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
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.
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.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday morning, specifically, it is mobilizing contractors to shore up the mine’s opening and the waste rock pile just outside the adit. The operations are expected to continue through October.
“We anticipate that the interim water treatment plant (below the Gold King) will continue to capture and treat any discharge from the mine,” the EPA said in a news release. “However, should any of this work impact downstream watersheds, EPA will notify stakeholders.”
The work will include installing steel bracing and concrete, the removal of waste sludge stored in the mine’s temporary water treatment plant and an analysis of how to move forward with water treatment in the long run.
With the beginning of the new initiative, the EPA is signaling it has heard the complaints of communities downstream of the mine who say they weren’t notified quickly of the Gold King disaster. The agency says it has an expansive notification plan in place to prevent any further communication issues.
Perhaps the biggest focus, however, of downstream stakeholders has been the still-leaching mine’s temporary water treatment plant. Officials have been worried about the EPA’s commitment to keep open the facility, which has been running since October.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Cory Gardner and local leaders for months have urged EPA officials to commit to keep this temporary plant running, and maybe expand it, until a federal Superfund cleanup of old mines is done.
The plant’s future, as of Friday, remained an unknown though the EPA said it has committed to taking a hard look — including public input — about how to proceed in the long-term. The plant will continue to operate as officials investigate alternatives.
Meanwhile the House of Representatives passed a funding bill for mine cleanups today. Here’s a report from Kate Magill writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:
The bill, introduced by Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., would create the Energy and Minerals Reclamation Foundation, which would be tasked with obtaining and using funds for the cleanup of abandoned coal mines, hard-rock mines and onshore oil and gas wells.
Hice’s legislation is part of a three-part bill package introduced to address abandoned mine cleanup. The other two bills include the Mining Schools Enhancement Act and the Locatable Minerals Claim Location and Maintenance Fees Act, which also includes good Samaritan language that was added by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.
The Foundation Act specifically refers to mines that are located on federally managed lands. If created, the foundation would be a nonprofit corporation that would not be associated with an agency or government establishment. It would be led by a board of directors appointed by the Interior Department secretary.
The purpose of the foundation would be to obtain and administer private donations to be used for the “activities and services of the BLM,” according to the bill. In addition to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites and oil and gas wells, these activities include caring for wildlife habitats, National Conservation Lands, and cultural, recreation and historical resources. The foundation would also raise money for educational and technical resources to help with the management of the Bureau of Land Management.
Though Tipton supported Tuesday’s passage of the Foundation Act, he believes it is just the first step in the process of reclaiming abandoned mines, and it needs to be followed by the passage of good Samaritan legislation, according to Liz Payne, a spokesperson for Tipton.
Payne said it is a positive step to raise money to do site cleanup, but good Samaritan groups need liability coverage, a key component of the language Tipton added to legislation. Such coverage would protect groups that have the technical expertise to reclaim abandoned mine lands from being held completely liable for unforeseen problems such as a mine blowout.
Hice introduced the bill in part because of the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill, so that more private sector resources could be dedicated to cleanup efforts.
“By incorporating private sector policies and procedures, H.R. 3844, the Bureau of Land Management Foundation Act, revamps and improves the cleanup of contaminated water in abandoned mine sites,” Hice said in a statement following the passage of the bill.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it has been assigned to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
A proposal to deploy the powerful Superfund program to clean up leaky Colorado mines — including one that unleashed millions of gallons of wastewater last year — isn’t stirring up much passion, despite formidable resistance in the past.
Some people who live in the scenic southwest corner of the state feared a Superfund designation would scare off vital tourist traffic, even though dormant mines have been belching poisonous wastewater into rivers for years.
Others objected on the grounds that it was a federal intrusion. Some worried Superfund status, which delivers federal money up-front for extensive cleanups, would diminish the chances of mining making a comeback.
But as of Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had received only seven written comments opposing the planned cleanup, and 18 supporting it.
“I’ve gotten more letters to the editor on this topic,” said Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard, a weekly newspaper in the heart of the storied mining district in the San Juan Mountains. “I’m a little bit surprised,” he said.
Since opening the public comment period in April, the EPA said, the agency has received a total of just 33 written comments , with 25 clearly for or against. Others made suggestions about specific sites or commented on other projects.
Monday is the deadline for the public to weigh in.
Opposition to a Superfund designation softened after a 3-million-gallon spill from the Gold King Mine on Aug. 5, 2015, even though it was an EPA-led crew that inadvertently triggered the blowout during a preliminary cleanup operation.
Many people came to believe only the federal government could pull off the sweeping cleanup that will be required, Esper said. The project is expected to cost millions and take years.
