#AnimasRiver: Is the EPA faithfully reporting water test results?

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 NewsChannel10.com:

The Latest on the reaction to the Colorado mine waste spill (all times local):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is defending water tests it conducted after a massive mine spill in southwestern Colorado that tainted rivers in three states.

The EPA issued a statement Tuesday saying the tests were thorough and science-based.

Earlier Tuesday, New Mexico officials accused the EPA of misrepresenting test results to make water quality look better than it was.

They also criticized the EPA for saying the water met recreational standards after the spill instead of using the more stringent residential standard…

New Mexico’s criticisms were included in the state’s official comment on an EPA proposal to use the Superfund program to clean up the Gold King and nearby sites…

An agency spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an after-hours request for comment. Previously, the agency has defended its handling of the aftermath.

Meanwhile the EPA supervisor who was in charge last August 5 is retiring from the agency. Here’s a report from The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Way was away on vacation Aug. 5 when contractors led by fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold triggered a blowout at the Gold King. But after the disaster, Way faced questioning about EPA activities around the Gold King.

Way, who worked for the EPA for 32 years, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Colleagues confirmed his departure, as did Silverton town administrator Bill Gardner, who added that Way was knowledgeable and effective.

“It would be fair to say the intense criticism of him at the congressional level could not have helped,” Gardner said. “He really had been put through terrible scrutiny.”

EPA officials declined to discuss the situation.

“The agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters,” spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in an e-mail.

Two other EPA officials with extensive experience — Joyel Dhieux and Kerry Guy — will manage mine waste removal at the Gold King and adjacent Red and Bonita Mine and the temporary water treatment plant below the mines at Gladstone, according to an EPA notice sent to congressional, state and tribal leaders.

Dozens of EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment employees last week began testing water and soil along the Animas. The feds also have been moving heavy equipment above Silverton. Two toxicologists are part of the effort.

EPA officials did not respond to questions about current work. A Denver-based “community involvement coordinator” referred queries to headquarters in Washington, D.C. EPA officials in Washington also did not respond. CDPHE spokesman Warren Smith said the state agency would defer to the EPA. State health officials are involved in work around the mines.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Steve Way, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator for activities around the Gold King Mine, has announced his retirement, the federal agency confirmed Tuesday.

Way spent 32 years working for the EPA, and the last two in the area north of Silverton known as Gladstone, where the largest concentration of heavy metals discharge from inactive mines into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

However, on Aug. 5, Way was on vacation when his EPA-contracted crew breached the loose pile of dirt and rock collapsed over the Gold King Mine, releasing a massive mustard yellow-colored plume of heavy metal sludge.

Regardless of his absence and clear orders not to touch the entrance of the mine, Way became the center of intense criticism.

“Sadly, it appears that Mr. Way is going to be the sacrificial lamb here and that is very disappointing,” state Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, wrote to the Daily Sentinel.

“Mr. Way has had an exemplary career, having worked with the Washington, D.C. anthrax mitigation project, and the Hurricane Katrina and World Trade Center recovery efforts. Mr. Way and his field team are well qualified and experienced mine reclamation officials, but it seems the bureaucratic EPA leadership ignored their concerns for a potential blowout.”

[…]

In 2014, the EPA decided that metal-laden discharges from the Red and Bonita and the Gold King mines had gotten so bad, it would begin a $1.5 million remediation project.

The plan, originally, was to place a bulkhead on the Red and Bonita mine, which at the time, was pouring out 500 gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, accounting for about 18 percent of the heavy metals in the Animas River.

Knowing that plugging the mine might have the same effect as the American Tunnel (Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s bulkhead, which is considered the culprit for increased discharges out of Red and Bonita and Gold King), Way laid out a monitoring plan that would allow the agency to open and close the valve as needed.

In late July 2015, crews began exploring the Level 7 adit of the adjacent Gold King Mine, which was well documented for its potential of a blowout. Way, aware of this risk, postponed further work on the mine pending further preparation and study.

But while he was on vacation, his replacement, Hayes Griswold, ordered crews to clear the dirt blocking the tunnel to install a pipe to divert the contaminated water.

The contractors, St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration LLC, dug too far, causing the massive blowout on Aug. 5. The actions of that day remain a source of suspicious speculation.

The EPA has claimed Griswold’s orders were “completely consistent” with the direction set by Way prior to his leave. Yet, emails released after the spill clearly show Way said to not excavate the adit until a series of tasks were completed to prepare for its opening – tasks an investigatin found Griswold did not complete.

In a Feburary report, the House Committee on Natural Resources flogged Griswold for veering from Way’s instructions, and said Griswold’s post-spill testimony raised “serious questions about nearly everything …. about the EPA’s work at the Gold King Mine and the disaster caused by the EPA.”

“EPA needs to come clean on who gave the order to proceed as the contractors did on August 5, 2015 at Gold King #7 level,” local filmmaker Tom Schillaci wrote in a public comment. “Who gave Hays Griswold the order to use an excavator to open that portal that day?”

EPA officials confirmed that Griswold still works for the EPA.

Despite the spill, Way is regarded among colleagues as an apt, sharp manager when it comes to mine remediation. Peter Butler, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said the longtime volunteer coalition agreed with many of Way’s decisions in the mining district.

“We supported putting a bulkhead in Red and Bonita, and opening up the Gold King,” Butler said. “I think he was a very capable person.”

Butler also commended Way for the quick cleanup of mine waste left behind from the blowout in a nearby gulley, as well as the speedy installment of a temporary water treatment plant for Gold King discharges before the hazardous winter weather set in on the remote area.

Speculation on whether the spill would have occurred had he not gone on vacation remains just that: speculation.

“It’s 20-20 hindsight at this point,” Butler said.

The EPA said in a prepared statement, that in Way’s place, “Joyel Dhieux will manage removal activities at the Gold King and Red and Bonita Mines, and Kerry Guy will manage the interim water treatment plant at Gladstone. Paul Peronard will serve as backup OSC and provide technical support to the team.”

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

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