. Nature, it turns out, is the biggest polluter in the watershed. Some springs, untouched by mining, were as acidic as lemon juice or Coca-Cola, inhabited only by extremophilic microbes. About 90 percent of the aluminum and 80 percent of the copper in the middle fork of Mineral Creek was natural, a finding that jibed with Franklin Rhoda’s 1874 observation of a stream “so strongly impregnated with mineral ingredients as to be quite unfit for drinking.”

That didn’t let mining off the hook, however. Almost 400 of the nearly 5,400 mineshafts, adits, tunnels, waste dumps and prospects in the upper Animas watershed had some impact on water quality. About 60 were particularly nasty, together depositing more than 516,000 pounds of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron and zinc into the watershed each year.

Notably, neither the Gold King nor the Red & Bonita were on the list yet. At the time, the Gold King was technically dry. No one knew that the mines would soon become two of the state’s biggest polluters — ironically, because of the very effort to clean up a neighboring mine.

When I first moved to Silverton, in March 1996, the town seemed like a jilted lover, abandoned by mining but yearning for its return. There were no tourists; people simply didn’t visit during the springtime. What was there to do but watch the thawing snow and ice retreat, revealing an interminable winter’s worth of dog turds and other junk? Most of the windows on the century-old buildings were boarded up, awaiting train season — the only economic season remaining.

Five years after the mine shut down, the impacts still rippled through the community. The year-round population was half what it had been a decade before, and the school was left with just 60 kids in grades kindergarten through 12. About a quarter of the county’s revenue, from production taxes, had vanished. That spring, the Sunnyside Mine’s owners cut a pollution deal with the state to release them from their water discharge permit and allow them to stop treating the water still leaking from the American Tunnel, paving the way for their eventual exit.

If I’d had any money, I could have picked up a run-down mining shack for less than $30,000. I was broke, though, so I rented a tiny room in the Benson Hotel, no cooking allowed. Because almost all year-round eating establishments had fallen victim to the mine closure and the seasonal tourist season, I regularly dined at the one remaining culinary option, the Miner’s Tavern’s microwave burritos notwithstanding: The Drive-In.

Most evenings that spring, after I’d sat down with my burger and fries, a tall man in his 70s came over and sat down across from me. Russ was a fixture at the Drive-In, though his role there was unclear. Between not-so-furtive swigs of Old Crow, he occasionally pushed a dust mop across the tiled floor, or wiped down a counter, or washed a plate. Mostly, though, he waxed nostalgic about the old days, when the streets were “full of men with boots,” and any able man could make a decent wage underground.

At the time, Russ struck me as an anachronism, a bourbon-soaked leftover from days long gone. I couldn’t comprehend how or why anyone would even entertain the notion that mining might return. It was time to move on. After all, Aspen, Telluride, Park City and even Moab had all abandoned their extractive past, welcomed the feds in to clean up the mess, and cashed in on the New West’s amenity-based economy. Give it five more years, I wanted to tell Russ, and you won’t even recognize this place. I may not have been entirely wrong, but I didn’t yet understand what might be lost in pursuing such a path.

Some time later, after dandelions had replaced the springtime slush in the yards of the old mining shacks, I sat outside Silverton’s first, and (at the time) only real coffee shop, the Avalanche, eating key lime pie with Dolores LaChapelle. She had come to Silverton in the 1970s with her then-husband Ed, one of a group of snow scientists who had descended on the caldera to study the potential impacts of cloud seeding on avalanches. Ed left, but Dolores stuck around, building a reputation as an author, scholar and pioneer of Deep Ecology.

I asked her what it was like to be someone like her, writing books about sacred sex, the earth and the rapture of deep-powder skiing in a hard-core mining town. “I just told people I was writing children’s books,” she replied, a nod to the mean streak often hidden in working-class towns. She was in her early 70s then, her face deeply lined, her trademark silver braid hanging over her shoulder, her brown eyes bright as ever.

Then she spoke about the particular strain of culture that mountains foster, and about how, in Silverton, that culture was, and still is, directly tied to mining. Tearing ore out of the earth mars the landscape and might poison the water irreparably, but, like farming, it also creates an unbreakable, visceral link between people and place. The entire community depended upon this relationship — abusive though it often was — with the earth. “It seems that mining was better than what we have now, in terms of culture,” Dolores said. “Now, a lot of people just want to ruin Silverton by making it into a tourist trap.”

I think Russ, in his own way, tried to tell me the same thing. He mourned the loss not just of jobs and money, but also of authenticity and, in a way, of identity. Mining is real, genuine, palpable; tourism is entertainment. The people of Silverton had little control over whether the Sunnyside’s absentee owner mined here or not. But they did have some say over how mining’s mess is handled. And by opposing Superfund, they believed, they were not fighting against clean water. Rather, they were exerting what little power they had over their own identity and culture and future.

A few years after I arrived, it looked as if the Animas River Stakeholders Group might actually get a handle on the caldera’s dirtier legacy, and all without the feds invading.

Fearn ramped up his mining plans, inspiring hopes for economic and cultural revitalization. He wanted to re-open the long-abandoned Silver Wing Mine, testing experimental water treatment methods, as well as the Gold King, which had last been mined in the late 1980s. He also planned to overhaul the Pride of the West Mill, which he would use not only to mill the ore, but also to process mine waste, both recovering metals and removing a source of pollution.

Meanwhile, Sunnyside Gold, after spending millions of dollars remediating its own mess and that of past miners, was finally ready to shut down for good. With state and federal funding, the Stakeholders had tackled a number of projects on their own, and, in cooperation with Sunnyside Gold, plugged some draining mines that were off-limits to the Stakeholders because of liability concerns. Those combined efforts were paying off, resulting in lasting improvements to water quality. No one knew then that within Bonita Peak’s byzantine plumbing system a yet more perplexing and vile mess was brewing.

In July 1996, some 6,500 feet into the dank, dark American Tunnel, one of the last remaining Sunnyside employees screwed shut the valve on bulkhead #1 — a concrete plug about the size of a boxcar — cutting off a stream of acidic water for good. Behind the plug, the labyrinthine shafts and tunnels of the Sunnyside Mine became a 1,200-foot-deep aqueous grave. Two more bulkheads were installed closer to the surface in 2001 and 2003, to stanch water pouring into the lower section of the tunnel through cracks and faults. Together, the three plugs stopped as much as 1,600 gallons per minute of acidic water, keeping 300 pounds per day of fish-killing zinc from Cement Creek and, ultimately, the Animas River. At least, that was the plan.

But in the early 2000s, tainted water started pouring out of the Gold King, which had gone almost dry when the first section of American Tunnel was built back in the early 1900s. By 2005, the Gold King had “started to belch out seriously,” says Simon. Suddenly, it was one of the worst polluters in the state. To make matters worse, the Sunnyside water treatment plant — transferred to Fearn in 2003 — closed at about the same time, when Fearn’s mining venture went broke, killing the best hope for cleaning up the new drainages. Water quality deteriorated. In the Animas Gorge below Silverton, the number of fish per mile dropped by as much as 75 percent, and where mottled sculpins and brown, rainbow and brook trout once flourished, only a few brooks remained.

It was a baffling plot twist in a long saga that was supposed to be nearing a tidy resolution. Clearly, the American Tunnel bulkheads were responsible. But no one knew for sure where the water was coming from — whether it was the Sunnyside Mine pool, or near-surface water returning to its historic path, or perhaps a bit of both. Until the mystery is solved, no one will know who’s really responsible and how best to handle the new drainage.

The Stakeholders knew that the most logical solution was another water treatment plant, like the one that operated for years at the Sunnyside. But finding the $10 million or so to construct it, and another $1 million per year to operate it, wasn’t easy. “We’d spent all of our money, plus we knew that we had limited abilities,” says Simon. “We didn’t feel comfortable checking these out on our own, so we invited the EPA to help.” That launched a process that revived old efforts to get a Superfund designation, and it also, ultimately, inadvertently led to the Gold King blowout, some 10 years later.

Silverton is no longer the town I stumbled into two decades ago. Both Russ and Dolores are gone. The Silverton Mountain ski area, a stone’s throw from the site of all the acid mine drainage action, has kick-started a fledgling winter tourist economy. Many of the town’s historic buildings have gotten makeovers, and you can now grab a decent bite to eat, even in the dead of winter. Those mining shacks that were $30,000 in the mid-1990s? They sell for 10 times that now. Like many mining-turned-resort towns, Silverton’s chock-full of vacant homes for most of the winter, but long-term rentals are either unavailable or too expensive for the locals — the average wage remains the lowest in the state, even worse than in the chronically depressed counties out on the eastern plains. The absence of a “basic industry” is deeply felt.

For a while, it seemed that this might change. In 2007, Todd Hennis, the current owner of the Gold King, brought an upstart company called Colorado Goldfields to town, buying the Pride of the West Mill and intending to pick up where Fearn had left off. The company put out slick brochures and optimistic videos and press releases, issued shares of stock like it was Monopoly money and pulled in investors, even a handful of locals, on news of rising gold prices. Hennis soon cut ties with the company, however, and ultimately sued, taking the Gold King off the table. And without ever extracting any ore, Colorado Goldfields faded away in 2014, taking with it shareholders’ cash along with another shred of hope that mining could return. When Superfund became inevitable, the rest of the hope fluttered out the window — almost.

