From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus and Edward Graham) via the Cortez Journal:
The Gold King Mine blowout six months ago that dumped 3 million gallons of orange sludge into western waterways spurred action that could lead to remedies for the long-standing problem of toxic drainage from thousands of abandoned mines.
A flurry of bills has been introduced in Congress, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper established a task force to identify priorities for restoring inactive mines across the state.
But it’s not a small problem, and there are no quick solutions…
“I think those photographs of the orange Animas River focused people’s attention in a way that wasn’t focused before,” U.S. Sen Michael Bennet said of the renewed efforts in Congress to address the nation’s mining legacy. “I’m not saying at the local level. I think people at the local level understood that this has been an issue for a long time, but I think that this has caught the attention of Congress finally.”
Bennet, a Democrat, and Republicans Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton have crafted Good Samaritan legislation that would provide liability protection for third-party groups to pursue mine cleanup efforts. Although their legislative efforts preceded the mine spill, the fallout has renewed attention on the need to remediate abandoned mines.
“This is something that I’ve been supportive of for as long as I’ve been in public office, but this certainly gives it a stronger impetus and perhaps momentum to finally finish the job,” Gardner said.
Last month, Hickenlooper unveiled the Mining Impacted Streams Task Force, which includes state water, mining and salt and hazardous waste officials, as well as federal agencies.
The goal is to identify gaps in data by pooling resources from the Water Quality Control Division, Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and tribal entities, among others.
Researchers will look at water-quality data going back 30 years to take a full watershed approach, examining water from the Upper Animas River Basin to Lake Powell.
Hickenlooper wants to turn disaster into action, pointing to the resiliency of the Durango community.
“Do we come out stronger?” Hickenlooper asked. “That’s the hope … Otherwise, you’ve lost so much. If you say you’re going to build back to almost as good as we used to be, that’s like nature’s winning.”
Hickenlooper wants the task force also to identify new technologies that could assist with reclamation efforts.
“We’re looking at what are some out-of-the-box ideas on how you address mines like this, mines that show some great risk,” the governor said.
Having data and identifying priorities to tackle the inactive mines also provide ammunition for getting federal help, including possible Superfund listings for sites across the state and encouraging Congress to pass “Good Samaritan” legislation…
“We believe that with good, appropriate Good Samaritan legislation that we can actually achieve that goal and we hope that we’ll be able to find that good common ground – sensible common ground – to do what we would all like to have done, and that’s to be able to clean up these areas,” [US Rep. Scott Tipton] said.
Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, said the new state task force and other efforts will allow the long-standing problems to be addressed.
“There’s a bunch of different impacts throughout the state in the mining district that we’re going to have to look at and try and get our arms around,” Pfaltzgraff said.
“I need a site picture as to what the problem is before you can even think about what you’re going to do by way of treating it. Then we can start providing decision-makers with the information that will allow them to make those next-step decisions.”
Hickenlooper added, “With good people, or good communities, many times bad things do create better conditions. I think this might be one of those cases where it is going to be stronger.”
‘It is high time that this essential irreversibility is placed into the focus of policy-makers’
Today’s debates about global warming impacts are much too shortsighted, according to a new analysis, which warns that, at the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the Earth is likely to suffer irreparable damage that could last tens of thousands of years.
“Much of the carbon we are putting in the air from burning fossil fuels will stay there for thousands of years – and some of it will be there for more than 100,000 years,” said Oregon State University paleoclimatologist Peter Clark. “People need to understand that the effects of climate change on the planet won’t go away, at least not for thousands of generations,” said Clark, lead author of the article.
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From the Sky-Hi Daily News (Hank Shell):
The Feb. 1 snow survey found that snow pack above Middle Park is 112 percent of the 30-year average, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Kremmling Field Office.
The average is based on readings taken between 1980 and 2010.
February’s reading shows snowpack is currently sitting above last year’s, which was at 100 percent of the average in February.
“This is the Feb. 1 reading, and we’ve got quite a bit of the winter still left, so stuff can still change,” said Mark Volt with NRCS Kremmling. “Either we can get lot more than normal or a lot less than normal.”
March is typically the snowiest month of the year.
The average snow density is 24 percent, meaning there are 2.9 inches of water per foot of snow, according to NRCS Kremmling…
So far, major river basins across Colorado are also reporting higher than average snowpack.
The upper Colorado River Basin is at 104 percent, the Gunnison River Basin is at 109 percent, the South Platte River Basin is at 101 percent, the Arkansas River Basin is at 109 percent, the Upper Rio Grande Basin is at 102 percent, and the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River Basins are at 110 percent, according to NRCS Kremmling.