Silverton Town Administrator Bill Gardner said the scant comments might signal that residents had their say during months of public meetings.
“I’m hoping that people feel included and that their concerns have been heard,” he said.
Tainted wastewater from the Gold King reached the Animas River in Colorado and the San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah. The EPA estimates the spill sent 880,000 pounds of metals into the Animas, including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc.
Water utilities shut down their intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers. The EPA says the water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels.
After local officials and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper endorsed a Superfund cleanup, the EPA proposed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund area in April. It encompasses 48 sites that spill a combined 5.4 million gallons of acidic waste daily, the agency said.
The EPA could formally create the Superfund district as early as this fall, after the agency reviews the comments and makes any changes to the plan.
If the area is designated a Superfund site, the EPA would examine the mountains for pollution sources and compile a list of cleanup alternatives. Long-term cleanup work would begin once the EPA chooses an alternative.
A whopping 17.5 inches of snow fell at Monarch Mountain overnight Wednesday giving the resort a healthy 58-inch base much to the delight of skiers and snowboarders. The resort has received 175.5 inches of snow so far this season despite a late start that delayed opening by 24 days. Dry weather patterns meant little moisture for the all-naturalsnow resort where snowmaking equipment is not used, but Mother Nature seems to be very cooperative now.
“Nothing motivates the market like fresh snow,” said Greg Ralph, Monarch marketing manager.
Elsewhere in Chaffee County, weather spotters reported 4 inches of snow in Buena Vista and 2 inches of snow in Salida. In Fremont County, Texas Creek residents reported 4 inches of snow, while 2 inches were measured in Canon City and 1 inch in Penrose.
According to the KRLN radio, which maintains a weather station, Canon City has received 0.56 of an inch of moisture in February — nearly a quarter-inch above the monthly average. For the year, 0.73 of an inch of moisture has been recorded, just .03 under the annual average. In Custer County, snowfall ranged from 2 to 6 inches from the overnight Wednesday and early Thursday storm.
A quick-moving storm brought much-needed moisture to parts of Colorado, but moved out of the area by noon Thursday. The heaviest snowfall in the state was in the southwest and central mountains, along with the Colorado Springs-Denver area.
Fountain received more than 10 inches of snow overnight Wednesday, the highest amount reported. Moisture content was about 1 inch. Other parts of El Paso County received 5 to 9 inches of snow.
In Pueblo, snow was lighter, but wet. About 1 to 3 inches fell overnight in most parts of the area, with 0.1 to 0.2 inches of precipitation. In the southern part of Pueblo County, up to 0.25 inches of precipitation was recorded.
Light snow fell into midafternoon on the Eastern Plains, as the storm moved eastward.
“Normal” in snowpack history can be many years ago, and it’s not the discrete date that counts; it’s what that entails; as well as what’s happened since that normal date. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s brought millions more people to Colorado, owning millions more cars; the temperatures are higher each summer; and hundreds of coal-fired energy plants have been built from California to Colorado, and even with best intentions and the latest high-tech filters; they all contribute to a dirtier snow. Dirtier snow melts earlier. Next snowstorm, take two identical plastic paint buckets, and, pack one with just snow; but in the other put a dozen black marbles in on top of every three inches of snow. Put them out in the Colorado sunshine that usually follows a snow. Check your watch, and you will notice that the bucket with the marbles melts in much less time than the snow-only bucket. This is the way it works with our snowpack, too.
Our farmers use 80 percent of our water to irrigate crops, and they can only irrigate after preparing their fields, planting, and fertilizing. If the precious and prayed for snow melt continues to occur earlier in the year; the bulk of our water will run downstream to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California before the farmers have a chance to use it. Then, later in the year, when it’s almost too late, they will exercise their senior water rights to irrigate. Our rivers will be significantly drained, forcing many municipalities to start rationing.
This is a warning that “normal,” may be worse that the experts expect. In future columns, we will explore both practical and possible alternatives to alleviate part of this looming water crisis.
Typically precipitation in February in the Springs is 0.21 inches. So far this month, the area is at 0.85 inches, said Mike Nosko, meteorological technician with the National Weather Service in Pueblo. Overall snowfall in the Springs so far this month is at 9.8 inches, with 7.3 inches of that blanketing the ground Wednesday night, he said.
The highest 24-hour totals reported by CoCoRaHS were from observers in central Kansas. However, the area of heaviest snow was rather broad and extended into southern Nebraska and western Missouri with amounts of 10 inches and more common. South of the main snow areas, freezing rain glazed streets, trees, and power lines from Arkansas northeast through central Indiana. Ice accumulations of one quarter to one half inch were reported by CoCoRaHS observers in Arkansas this morning.