This February, Fearn, who has been involved in mining ventures here for 40 years, told me that Superfund will surely kill the possibility of mining the Gold King ever again. But infected with the sort of chronic optimism endemic to mining country, he thought other mines, like his Silver Wing, still had a chance.

Yet Bev Rich, who for a time sat on Colorado Goldfields’ board of directors, remains doubtful. “Mining probably won’t return,” she told me. “We are two generations removed from that economy. We’re proud of our mining history. We wouldn’t be here without it. But global economics makes it almost impossible.” Besides, even if the industry did return, its effect on the community would surely be far different than before. It would bring money, yes, but culture, equality and diversity? Maybe not.

Instead, Rich thinks, Silverton should push a more viable industry: historic preservation, perhaps, or acid mine drainage research and remediation. She has long opposed Superfund designation, but now accepts it as inevitable. Like other local leaders, she worries about how the town will handle an influx of outside EPA contractors, given the rental shortage, and the added impacts to public services and infrastructure. Mostly, though, she’s concerned that cleaning up pollution might also wipe away the artifacts of mining’s history. After all, in many cases they are one and the same.

Last year, on a winter’s eve, a friend and I, visiting for Thanksgiving, headed out for a drink at one of Silverton’s local bars. Just a few weeks earlier, local elected officials had tentatively thrown their support behind a Superfund designation. A blanket of snow covered the ground, and another storm had settled in, along with the giddiness that comes when you know the snow might close the passes, trapping you for hours, maybe days, transforming the town into the solitary domain of extremophiles. Just before darkness, the world went cerulean blue in a way that is only possible in the mountains in winter.

“The Miner’s Tavern has got to be open,” I said. It had been years, but I knew what it would be like: The dim light shining down through a haze of cigarette smoke; Judy, with her raven hair and stiletto heels, running the pool table to her rival’s chagrin; Terry, who worked in the mines like his father, bellied up to the bar with his son, who never got the chance; Ernie holding court at the round table up front, with another elected official or three, tipsily deciding the fate of the town.

It was eerily quiet, and as we made our way down the empty main drag, all the shop windows were either boarded up or dark. Maybe everyone went home early, I thought. The last few years were tough, after all: Most of the cottage industries that sprouted before the national recession were gone, the community had been ripped apart by an ugly political battle and its heart was broken by a recent domestic homicide. To top it all off, the Gold King Mine blew out, and now the community was diving into the uncertain waters of Superfund.

We pulled up in front of the Miner’s Tavern and started to get out of the car before we noticed something amiss. The neon beer signs were dark. Through the window, we saw pool tables piled with junk, and the door was padlocked from the outside. Turns out Silverton Mountain Ski Area bought the entire Miner’s Union Hall, including the tavern and theatre upstairs, and made them into its office and, apparently, storage locker.

We continued on our futile search for an open bar, an open anything, and as snowflakes swarmed the streetlights like a million falling moths, I felt an ineffable sadness, and a nagging notion that Superfund, in this instance, somehow translated to surrender.

High Country News is a nonprofit news organization that covers the important issues that define the American West. Subscribe, get the enewsletter, and follow HCN on Facebook and Twitter.

Senior Editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

#AnimasRiver: “The problem requires critical thinking, and most people won’t take the time to do that” — Brian Burke

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Halfway through a public comment period, a mere five short responses have been posted regarding the proposed Superfund designation for the mining district north of Silverton…

In the wake of the blowout, impromptu emergency meetings lighted up with bombardments toward federal agents and impassioned calls for a swift and immediate cleanup of the river.

Social media transformed into a stomping ground for the concerned, the opinionated and the distrustful – an Aug. 6, 2015, Durango Herald report generated 404 comments. And months later, several Facebook groups cropped up, dedicated to the spill.

As alarmed anger transformed into serious conversations on how to address the long-standing problem of metal loading in the Animas watershed, an even more controversial prospect entered: a Superfund designation that had been opposed for nearly two decades by Silverton and San Juan County.

Yet pressure from downstream communities swelled. After much negotiation and discussion with the EPA, Superfund listing was sought by area and state officials. Labeled the Bonita Peak Mining District that includes 48 mining-related sites, a 60-day public comment period began on April 6.

But now, it seems the flood of convictions has subsided to a trickle of concerns.

The few responses include the plain and simple: “Add the Bonita Peak Mining District in San Juan County, CO to the NPL.”

The wary: “Yes it’s scary that this could or already has happened again, but as a tourious (sic), that loves to go ATVING with my family to see all the history of the area, I’m afraid that by cleaning up all these sites, the tourisium (sic) with (sic) domenish (sic) and the towns of Silverton, Oray (sic), and many others will suffer.”

[…]

And another disagreed with inclusion of the Little Nation mine, located in the Upper Animas, on the listing.

“The Little Nation mine has no water discharge,” wrote Brad Clark, pinning a nearby drainage tunnel as the culprit discharging mine wastewater into a wetland…

First, the pre-problem stage, in which an existing issue alarms experts, but hasn’t captured much public attention. Then comes alarmed discovery: an event that thrusts the problem into the spotlight, and jars people to awareness, who in turn call for a quick fix.

In the final three stages general interest wanes. The public realizes there are no silver bullets; solutions are complicated and time intensive. Some feel discouraged, overwhelmed or bored and the issue recedes to the backgrounds of people’s minds.

And by that time, a new problem has taken its place.

Brian Burke, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College, agreed. He said the sight of orange water activated public interest. But now, it’s out of sight, out of mind.

“The problem is much more complicated than the EPA making a mistake and leaking some disgusting poison into our river,” he said. “The problem requires critical thinking, and most people won’t take the time to do that.

“Now that it’s not orange anymore, it’s harder to notice, although pollutants are being dumped daily.”

Sediment monitoring along Animas River begins — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Contamination of river sediment became a public safety concern after the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill that released about 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage into the river.

But heavy-metal pollution from historical mines above Silverton is an ongoing problem, and data from Mountain Studies Institute collected in February showed that aluminum and iron were at levels that could be unsafe for aquatic life if they persist at that level. Iron remained at an unsafe level for aquatic life in March, according to the MSI report.

The Environmental Protection Agency said earlier this week that it will provide $600,000 for additional monitoring, and part of that funding will help San Juan Basin Health Department, Fort Lewis College and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment study the river. The EPA initially designated $2 million to all the states and tribes involved for river monitoring.

“We know moms and dads are going to want to know continuously the water is safe,” Bennet said.

It is not clear how the $600,000 will be divided between the states and tribes, said Nicole Rowan, clean water program manager for CDPHE. But water and sand sampling will happen at the beach, along with other recreation sites yet to be determined, to understand how the spring runoff might change the composition of the sediment over the spring and summer, said Brian Devine, water program manager for the San Juan Basin Health Department.

If the researchers don’t find anything concerning, the testing could end in August, he said.

He could not say when the data will be released, but it would be shortly after testing is complete.

Other long-term testing to better understand the river system and alert public officials to problems also is underway.

The U.S. Geological Survey installed three water quality monitors along the Animas in Colorado in March and April that measure acidity, cloudiness and temperature that can indicate higher metal levels. No automated sensor can track the concentration of metals.

If any of these indicators reach concerning levels, local researchers receive alerts in the form of text messages, emails and phone calls, Devine said. This allows researchers to physically take samples from the river and then, if necessary, alert emergency managers at the city, county and state levels, Devine said.

“We’re pretty sure we’ll have no need for that,” he said.

These readings are also available online in real time.

Fort Lewis College also is installing two new Sonde monitors, one at Baker’s Bridge and upstream from the 32nd Street Bridge, said Heidi Steltzer, an associate professor in biology, who has led research on the river.

These sensors track similar factors monitored by the USGS and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. The Sonde sensors also track algae, nitrates and ammonium, which indicate pollution from fertilizer, another ongoing problem in the river.

The San Juan Health Department would like to use the additional funding from the EPA to allow for the Sondes data to be live on the web.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage. Photo via the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

#ColoradoRiver: Moab tailings removal slows, Chaffetz fights proposed funding cuts — The Deseret News

From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):

The removal of 16 million tons of radioactive waste perched on the banks of the Colorado River near Moab is more than halfway complete, but the work has slowed and the project is facing funding cuts.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said any reduction in federal spending to eliminate the “massive hazard” is unacceptable, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Energy’s request for more money to spend on headquarter operations.

“While projects in the field are suffering from budget cuts, headquarter operations in Washington, D.C., were increased nearly 80 percent in 2016 and the department is requesting an additional 8 percent increase for 2017,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Chaffetz’s letter on April 25 noted the radioactive tailings, a legacy of the defunct Atlas uranium ore processing mill, pose a unique threat to downstream Colorado River users.

“Removal of these tailings from the former national defense site will eliminate a massive hazard from the doorsteps of Moab residents and the 25 million downstream water users in places such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles,” he wrote.