Statewide snowpack was at 111 percent of normal on Feb. 1, according to NRCS Denver…
The April 1 snow survey is typically the most important in terms of characterizing the state’s runoff, Volt said.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):
The board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District found a familiar face to become its general manager.
Cleave Simpson was appointed to the post at the end of last month after working for nearly two years to help the district initiate groundwater management subdistricts across the San Luis Valley.
And while the district could see a host of issues in the coming years, the implementation of the voluntary efforts to mitigate the damage from groundwater pumping and restore the aquifers will remain a priority.
“If we’re smart about it, it’s just a small incremental change,” Simpson said. “If we’re haphazard and not thoughtful about it, it’s a fundamental change and we really need to be cautious about that.”
Subdistrict No. 1 already is in operation but the district hopes to lead the implementation of as many as five others.
The implementation of the subdistricts will proceed alongside the state’s efforts to impose groundwater rules, which are also meant to protect surface water owners and restore the valley’s two major aquifers.
The district takes in all of the valley’s counties with the exception of Costilla County.
Simpson will oversee a host of other issues in his day-to-day work, including a conservation plan to recover the southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo, planning for the Rio Grande Natural Area and the district’s move to a new building in mid-March.
Simpson has spent the bulk of his professional career as a coal-mining engineer mainly in Texas but also for two years in Australia.
His other career, one that continues to this day, is farming and ranching.
He grew up on a farm in Alamosa County and now runs his own while also lending a hand to his father’s operation.
“I’m still an irrigator,” he said. “I own surface rights and I own groundwater rights.”
The district has kept former General Manager Steve Vandiver on to assist Simpson in the transition.
Ralph Curtis, who managed the district until 2005, has also stayed in touch with Simpson.
“I’ve never assumed a position where I had the affordability of gentlemen like Steve and Ralph to rely on,” he said. “It feels like this safety net.”
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):
Anticipating a storage crunch later in the spring, Pueblo Water is inviting Arkansas River basin water users to bid on raw water leases.
“A lot of it is about trying to get our upper reservoir water levels down at Clear Creek, Turquoise and Twin Lakes,” said Alan Ward, water resources manager for Pueblo Water. “The leases now are driven by what’s in storage, not any prediction of what we’ll get in 2016.”
Pueblo Water is trying to make space for water it expects to gain this year, so will lease at least 20,000 acrefeet (6.5 billion gallons) of water through the spot market this year. That’s more than typical because 2015 was a wet year, with the trend likely to continue and make storage space tight again.
“If additional water is available, additional proposals may be approved in later months,” Ward said.
Two separate sets of contracts are being offered. One group would provide 15,000 acre-feet of water before May 31, while the other offers 5,000 acre-feet that must be taken by the end of the year.
The water is leased to the highest bidders, and can vary throughout the season. Last year, in February, more than 10,800 acre-feet were leased for prices over $100 per acre-foot. But after heavy rains in May and June, there were few takers for additional water. Pueblo Water was able to lease some to Fowler and the Lower Arkansas Water Management Association for about $50 per acre-foot in early summer and to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for $15 per acrefoot in late summer.
Bids for raw water must total a minimum of $500 and be returned to Pueblo Water by Feb. 11. Water leased through this program cannot be used to grow marijuana.
From the Colorado Springs Business Journal (John Hazlehurst):
Recent studies in Fountain, Security and Widefield show that the water there is contaminated with industrial chemicals that could cause a public health hazard.
Known as perfluoroalkyls, or PFAs, research suggests the chemicals are potent carcinogens and endocrine disrupters at levels far below the Environmental Protection Agency’s provisional exposure limits for drinking water.
And no one seems to know where the contaminants are coming from — or even that they were there in the first place. The city of Fountain’s 2015 Drinking Water Quality Report doesn’t mention PFAs or any other “unregulated reportable contaminant.”
Ron Woolsey, who heads Fountain’s Water Department, was unaware of any PFA contamination of the city’s water supply or of the EPA test results. It’s not clear if the EPA reported these results to the three affected systems.
“We get about 70 percent of our water from the Frying Pan/Arkansas project, via Pueblo Reservoir,” he said. “The remaining 30 percent comes from wells in Fountain and wells on the Venetucci Farm that we share with Security and Widefield. When [CSU’s] SDS [Southern Delivery System] comes on line, we’ll get 100 percent of our water from Pueblo Reservoir.”
It could be that water from Fountain Valley wells or surface water sources are contaminated by either landfills or residue from industrial processes, but no one is really sure.
WHAT ARE PFAS?
Perfluoroalkyls were first developed by 3M in 1951. DuPont used them for decades to manufacture common commercial products such as Teflon and Scotchgard.
Many are ubiquitous in world ecosystems. Once in a fish, a bird or a human body, they neither decay nor metabolize. The chemicals have been found in people’s bloodstreams, in polar bears in the Arctic and salmon caught in Alaska.
PFAs are highly toxic, but it has long been assumed by public health officials that minute quantities in drinking water pose no risk.
But that might not be the case.
Although industrial use of these compounds has been curtailed recently, EPA testing has found that 6.5 million Americans in 27 states are exposed to PFA-tainted drinking water. The chemicals have been detected in 94 public water systems — including the three El Paso County systems.
According to information on the EPA’s website, PFAs are present in drinking water systems that serve 70,000 customers in El Paso County; the agency found more than 200 contaminants in 106 tested samples with a maximum contaminant level of 1.3 parts per billion — among the highest levels of all the water systems that showed evidence of PFA contamination.
“In January 2009,” according to the EPA’s website, “the EPA’s Office of Water established a provisional health advisory of 0.2 micrograms per liter for PFOS and 0.4 µg/L for PFOAs to assess the potential risk from short-term exposure of these chemicals through drinking water. PHAs [advisories] reflect reasonable, health-based hazard concentrations above which action should be taken to reduce exposure to unregulated contaminants in drinking water.”
But the EPA might soon deliver new regulations based on recent studies. A paper by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell published in the journal “New Solutions” found that PFAs are hazardous at much lower levels. They can cause cancer, heart disease, birth defects and weaker immune systems.
“Grandjean and Clapp suggested that the EPA’s approach in 2009 led to a presumed safe level ‘at least two orders of magnitude’ higher than the newer studies indicate would protect human health with an adequate margin of safety,” the Environmental Working Group said in an analysis of the study. “… lower than the EPA advisory level by a factor of more than 1,300.”
About 200 prominent scientists worldwide signed the 2015 Madrid Statement, calling on the international community to limit the production and use of PFAs. The statement noted the “growing body of epidemiological evidence” linking PFAs to testicular and liver cancer, liver malfunction, hypothyroidism, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, obesity, decreased immune response to vaccines, reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty.
If EWG’s calculations are correct, drinking water in Security, Widefield and Fountain could contain hundreds, even thousands of times the safe level of PFOA and PFOS contaminants. Other PFA contaminants detected in the three systems include perfluoroheptanoic acid, perfluorohexanesulfonic acid and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid.
A REGULATORY TANGLE
Thanks to legal constrictions, the EPA has little power to regulate industrial chemicals such as PFAs.
“Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act,” reporter Nathaniel Rich pointed out in a recent New York Times article, “the EPA can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the EPA has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.”
Lawsuits related to a class action against DuPont for harmful use of PFAs have been making their way slowly through the courts. Filed on behalf of thousands of residents of Ohio and West Virginia, the suits allege that DuPont is responsible for adverse health effects from PFA pollution of multiple drinking water systems.
While there are no certain guidelines that specify PFA drinking water safety levels. The lawsuit against DuPont in West Virginia included anyone whose drinking water had PFOA or PFOS levels above 0.05 parts per billion.
Water provided to residents of Fountain, Security and Widefield showed maximum PFA contaminant level of 1.3 ppb, 26 times greater than the 0.05 cut-off for West Virginia plaintiffs.
NO STATE RECOURSE
Although a handful of states — Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina — have established guidelines for PFA contaminants, Colorado is not among them.
CDPHE administers the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, but its regulatory flexibility is limited by state legislative mandate to be neither more nor less restrictive than those set by the EPA. CDPHE is able to give assistance to local water providers.
“We provide assistance to water systems throughout the state,” said Nicole Graziano, CDPHE’s technical and regulatory implementation and coordination unit manager for the safe drinking water program.
“We have a lot of staff who work to assure that drinking water is at the highest level of safety to protect public health.”
Fountain’s Woolsey is determined to find the source of the PFA contaminants and eliminate them. It’s not his first rodeo.
“We went through this sort of thing with Schlage Lock and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) years ago,” he said. “Well pollution has always been a concern. The three systems are all interconnected in lots of ways, so it’s possible that we can identify the source, but it may not be simple.”
The EPA confirmed that the chemicals can be removed from water by implementing treatment at centralized facilities or in homes by installing activated carbon filters.