Removal of the uranium tailings has already slowed, with 31 of 112 site employees of contractor Portage laid off on April 26 and rail trips to the disposal site cut in half.

Don Metzler, the director of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, said the reduction in the number of employees happened due to the shifting nature of the project.

The second phase of the disposal cell 30 miles north at Crescent Junction is nearing capacity, with little room left to hold additional quantities of the radioactive waste.

“Our capacity to put tailings at Crescent Junction got smaller and smaller,” Metzler said. Excavation for the third phase of the disposal is beginning, he added, but fewer workers are necessary until that capacity grows…

Because of the nature of the radioactive waste, the actual shipping containers are starting to corrode, he said.

“These shipping containers have worked really hard for us,” Metzler said, adding that work has shifted to repair those containers rather than just move tailings.

The project had been shipping 18,400 tons of tailings four times per week into October from the 480-acre site. The slowdown and layoffs of workers reduced those rail trips to twice weekly, hauling 9,200 tons as workers build up storage capacity.

Lee Shenton, Grand County’s community liaison on the project, said it is disappointing that the tailings removal has slowed and workers had to be let go.

“What we are seeing now is the culmination of chronic underfunding since about 2012. The project worked hard, and I saw it, and I can confirm they worked hard to avoid (layoffs) in the past,” Shenton said.

He said community leaders were informed several years ago that the U.S. Department of Energy was going to shift its funding priorities to higher risk projects, and Moab’s tailings pile doesn’t pose the type of severe threat compared to Hanford, Washington, a contaminated nuclear waste site next to the Columbia River.

The Moab project is slated to receive about $3.8 million less in funding, or 10 percent less. The timeline for completion was set for 2025, but that will now have to be reviewed.

Chaffetz is hoping to prevent any delays.

“The government must keep its committment to clean up Cold War era sites and prioritize water safety over headquarter operations in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

#Colorado School of Mines Works with Industry and Colorado Agencies to Forge Greener Future

The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esm Cadiente www.terraprojectdiaries.com)
The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esm Cadiente http://www.terraprojectdiaries.com)

From Mines Magazine:

At 11 a.m. on August 5, 2015, the icy waters of Cement Creek, just outside the scenic Colorado mountain town of Silverton, began to turn to mustard-colored sludge. By day’s end, three million gallons of acid mine drainage had poured out of the inactive, 120-year-old Gold King Mine. The tainted water coursed downstream into the Animas River where it horrified kayakers in nearby Durango, prompted water treatment plants to shut off their taps, and ignited alarming front-page photos in newspapers nationwide. Within four days, the surface water had cleared and, according to EPA measurements, returned to pre-spill levels of toxic metals. But the conversation started by the Gold King blowout had only just begun.

“This was a wake-up call,” says Linda Figueroa, a Mines professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies mine remediation techniques. “It lit a fire under the abandoned mine lands community, reminded the public that this is an issue, and prompted people to put it back on the front burner.”

As industry and government agencies grapple with what to do about the estimated half-million abandoned mines nationwide, and as the state looks more closely at how to address hundreds of legacy mines fouling thousands of miles of Colorado streams, Mines—with its multi-disciplinary expertise and collaborative relationship with industry and government—is poised to play a key role.

“Our primary objective is to build knowledge, not make money, so we can give problems longer-term attention at lower cost while educating the workforce of the future,” says Priscilla Nelson, head of the Department of Mining Engineering. Already, the school has a long history of supporting research that has advanced the way mines are operated and reclaimed. And with a growing focus on the environmental and humanitarian aspects of mining, the school hopes to cultivate a new generation of miners who see themselves as “stewards of the earth’s resources,” Nelson says.

As a neutral party, Mines also hopes to facilitate a stakeholder-wide conversation about what happens next. “What do we know and what do we not know? What new technologies need to be developed?” asks Nelson, who hopes to host a symposium on the subject this year. “Let’s sit down and talk about it.”

Mining, Then and Now

Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin
Pennsylvania Mine Upper Peru Creek Basin

While much media attention has been paid to the number of abandoned, historic mines that riddle hillsides across the West, one positive development is often overlooked: Industry practices have changed dramatically since those mines were built. “There really is no comparison,” says Ronald Cohen, a Mines professor of civil and environmental engineering who has studied the history of Western mining. “The demands on industry are so much greater than they were back then.”

As early as 1870, a few vague guidelines existed for mine operators, but there was no agency to enforce them and no political will to strengthen them. Even in the mid-20th century, many Western companies still “viewed gravity as their friend,” says Cohen. They dumped their waste downstream while operating, and when it was time to close up shop, they left their tailings and rock piles behind and walked away.

“It’s not as if they were devils out to destroy the environment,” Cohen says, recalling a conversation with an old-time miner. “They felt they were supporting the economic development of their country and, during World War I and II, supporting the war effort. They thought they were doing something very positive.”

With the 1970 passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act (which regulates pollutant discharges into U.S. waters), things began to change. But even before those laws fully went into effect, a few forward-thinking companies were making
environmental sustainability a priority.

As it prepared to open the Henderson Mine near Empire, Colorado, in 1975, AMAX Inc. worked with Mines ecology professor Beatrice Willard to select a site that would be the least visible to tourists on their way to Winter Park to ski and have minimal impact on the Clear Creek Watershed. Instead of placing the tailings next to the mine, as was common practice, AMAX went so far as to build a nine-mile underground tunnel from the mine to the nearby Williams Fork Valley, where waste products could be disposed of with the least impact on the environment.

Gold King Mine circa 1899 via The Silverton Standard
Gold King Mine circa 1899 via The Silverton Standard

“They were 30 years ahead of their time,” says Bill Cobb ’81, MS ’89 who, as one of Willard’s students, visited the Henderson Mine frequently and had test plots for one of his classes at the site. Cobb is now vice president of environmental affairs and sustainable development for Freeport-McMoRan, which owns the Henderson Mine.

Today, a company wanting to develop a brand new, or greenfield, mine in the United States can expect to spend a decade and tens of millions of dollars navigating the regulatory process. In order to get their needed government permits, mine operators must thoroughly assess the potential impact they’ll have on air and water, design systems for mitigating these impacts, develop a detailed closure plan (including land revegetation), and put up millions of dollars of financial assurance that they will be able to pay for that plan when the time comes.

Even resurrecting a shuttered mine is a colossal undertaking. When Freeport-McMoRan reopened the Climax Mine near Leadville, Colorado, in 2011, it spent $250 million on a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. The multinational company also invests in equipment made with durable, cutting edge materials throughout its supply-chain and recycles machinery when it breaks, says Michael Kendrick ’84, president of the Climax Molybdenum Company, a subsidiary of Freeport. “At Freeport, we have not purchased a new piece of haulage mining equipment in the world since 2008. As trucks wear out, we rebuild them; we don’t buy new ones,” he says. “Not only does that have tremendous financial benefit, but big picture, it’s also good for the environment.”

Heightened attention to sustainability, combined with tougher regulations, means the mining industry footprint of the future can be far lighter than it was in the past. “Going forward, we should not end up with a legacy of even more problems” (from newer mines), says Bruce Stover, director of inactive and abandoned mine programs for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (DRMS).

That said, there is still a big mess to clean up.

A Challenging Clean-up

These images show the London Mine in Park County, Colorado, before and after reclamation efforts, made possible with Freeport-McMoRan funds. (Credit: Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety)
These images show the London Mine in Park County, Colorado, before and after reclamation efforts, made possible with Freeport-McMoRan funds. (Credit: Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety)

In the early 1980s, state surveys pegged the number of legacy “hazardous mine features”—such as mine shafts and openings—at 23,000 across Colorado. (Stover suspects that number could be up to 30 percent higher.) Thus far, the state has safeguarded 9,700 of these features. Meanwhile, about 500 inactive Colorado mines are currently causing “measurable degradation” to stream water quality. In some areas, that degradation results from storm water flowing through waste piles and tailings. To address that, DRMS sometimes removes or buries waste piles.

But in 230 cases, contaminated water flows directly from underground mine tunnels. Of these, 47 are already being addressed with active treatment efforts (such as water treatment facilities and storage ponds), and 35 are being remediated in some way, Stover says. The other 148 are “still out there draining” into state waterways. But installing a water treatment plant at all of them is impossible. “It costs millions of dollars to build one, and then you have to pay to operate and maintain it until the sun burns out,” says Stover. Alternative technologies are critically needed, and that’s where Mines comes in.

As far back as the 1980s, Mines researchers have been exploring the idea of putting resident microbes to work to help chew up and detoxify waste at legacy mine sites. Today, pilot microbial bioreactor projects are in place in several locations in Colorado and Arizona.

Figueroa, who designs and researches bioreactors, cautions that at this point, they wouldn’t be a good fit for sites with higher water flow rates (Gold King can discharge hundreds of gallons per minute). For those, an active treatment facility works best. But at sites with lots of land to build a microbial system on and a slow, steady flow of acid-rock drainage, bioreactors could provide a cheaper alternative that requires less maintenance. “We could make the money go farther and attack more sites,” she says.

Bioreactors aside, Figueroa envisions other ways Mines could partner with the state and industry to move the dial forward on legacy mine cleanups: Rather than relying on boots-on-the-ground surveys to locate troublesome mines, agencies could work with Mines students and researchers to devise ways to use drones, satellite imaging, or remote sensing technologies like LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging). Instead of focusing on surface water, stakeholders could collaborate with Mines to research how water flows across the land and through the tunnels and what changes occur en route. With that knowledge, they could devise better clean-up strategies.

“So far, most of the emphasis is on surface water. At that point, you can’t do anything but treat what’s coming out,” Figueroa says. “My first remediation strategy is not to do a treatment process at all, but to divert the water so it doesn’t come into contact with the minerals that can make water quality worse.”

A Solvable Problem

Junior environmental engineering students measure water quality parameters for their field session client, Clear Creek Watershed Foundation. (Credit: Deirdre O. Keating)
Junior environmental engineering students measure water quality parameters for their field session client, Clear Creek Watershed Foundation. (Credit: Deirdre O. Keating)

Several sources interviewed for this story say another key piece of solving Colorado’s legacy mine problem is for lawmakers to tinker with provisions in the Clean Water Act that currently keep “good Samaritans”—including mining companies, state agencies, universities, and environmental nonprofits—from trying to partially tackle the problem. In essence, if they cannot clean the water completely, they are at risk of being sued for leaving it polluted, says Stover. “Any good Samaritan, after they finish their 70 percent cleanup, could be sued by a third party under the Clean Water Act and be required to address the other 30 percent of the problem. So, if we can’t do a 100 percent cleanup, we don’t touch the water,” he says. In Pennsylvania, which has a state Good Samaritan law to protect nonprofits, more than 50 mine clean-up projects have been completed. Lawmakers are currently mulling a similar federal bill.

Money is also an issue. In recent years, several government agencies have cut their funding for legacy mine reclamation. In November, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and others introduced a bill that would require mining companies to pay into a federal hard-rock reclamation fund reserved for cleaning up legacy mines—a fund that could amount to as much as $100 million per year. But that idea could be a hard sell at a time when, due to falling commodity prices, mining companies are taking a huge economic hit.

Mines professor Rod Eggert, who teaches natural resource economics, notes that some companies are already cutting back on capital investments as they work to “survive the current economic storm.” But he rejects the notion that lean times will dampen enthusiasm, and funding, for sustainable mining efforts overall. “Challenging times reward those who are most efficient,” he says. “Those with a long-term commitment to the industry are keeping their eye on the ball and working day in and day out to improve the way they mine and the way they interact with the community.”

Chemistry professor James Ranville (second from left) leads students in analyzing water samples from streams near mining operations during the Department of Chemistry’s summer field session. (Credit: Mark Ramirez)
Chemistry professor James Ranville (second from left) leads students in analyzing water samples from streams near mining operations during the Department of Chemistry’s summer field session. (Credit: Mark Ramirez)

As far as legacy mines go, Stover sees them as a “solvable problem” with—thanks to the Gold King Mine spill—unprecedented attention on it. “If we can’t come up with funding and resolve some of the legal issues now, we never will.”

In the meantime, some companies are already stepping up to the plate, very carefully, to help. For instance, Freeport-McMoRan contributes $500,000 per year to Colorado’s inactive mine reclamation program, helping the state to fund the removal of solid waste materials from legacy mines left behind by someone else. “We did not create these situations, and we are under no legal obligation to clean them up,” says Cobb. “But given our place in the hard-rock sector of Colorado, we feel like we need to contribute to environmental improvement of the state, and this is one thing we can do.”

The company also funds restoration projects through the nonprofit Trout Unlimited, and it supports Denver-based Environmental Learning for Kids, an education group that recently participated in a tree planting at the London Mine site above the town of Alma, where Freeport funds were used by the state to clean up the site.

Going forward, Cobb would like to see Mines students get even more involved in solving the problem of legacy mines, perhaps helping to survey abandoned sites and come up with designs to clean them up. “Who knows,” he says, “a few years down the road these students could be running an environmental group for a mining company.”

EPA Bonita Peak Mining District superfund team lays out 2016 work plan

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Environmental Protection Agency officials say by next month they intend to provide La Plata and San Juan counties a list of tasks it expects to complete in 2016 at the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

“Next month, we could provide a more comprehensive briefing on 2016 activities, where we will collect data and figure out what questions that data will answer,” Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas said in a brief meeting with Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners Thursday afternoon.

The rest of the year includes plans for a hydrology study to evaluate risks to human health and water quality as well as an evaluation of historic and cultural resources in the area.

Thomas said the sampling will answer the question of which mining sites, if any, can be quickly remedied and removed from the National Priorities List, such as those contributing to Mineral Creek, which is less complex than the areas surrounding the Upper Animas River and Cement Creek.

Thursday’s meeting was largely a repeat of information from the EPA, though local officials had questions and comments about the process.

“There are a lot of people in Durango concerned it could happen again,” City Councilor Sweetie Marbury said, referring to the EPA-triggered Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5 that ejected 3 million gallons of metal-laden water into regional watersheds.

“How will you identify the risk areas to prevent another spill happening?”

Thomas said one of the leading priorities for the Superfund team will be to examine draining adits to assess their structural stability.

Thomas said the EPA is deciding whether to expand the Gold King Mine treatment facility to treat other nearby drainage sources.

The Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton contains 48 mine-related sites and was recommended for placement on the Federal Register for Superfund designation on April 7. The EPA now seeks comments from the public, which can be submitted online at the EPA Superfund Program Bonita Peak Mining District page.

The Superfund managerial team will return for updates the week of May 23.

Meanwhile, Animas River pollution has many sources. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald

With much of the recent focus on the Cement Creek drainage, the major sources for metal loading into the reaches of the Upper Animas River remain a bit of a mystery for researchers.

Yet Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s four massive tailings ponds along the Upper Animas River – about a mile northeast of Silverton, above the confluence with Cement Creek – have long been under suspicion.

“From Arrastra Gulch down to Silverton, there is a substantial amount of metal loading, and it’s not clear where that is coming from,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator with the Animas River Stakeholder’s Group. “The sources are not as identifiable as Cement Creek.”

From the late 19th century to the early 20th century, miners routinely dumped any by-product from metal extraction directly into rivers or lakes throughout the highly productive Silverton caldera.

In the 1930s, Sunnyside began hauling ore from Gladstone through Silverton and up what is now County Road 2 to the Mayflower Mill for processing. Only 5 percent of the ore contained precious metals.

The leftover 95 percent of waste rock, which usually contained heavy metals that included cadmium, copper and lead, was dumped beside the mill until 1992. The four piles now stretch about a mile and a half.

Sunnyside over the years has conducted numerous projects to reduce the leeching of metals into the Upper Animas, including covering the piles with clay to reduce the entry of water and digging diversions to prevent groundwater from seeping into the ponds.

Still, high concentrations of metals continue to load, according to data collected by the stakeholder’s group. Butler said in March and April, more concentrations of metals can enter the river along that stretch than all the loading that discharges from Cement Creek, considered the worst polluter in the mining district.

On Tuesday, Silverton native Larry Perino, a spokesman for Sunnyside, revealed the results of sampling conducted last year during high-flow and low-flow points to the stakeholder’s group.

Water samples taken within the tailings pond showed levels of cadmium, copper and six other metals that exceeded Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards. Within the Animas River along that stretch, cadmium and copper were the only metals in excess.

However, the results leave many gaps for researchers characterizing the watershed. Testing occurred only a few days in May and September, and neglected the historically high period of metal concentrations that occur in March and April.

When questioned, Perino doubted the veracity of the historical data and cited the company’s tight time frame for testing. He later added those months would have been difficult to take samples given the inclement weather.

“I think it’s impossible (to draw conclusions) unless you’re out there weekly,” said Perino, adding the company has no further plans to test this summer.

Regardless, the next steps for remediating the tailings ponds are unknown. The site, owned mostly by Sunnyside, a subsidiary of mining conglomerate Kinross, is included on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Superfund listing, raising uncertainty over jurisdiction and responsibility. Sunnyside, one of the region’s largest and longest running mining operations, could be targeted as a potentially responsible party, despite years of undergoing voluntary cleanup projects aimed at being cleared of further liability.

“Right now, there are no formal agreements between EPA and Sunnyside,” said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s manager for the Superfund site. “So if they chose to collect data, that’s certainly their prerogative. We’ve had a cooperative relationship historically, and I think that will stay.”

Doug Jamison with the state health department said it’s too early to draw conclusions on just how much Sunnyside’s tailings contribute to the overall metal loading in the Animas watershed.

“I think there’s a lot of evaluation that needs to be done,” he said. “On the other side of the valley, there are also some potential sources.”

Indeed, of the 48 mine-related waste sites included in the Superfund listing, nearly 30 are along the stretches of the Upper Animas.

Perino said testing was done at Howardsville, above the tailings, to compare how water quality changed during its flow downstream, but he did not have that information available.

In the coming summer months, the tailings – designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000 – will be the subject of further scrutiny.

“In general, I think people were hoping (Tuesday) for a more definitive answer,” Butler said. “But I think what we learned is that it’s a difficult thing to figure out.”

#AnimasRiver: “…shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship” — The Denver Post #GoldKingMine

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Animas River headwaters contamination exceeds state standards for cadmium, copper, lead and other toxic acid metals draining from inactive mines, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Sunnyside Gold Corp. revealed Tuesday.

Until now, federal pronouncements after the EPA-triggered Aug. 5 Gold King blowout touted a return to pre-disaster conditions along the river.

But the move toward an ambitious Superfund cleanup of 48 mine sites in southwestern Colorado has catalyzed cooperation and a far more aggressive, comprehensive and precise approach toward acid mine drainage.

At Tuesday’s Animas River Stakeholders Group forum, locals along with EPA and Sunnyside officials all said they now find those “pre-spill conditions” intolerable. Fish haven’t been able to reproduce in the Animas for a decade, even 50 miles to the south through Durango.

Beyond the Gold King and other Cement Creek mines, “there are elevated levels (of heavy metals) in all three drainages” flowing into the Animas, said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager. “It is a much broader look now.”

[…]

EPA officials this week are holding forums in tribal communities, Durango and Silverton to discuss their Superfund process, which usually drags out for more than a decade. An official listing of the Animas area as a National Priority List disaster, a step toward funding for cleanup, isn’t expected until fall.

The shift here from skepticism toward energetic stewardship is reflected in more community groups demanding, and in some cases conducting, increased testing of river water and sediment to monitor contamination.

The Mountain Studies Institute, a Durango-based research group, did an investigation of aquatic insects that live in sediment on river banks and found that copper levels increased between 2014 and 2015.

Sunnyside Gold Corp. manager Larry Perino presented data from tests of mining wastewater launched last fall on the day of the Gold King disaster. Contractors sampled on Sunnyside properties a couple of miles east of Silverton — a different drainage from Cement Creek — where mining waste tailings sit along the main stem of the upper Animas.

Those tailings as water rushes over them apparently are leaking the cadmium, copper and six other metals at levels exceeding Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment standards. The cadmium and copper had dissolved into Animas headwaters.

Sunnyside shared the data at Tuesday’s meeting in Silverton.

Dan Wall of the EPA then presented federal data showing lead contamination of soils along Cement Creek and in water near the tailings heaps containing elevated cadmium, zinc, manganese and copper.

EPA crews have done tests around Animas basin for decades and increasingly are trying to pinpoint mine site sources of contamination.

“We have to do more high-resolution work before we start talking smoking guns,” Wall told the locals at the forum.

A broadening cooperation is happening despite EPA efforts to target Sunnyside, owned by the global mining giant Kinross, as a responsible party obligated to pay a share of Superfund cleanup costs.

“Just because you are a potentially responsible party doesn’t mean it has to be adversarial,” Perino said.

Conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited have raised concerns about possible re-churn of heavy metals from the 3 million-gallon Gold King deluge as snow melts, increasing runoff into the upper Animas. But biologists also point to benefits of dilution to reduce concentrations of dissolved heavy metals.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White confirmed that, since the shutoff of a water treatment plant on Cement Creek in 2005 when Sunnyside’s American Tunnel was plugged, fish populations deteriorated along a 30-mile stretch of the Animas south of Silverton.

There are few rainbow and brown trout today, and brook trout decreased by 80 percent after 2004, White said.

“It is not healthy. Things have gotten worse in the Animas River since 2004 or 2005,” he said. “We’ve seen this consistent dropoff — the primary thing is the dissolved metals” including zinc, cadmium and aluminum.

Even 50 miles south in Durango, the fish put into the river in stocking programs have not been able to reproduce, he said.

“We’re just not seeing young fish surviving, in Durango as well,” White said.

Other forces, such as sediment from urban development and fertilizer runoff, also play a role downriver in addition to acid metals drainage from inactive mines.

Hundreds of inactive mines continue to drain more than 1,000 gallons a minute of toxic acid heavy metals into Animas headwaters. It is one of the West’s worst concentrations of toxic mines.

For at least a decade before the Gold King disaster, the mine drainage reaching Animas canyon waters along a 30-mile stretch south of Silverton “had a hideous impact,” Trout Unlimited chapter president Buck Skillen said.

“We’ve lost almost all of the trout and a number of bugs,” Skillen said. “We’ve had the equivalent of the Gold King spill every four to seven days over the last 10 years. But the water didn’t turn orange. So it wasn’t on everyone’s radar.”

Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Rock Pile Superfund Site update — EPA lawsuit

Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede
Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Federal and state officials have agreed in principle to a $6 million settlement with a mining company to recover cleanup costs at the Superfund site just north of town.

A proposed consent decree with Denverbased CoCa Mines was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver Thursday.

The proposal would still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and the approval of the court.
Through last June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had spent $10 million on the Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund site.

More than half of that money went toward the stabilization of the waste rock pile and the reinforcement of the West Willow Creek channel that runs along side it during an emergency response in 2008 and 2009.

In a complaint filed the same day as the proposed consent decree, EPA alleged that a company operating under a joint venture partnership with CoCa had sent 500 tons of mine waste onto the waste rock pile and contributed to its destabilization.

The complaint also alleged that CoCa inherited liability for the site when it bought out its former partner in 1989 and thereafter failed to conduct cleanup.

CoCa Mines owned and operated in an area that’s now part of the Superfund site from 1973 to 1993.
Cleanup work at the Superfund site has come to a halt while EPA conducts a feasibility study on potential remedies for the Nelson Tunnel, which is responsible for the majority of the contaminants in West Willow Creek.

One potential option would involve the dewatering of the collapsed tunnel, although it would be dependent upon the initiation of mining by Rio Grande Silver at the nearby Bulldog Mine. The tunnel, completed in 1902, was used to drain and ventilate mines along the Amethyst vein, while also providing a route to haul ore out of the mines.

EPA initiates lawsuit over Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Mine Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

The Environmental Protection Agency has sued a mining company operating in Mineral County in federal court to recoup hazardous waste cleanup costs.

The U.S. sued Coca Mines Inc. for cleanup of hazardous substances in the Nelson Tunnel and the Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site.

The superfund site is in the San Juan Mountains less than 2 miles from the town of Creede. Shafts were dug in a series of hard-rock silver mines operated between 1889 and the 1980s tapping the “Amethyst Vein.” Horizontal tunnels also were bored, including the Nelson Tunnel.

The Nelson Tunnel is partially collapsed but continues to drain acid runoff.

The Commodore Waste Rock Pile, just outside the entrance of the Nelson Tunnel, included a water conveyance system that failed around 1995, releasing mine waste containing heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese and zinc into West Willow Creek.

The creek flows into the Rio Grande River 4 miles below the site.

In 2008 and 2009, the EPA conducted waste removal studies at the waste pile site.

The EPA is now in the process of completing a feasibility study of remedial actions for the site.

Through June 30, 2015, the EPA incurred nearly $10 million in costs. Some of those costs were covered by the Asarco Environmental Trust.

The lawsuit says the discharge each day from the Nelson Tunnel into Willow Creek carries 375 pounds of zinc, 1.37 pounds of cadmium and 6.39 pounds of lead. Zinc levels have hit 25,000 parts per billion, hurting fish reproduction for more than 4 miles down to a confluence with the main stem of the Rio Grande, where dilution eases the impact.

#AnimasRiver Water Quality at Rotary Park, Durango, Colorado — Mountain Studies Institute #GoldKingMine

animasriverrwaterqualityatrotaryparkmoutainstudiesinstitutecover

Here’s the release from the Mountain Studies Institute:

The fact that people in the community noticed when the Animas River was distinctly yellow-brown in color on February 15, 2016 reflects a heightened awareness of changes in water quality since the Gold King Mine release. Warm temperatures in mid-February initiated the first increase in runoff since last fall’s storms, picking up sediment in the process.

Mountain Studies Institute (MSI), a nonpartisan independent research station, has been monitoring water quality of the Animas River since before, during, and after the Gold King Mine release. MSI received lab results back from water quality samples collected from the Animas River at Rotary Park on February 15, and March 1, 2016.

“These samples are the first in a series of sampling that will occur as part of a monitoring program that aims to understand changes in water quality during 2016 storm events and spring runoff” said Scott Roberts, MSI’s aquatic ecologist. The monitoring program is part of a partnership between MSI and the City of Durango to convey Animas River water quality information to the public.

“Because we know that people are curious to see the data, MSI has posted water quality monitoring results and an explanation of those results on our website, http://www.MountainStudies.org” said Marcie Bidwell, MSI’s director. “By posting updated information on our website, we hope to keep the public informed as the season progresses. Links will also be available on the City’s website, http://www.durangogov.org.”

Results from the spring samples indicate some encouraging news. Metals of concern for human health (Arsenic, Lead, and Mercury) and those thought to be most harmful to aquatic life (Copper, Zinc, and Selenium) were found to be at levels considered safe by Colorado Department of Health and the Environment (CDPHE) water quality standards. All metals analyzed from these two spring samples were at levels considered safe for agriculture and domestic water supply use (based on CDPHE water quality standards). Additionally, all metals were below Environmental Protection Agency’s recreational screening levels, which represents the level at which no adverse health effects are expected to occur in humans consuming 2 liters of filtered water per day, from the Animas, orally, for 64 days each year for a total of 30 years.

However, the yellow-brown color of the Animas River at Rotary Park in Durango on February 15th did contain high levels of certain metals. Concentrations of Aluminum and Iron surpassed chronic water quality standards set by CDPHE to protect aquatic life from persistent, long-term exposure to metals. The brief exceedances of chronic water quality standards from one sample on one day do not necessarily indicate potential harm to aquatic life unless these levels persist continuously over a 30-day period.
The visible yellow or orange color of the river is mostly Iron and Aluminum. Iron particles of various sizes are suspended in the water column. Other metals, such as Zinc, readily bond to the Iron particles.

“MSI’s data supports the conclusions of local, state and federal partners that, from a public health standpoint, this year’s spring runoff is unlikely to be different from previous years. Monitoring and notification procedures are also in place to notify the public if conditions change.” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Health (SJBH). “SJBH advises the public that it is always good practice to wash with soap and water after exposure to any untreated body of water, including the Animas River. Further information and more health tips for river users are available on our website at http://sjbhd.org/public-health-news/animas-river-health-updates/.”

In a partnership with the City of Durango, MSI plans to continue to monitor the water quality of the Animas River throughout 2016, focusing on understanding chronic exposure to aquatic life before runoff, during runoff, and into the summer season.

Please keep in mind that these observations are from only one location (Rotary Park in Durango) on the Animas River and may not be indicative of the entire Animas River watershed.

Visit http://www.MountainStudies.org to learn more about MSI’s monitoring efforts and results.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

Runoff from autumn storms kicked up the levels of some contaminants in a southwestern Colorado river after a massive spill of toxic mine waste, but concentrations of other pollutants declined or didn’t change, researchers said Friday.

A report released by the Environmental Protection Agency could offer clues about what will happen to the Animas River this spring and summer when melting snow from the San Juan Mountains makes the waterway run higher, potentially stirring up pollutants that had settled to the bottom after the spill.

But the researchers said they couldn’t be sure that the pollutants they measured came from the Gold King Mine — source of the 3-million-gallon spill last August — or if they were from other mines that riddle the area. They also said they didn’t have enough historical data to know whether storms that hit after the Gold King spill stirred up more pollutants than ones before it…

Most of the metals settled to the bottom of the Animas before reaching the San Juan River in New Mexico, the EPA said. Experts have differed on whether and how much those metals will be stirred up when river flows increase after storms and from the spring snowmelt.

The nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute in Silverton monitored the river for the EPA in Durango, Colorado, about 60 miles downstream from the mine, and compiled a report.

Seven storms increased the flow of the Animas in Durango between Aug. 9 and Oct. 26. Concentrations of six contaminants increased after some of those storms, including aluminum and copper, the institute’s report said.

Levels of mercury and five other contaminants decreased after some storms, while the levels of seven others didn’t change.

State water officials don’t expect floods or above-normal flows in the Animas this spring and summer. The San Juan Mountain snowpack that melts into the river was only 66 percent of the long-term average on Friday.

Even if a weekend storm drops up to 2 feet of snow on the San Juans as predicted, it probably won’t be enough to cause the Animas to flood, said Kevin Houck, chief of watershed and flood protection for the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

#AnimasRiver: Gov. Hickenlooper, members of federal delegation send letter to #EPA requesting additional support

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of Colorado’s federal delegation yesterday sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking for additional support for the Bonita Peak Mining District. Senators Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Congressman Scott Tipton joined Hickenlooper on the letter in support of the local communities including the Towns of Silverton and Durango, San Juan and La Plata Counties.

“As part of Superfund designation process, we reiterate the importance of addressing the concerns expressed by the Town of Silverton and San Juan County and that cleanup moves forward in a way that works for all affected localities,” said Hickenlooper.

Specifically, the letter urges the EPA to expand the scope and planned timeline to operate the temporary water treatment plant on Cement Creek as well as provide adequate funding and collaborate with local governments, tribes, and the state to conduct long-term monitoring along the Animas River and at sites of specific concern to each community. The letter also reiterated support for an expedited claims and reimbursement process for the communities.

Click here to read the letter.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton this week asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for extra support — emphasizing the EPA role triggering the Aug. 5 Gold King disaster.

They’re demanding that the EPA ensure sufficient funding for cleanup as promised, that Silverton and nearby communities get a seat at the table as promised, and robust interim cleanup of creek water as promised.

“We urge you to prioritize funding for this project as soon as possible to restore the health of the Animas River watershed, protect public health, and maintain the local recreation and tourism economy,” Hickenlooper and the lawmakers said in a letter to McCarthy.

While EPA officials have proposed a priority listing of mine sites around Silverton and say they’ll treat the Gold King cleanup like any other site, the Colorado leaders insisted that “the EPA must recognize its role in the most recent spill and its subsequent obligation to this community.”

They contend a temporary treatment plant on Cement Creek “may not operate” beyond this fall and that “this facility has the ability to treat more of the acid mine drainage in the watershed.”

They asked EPA officials to expand the scope of those water-cleaning operations, to be continued until overall cleanup is done, and to speed up reimbursement of costs that towns, counties, tribes and businesses incurred due to the 3 million-gallon deluge — caused by botched EPA efforts to drain the Gold King Mine.

“We also have heard significant concerns from local communities that the current water quality monitoring on the Animas River is not sufficient,” the letter said. “It is likely that spring runoff will remobilize the sediments and metals deposited during the spill. … The EPA must provide adequate funding. … The funds pledged to date by EPA for these needs are insufficient.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress continue to harass the EPA. Here’s a report from Matthew Daly writing for the Associated Press via 12NewsNow.com:

Senate Republicans vowed Tuesday to issue a subpoena to force the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to appear at a field hearing in Phoenix next week on a toxic mine spill that fouled rivers in three Western states and on lands belonging to two Native American tribes.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso said the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will vote Wednesday on a plan to subpoena EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Barrasso chairs the Indian Affairs panel, which is conducting an April 22 hearing on the 3-million gallon spill at Colorado’s abandoned Gold King Mine. The Aug. 5 spill contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, as well as in the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Reservation.

If approved, the subpoena would be the first issued by the Indian Affairs panel since 2004, during the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff was a prominent Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in the purchase of gambling cruise boats. He spent 3 and 1/2 years in prison…

Barrasso said the EPA has been “reckless,” first in causing the spill and then in failing to address it.

“They took their eye off the ball,” Barrasso said of the EPA. “They caused this toxic spill and now they are still not focused on cleaning up the mess they caused.”

An EPA spokeswoman said Tuesday that McCarthy was never invited to attend the hearing; an official who oversees emergency management was asked to testify.

In a letter to the committee, the EPA said it will make two high-ranking officials available to testify, including Mathy Stanislaus, an assistant EPA administrator who originally was invited to testify. Stanislaus initially said he had a scheduling conflict. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter Tuesday night.

Spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said earlier that the agency has agreed to provide written testimony for the hearing, scheduled for Earth Day.

McCarthy testified before the Senate Indian Affairs and Environment committees on the spill last year.

Barrasso called the agency’s initial response another indication that the EPA “has grown too big, too arrogant, too irresponsible and too unaccountable” to the American people.

“On Earth Day, the EPA ought to be there to confess the failures of the (Obama) administration” to those affected by the spill and specify “what they are going to do to correct it,” Barrasso said.

Barrasso cited news reports indicating that McCarthy is likely to be among U.S. officials joining Secretary of State John Kerry in New York at an Earth Day ceremony to sign a global climate change agreement reached in Paris last year. The agreement calls for the U.S. and nearly 200 other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

McCarthy would rather be in New York “talking about what happened in Paris instead of going to Arizona to face the people who her agency has abandoned,” Barrasso said. “That’s what she thinks is more important.”

McCarthy plans to spend Earth Day in Washington, Harrison said.

The EPA recently announced it would spend $157,000 to help the Navajo Nation recover costs incurred during the response to the Gold King spill. The money is in addition to more than $1.1 million spent by the EPA in response costs for the Navajo immediately following the spill.

The EPA has awarded the Navajo more than $93 million in grants to develop environmental and infrastructure programs, Harrison said.

Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed

#AnimasRiver: Bonita Peak Mining District superfund site?

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

From the Associated Press via the The Colorado Springs Gazette:

Republican Rep. Scott Tipton said Thursday a Superfund cleanup would be overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which caused an August mine spill that prompted the cleanup.

Tipton says it would be better to fund the effort another way. He didn’t offer specifics.

The EPA on Wednesday proposed adding the Gold King Mine and other sites to the Superfund list. Officials in Silverton and San Juan County and Gov. John Hickenlooper have endorsed it.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

A cluster of 48 mining sites near Silverton, including the Gold King Mine, is expected eventually to find a spot on the National Priorities List of the nation’s worst disasters threatening public health and the environment.

But the EPA’s process requires this first step, followed by a period for comments. There’s no guarantee listed sites would receive funding for cleanup.

“I’m excited. This shows our work negotiating with the EPA is paying off,” Silverton town administrator Bill Gardner said. “It shows they are true to their word that there’s going to be a commitment from them, and that we are going to move forward quicker rather than slower.”

[…]

“The agency will follow the same process at the Bonita Peak Mining District as for all other proposed NPL sites,” spokeswoman Christie St. Clair said.

The priorities list serves as a basis for enforcement actions against potentially responsible polluters and for securing cleanup funds. For 35 years, the Superfund program has run on the principle that polluters should pay for cleanups, defraying costs to taxpayers. EPA officials hunt for parties legally responsible for contaminating a site and try to compel them to cover cleanup costs.

“The process is moving forward,” said Peter Butler, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, which since 1994 has worked to stop contamination from hundreds of leaking inactive mines.

“Hopefully, actual metal reductions to the river happen sooner rather than later,” Butler said…

Gov. John Hickenlooper in February backed up southwestern Colorado residents in requesting EPA action to address the Gold King and other inactive mines contaminating headwaters of the Animas River — water that flows into New Mexico, tribal nations, Utah and eventually the Grand Canyon toward California.

“We are pleased the EPA proposed adding the Bonita Peak Mining District to the National Priorities List (NPL). This is a crucial next step in making the region eligible for necessary resources and comprehensive cleanup efforts under EPA’s Superfund program, but our work is not done,” Hickenlooper said Wednesday morning.

“We are working with the EPA to ensure that adequate funding for this site is provided, including immediate interim measures and options to mitigate any further water quality deterioration. We are also working to ensure state and local officials continue to have an active role and that there is robust and significant community involvement,” he said.

“Lastly, we continue to support efforts by our congressional delegation to reach consensus around ‘Good Samaritan’ legislation, which is one of the most significant tools at our disposal to allow for voluntary cleanups of draining and abandoned mines.”

EPA proposes Superfund for San Juan County — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The recommendation will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, which sets off a 60-day public comment period before the rule can be finalized.

The proposal calls for adding eight new sites to the National Priorities List, including Bonita Peak Mining District in San Juan County.

The EPA recommended the site after Gov. John Hickenlooper sent a letter to federal officials in February backing the designation, which would inject large amounts of federal dollars into permanent restoration efforts. The action came in the wake of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill.

Hickenlooper sent the letter to the EPA after Silverton and San Juan County expressed support for the listing.

“This is a crucial next step in making the region eligible for necessary resources and comprehensive cleanup efforts under EPA’s Superfund program, but our work is not done,” Hickenlooper said. “We are working with the EPA to ensure that adequate funding for this site is provided, including immediate interim measures and options to mitigate any further water quality deterioration.”

The listing would impact as many as 50 mining-related sites in the Gladstone area that have contaminated the Upper Animas, Mineral Creek and Cement Creek for more than a century.

Restoration efforts would likely include a permanent water-treatment facility, as well as long-term water quality monitoring…

Local officials, however, vow to closely watch the process, which could last for many years. They want a voice at the table and to ensure that boundaries of the proposed Superfund site don’t expand. Some also worry about blocking access to the backcountry.

Meanwhile, Hickenlooper on Wednesday renewed his support for Congress to pass Good Samaritan legislation, which would ease liability concerns for government and private entities to restore draining mines.

And the state Legislature on Wednesday advanced a bill that would allow the state to use emergency response funds for hazardous conditions at a legacy hard rock mine site that is a danger to the public. Currently, the state can only use those funds at mining sites subject to the state’s regulatory authority, so the bill would expand the state’s authority.

House Bill 1276 passed the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee unanimously without any conversation. It now heads to the full House for approval.

#AnimasRiver: “I don’t believe they are manipulating the samples or the results” — Ryan Flynn

From Environmental Technology Online:

Utah has joined a growing list of disgruntled states who are unhappy with the manner in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has handled the Gold King Mine disaster last year. In summer 2015, almost 400 tonnes of heavy metals were released into the Animas River after a collapse in the mine, prompting fears that nearby water supplies would become contaminated.

In the intervening months, several states have become so impatient and unsatisfied with the efforts of the EPA in monitoring the river that they have set up their own initiative to safeguard the citizens living in towns and cities downstream of the accident.

An Independent Monitoring System

Monitoring water quality levels is important at the best of times, but in the wake of last summer’s disaster, it has taken on a new dimension for the states living in close vicinity to the mine. Utah is the latest state to join with New Mexico and Colorado, along with the Navajo Nation, in demanding better sampling of the affected rivers.

The conglomerate hope to collect samples from the Animas River and the nearby San Juan River on a weekly basis and have them assessed for heavy metal content, including cadmium, copper, lead and zinc.

They also wish to gather real-time information on the turbidity of both rivers to determine how much sediment is passing through them at any given time. This will be achieved via the installation of a series of multiple sensors and probes – much like the remote water quality monitors mentioned here – at key locations along the rivers.

In this manner, the concerned states hope to be aware of any impending influx of sediment into their water supplies and make the relevant warnings to residents and preparations for alternative drinking water supplies.

Unhappy with the EPA

Though the EPA met with the states at the beginning of March to thrash out a firm plan of action, pledging to provide $2 million towards the initiative, such steps have done little to appease some of the officials involved.

On the one hand, officials from the state of New Mexico claim that the EPA have been misconstruing or distorting the actual effects of the mine disaster. Ryan Flynn, who is the environment secretary for New Mexico, says that the EPA are using a different set of standards to require governmental action than they normally do, and that they have claimed downstream ditches had not been affected when they actually had.

“I don’t believe they are manipulating the samples or the results,” Flynn explained. “But when it comes to communicating those results, the EPA is totally misleading the public and the states about what is actually occurring.”

Secondly, Flynn and his Utah counterpart Erica Gaddis were also critical of the low sum the EPA had pledged towards the monitoring operation. Utah has already spent $400,000 on monitoring equipment and recently committed to spending $200,000 more, while New Mexico struggled to find $100,000 to purchase its own monitoring apparatus.

“We are a poor state, and we have some real stress on our budget because of oil and gas prices,” Flynn went on, “but this mission is critical to protecting our communities.”

As a result, both Utah and New Mexico plan to sue the EPA for compensation and damages once the catastrophe has been averted. For now, though, the priority remains to make sure no sediment makes it into local drinking water supplies – especially with the imminence of snowmelt engendered by the arrival of spring.

The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esm Cadiente www.terraprojectdiaries.com)
The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esm Cadiente http://www.terraprojectdiaries.com)

#AnimasRiver: “What we have here is a totally different animal” — AG Cynthia Coffman

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is preparing defensive and offensive strategies to legal disputes in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill…

Some observers wonder why Coffman hasn’t sued the EPA, which admits that excavation during restoration work led to the blowout. Also, there are accounts that the agency knew a blowout was possible.

Coffman says she is not shy about suing federal agencies, having joined the state in three lawsuits, including most recently over implementation of EPA carbon standards, known as the Clean Power Plan.

“What we have here is a totally different animal because we have an environmental incident, whether accidental or intentional, whatever you want to call it, that requires a totally different approach,” Coffman said…

“Am I prepared to apportion who has what liability? I’m not. I don’t feel like we know enough,” Coffman said.

If lawsuits are filed, they’re likely to drag on for years, if not decades, Coffman said, pointing to the complicated nature of environmental cases, the long list of parties involved and leaking mines in the area.

Hanging over the process is a potential Superfund listing, which would inject large amounts of cash into permanent restoration efforts at as many as 50 mining-related sites in the Gladstone area that have contaminated the Upper Animas River, Mineral Creek and Cement Creek for more than a century.

A Superfund listing itself could result in a lawsuit from environmental groups, who may fear that restoration efforts don’t go far enough.

Coffman said Superfund lawsuits are tricky, and there is a lack of institutional knowledge because Superfund listings are relatively rare. The attorney general’s office downsized its Superfund unit several years ago.

“You have a new generation of attorneys in this office who may not have seen a Superfund case,” she said.

Coffman said after receiving the two Notice of Intent to sue letters from New Mexico and Utah, her office assembled a 10-person Gold King Mine team, including environmental attorneys and governmental immunity and civil litigation experts.

The attorney general’s office also has held weekly conversations with the governor’s office. Coffman said Gold King Mine is “near the top of the list.”

“Litigation, it’s an important tool that attorneys have, but negotiation is equally important,” Coffman said. “Once you start litigation, the tone automatically changes, and sometimes irrevocably.”

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is optimistic that he can reach resolution with the two states out of court. But he said: “If they sue us, I think that unifying effort will be diminished.”

Hickenlooper said he spoke with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez recently. New Mexico is concerned with water-testing plans, which the governor believes the two states can resolve.

“The EPA … admitted responsibility, they said they would hold themselves to the same high standards they would any private-sector business and they were going to make good on what damages there were. Let’s wait and see before we pick up the telephone and call in the lawyers. Let’s see how well they live up to that commitment,” he said…

Coffman may have to intervene if the EPA does not follow through, or if the agency’s efforts seem inadequate. She sent the agency a letter on March 15 urging it to settle at least 51 unpaid claims from individuals, which total nearly $5 million. Coffman said she has not yet received a response from the agency.

“It’s easy to admit fault,” Coffman said. “It’s much harder to take responsibility and pay for the consequences of your actions.”

#AnimasRiver: #Colorado AG Coffman weighing options for lawsuit

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

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Colorado’s top prosecutor said Tuesday that litigation in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill is an option she’s hoping to avoid as the state works to negotiate compensation after the August disaster.

But Attorney General Cynthia Coffman explained all options are still on the table as fallout continues to unfold, and that the site’s current and previous owners, as well as the owner of a nearby mine, are all potential defendants if a lawsuit is filed.

“I think we have to look at everyone involved in order to do a good job representing the state of Colorado,” she said in an interview with The Denver Post. “We look to everyone who has a piece of the puzzle and was part of the story.”

Coffman has been weighing legal action against the Environmental Protection Agency since its contractors triggered the 3 million-gallon disaster, but now appears to be taking a broader assessment of those with links to the incident.

A team of 10 attorneys in her office has been looking into the possibility of filing a lawsuit and working on possible defenses to threats of legal action against the state…

“I would say we are still in the initial phases of the process,” she said of investigating whether to take any legal action. “For the first few months, this was really the governor’s project and responsibility… We were in a holding pattern in terms of litigation.”

[…]

The attorney general’s office is reviewing the history of the Gold King and the nearby American Tunnel and Sunnyside Mine — both owned by the Canada-based conglomerate Kinross — as part of their process.

Coffman said engineered plugs in the American Tunnel, installed to limit heavy metal drainage, likely were a factor in the Gold King’s contaminated water buildup and eventual release.

Kinross said it has no role or responsibility in the spill despite claims from the Gold King’s owner, Todd Hennis, who has implicated them in the disaster.

“We will vigorously defend ourselves from any potential legal action,” said Louie Diaz, a Kinross spokesman.

Hennis bought the Gold King in 2005 after it went into foreclosure and then allowed the EPA to work on remediating the site. Agency contractors were excavating the mine’s collapsed opening when they accidentally triggered the disaster.

Hennis declined to comment on any potential legal proceedings.

Coffman said her staff has been in close contact with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office over any Gold King legal action and that their interactions have been productive.

Coffman and Hickenlooper battled in the state’s highest court over her decision to join a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, with the attorney general coming out at the victor.

Since then, Coffman said, their relationship has improved, making Gold King work easier.

“The EPA admitted responsibility, agreed to hold themselves to the same high standards they would any private business, and they were going to make good on any damages,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday. “Let’s see how well they live up to that commitment before we jump into litigation.”

Coffman said that while she still thinks the EPA could have been more transparent and accountable after the spill, it has made good strides in its response.

Now, as far is she is concerned, is time to investigate the disaster and weigh the appropriate next steps.

“This is a classic who did it,” she said. “Who is the most responsible and what are they going to pay?”

Gold King Mine circa 1899 via The Silverton Standard
Gold King Mine circa 1899 via The Silverton Standard

EPA tightens controls for work at West’s blowout-prone old mines — @DenverPost

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA chiefs are ordering extra headquarters reviews of all plans for work at blowout-prone old mines — policy tightening aimed at avoiding a repeat of the Gold King disaster.

And Environmental Protection Agency officials on Thursday declared testing is done for a better early-warning system that would alert communities to surges of toxic mine muck.

Separately, the EPA’s internal inspector concluded an investigation finding deficiencies in securing financial guarantees from companies that hurt the EPA’s ability to complete cleanups…

The boosted review reflects efforts to increase work at hundreds of inactive mines contaminating waterways, work that EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy partially suspended in the aftermath of the Aug. 5 Gold King disaster. An EPA crew botched work at the Gold King Mine above Silverton, trying to drain it but triggering a 3 million-gallon torrent of acidic metals-laced mine water that turned the Animas River mustard-yellow…

An EPA inventory, unveiled Thursday, listed some of the worst potential hazard sites — among an estimated 500,000 inactive mines in the West — including four in Colorado. The inventory lists 20 more sites around Colorado where toxic muck is known to be backed up yet the hazard has not adequately been assessed. It lists another 115 inactive mine sites, including 26 in California and more in Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

The new rules require EPA crews to follow best practices to try to ensure that experts with the right engineering and other skills are involved. EPA crews also must give headquarters supervisors a technical assessment of blowout potential before beginning work, written documentation of talks with state and tribal officials and verification that emergency response plans are in place with satellite phones and other equipment available.

At sites where states or tribes lead cleanup, regional EPA officials must define their support roles and, if landowners deemed responsible are involved, document owner willingness to handle emergency response.

“No impactful delays are expected,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said.

The EPA this week completed final drills aimed at improving a system for notifying downstream communities ahead of blowouts via e-mail and phones. Improved early-warning plans were done to address concerns after the Gold King disaster raised by people living along the Animas in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and tribal nations.

The EPA’s Inspector General probe found environmental and financial risks resulting from a failure to collect accurate and complete data from companies responsible for contamination. The report said “data quality deficiencies and a lack of internal controls prevent the EPA from properly overseeing and managing its financial assurance program” — which is designed to ease the burden on taxpayers in dealing with environmental disasters.

“If the EPA cannot determine if it has secured valid and sufficient financial assurance instruments from those private parties, taxpayers are at risk for paying significant amounts of those parties’ financial obligations,” the report said. “Public health protections may be delayed or deferred,” it said. And while the EPA is aware of the risks “it has not taken meaningful steps to address the problem” or disclosed this vulnerability.

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

#Colorado and the Feds meet to update abandoned mines inventory

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimates that acidic metals-laced mine water contaminates more than 1,600 miles of streams and rivers. There are an estimated 23,000 inactive mines in Colorado — 22,000 on federally managed public land — that companies have abandoned. These are a main source of harm to waterways that affects human health and ecosystems.

While multiple federal and state agencies hold information on inactive mines, there’s no comprehensive data hub that could be used to assess impacts, risks and costs for cleanup.

Government officials from the CDPHE, Colorado Geological Survey, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Environmental Protection Agency met Wednesday at the regional Forest Service headquarters to focus on how best to share data and identify gaps.

CDPHE and the CGS are leading a $300,000 inventory initiative.

“I don’t think we really know what the cumulative impacts of all these are,” CGS director Karen Berry said.

Colorado officials also advocate legal changes to encourage voluntary cleanups. So-called “good Samaritan” legislation, introduced in Congress, would let companies and conservation groups launch projects to reduce contamination in streams without being liable, under the Clean Water Act, for remaining contamination, state abandoned mines program director Bruce Stover said.

Such a change would make a difference, Stover said, and volunteer groups wouldn’t be held liable if well-intentioned cleanup work causes spills, such as the Aug. 5 Gold Mine incident where a 3-million-gallon torrent turned the Animas River mustard-yellow.

Lawmakers also are considering reform of the nation’s 1872 mining law to charge hard-rock mining companies fees to create a fund that could be used to help deal with drainage from inactive mines.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has met with fellow western governors and federal agency chiefs and found that a consensus has emerged to make cleanup of old mines a priority. At least 230 are known to be draining into Colorado waterways with 148 largely unaddressed — not visited since the 1990s.

State officials say natural resources crews aim to visit those sites and test water this year to assess the harm.

#AnimasRiver: Rebecca Thomas appointed remedial project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

First priorities are water sampling, public outreach

Water sampling and community coordination will be the first items of business for Rebecca Thomas, the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly appointed remedial project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

Thomas has done remedial work on Superfund sites in Libby, Montana, which endured asbestos contamination, and the California Gulch and Kennecott Copper Mine projects, which were both affected by mine pollution similar to the Bonita Peak site.

With a team that includes ecological risk assessors and a community involvement coordinator, Thomas said she will be working not only with the communities of Silverton and San Juan County, but also Durango, La Plata County and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes.

“We’ll be explaining what Superfund is all about and getting consensus on paths forward,” Thomas said. “We want to take full advantage of sampling season to continue our investigation and answer some of the questions we have.”

The Bonita Peak Mining District, which encompasses about 48 properties around Cement Creek, Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas, will be listed on the federal register and likely receive official Superfund designation next month.

The EPA spends an average six years on research before remedial action is taken at Superfund sites. But some smaller, less-complex mining properties may be eligible for early action, Thomas said.

Sampling will start as early as next month, and the EPA will coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Most existing data addresses risks associated with Cement Creek; Thomas said her team will be digging deeper into human health and ecological risk assessment for Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas.

“We’ll also be working with the BLM to conduct cultural resource surveys for historic sites and wetland inventory,” she said…

Thomas made rounds in Silverton earlier this week, introducing herself to the community, and plans to be a regular presence – in Silverton at least one week out of the month, she said. There are tentative plans for public meetings in both Silverton and Durango in late April.

“At this point, I’m not sure,” said Animas River Stakeholders Group co-coordinator Peter Butler, when asked how the organization will be working with the EPA throughout the process. The group has invested decades on regional mine cleanup projects and supplied the federal agency with data sets after the spill.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage