#AnimasRiver: In wake of #GoldKingMine spill, lawmakers push for cleaning up mines — The Durango Herald

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

Click through for a list of legislative efforts that arose from the Gold King Mine spill compiled by Edward Graham and Kate Magill running in the The Durango Herald.

From the Associated Press via The Fort Collins Coloradan:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it will pay another $1.2 million to tribes, states and local governments affected by a massive mine waste spill in southwestern Colorado.

The announcement came on the anniversary of the blowout at the Gold King Mine near Silverton…

The EPA has so far made $465,000 available to New Mexico to address the spill’s aftermath. But that amount is just a fraction of the $6 million that Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn says New Mexico needs for cleanup and monitoring over a five-year period.

“They haven’t provided anywhere close to the funding that is necessary,” Flynn said…

New Mexico did not receive money in the EPA’s latest funding round.

The latest EPA reimbursements include the cost of field surveys, water sampling, lab tests and personnel.

Some agencies have complained that the EPA has been slow to repay their costs and has refused to cover some expenses. The EPA said that in addition to the money announced Friday, it has already paid $1.9 million in response costs and is giving the states and tribes another $2 million to monitor water quality.

The EPA says it has now spent more than $29 million on spill-related costs.

Reimbursements announced Friday:

— Navajo Nation: $445,000.

— Southern Ute Indian Tribe: 106,000.

— Utah state government: $258,000.

— Colorado state government: $161,000.

— La Plata County, Colorado: $99,000.

— San Juan County and Silverton, Colorado: $43,000.

— Durango, Colorado: $43,000.

Meanwhile, superfund status does not necessarily have negative economic results. Here’s a report from Peter Marcus writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Listing the Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton as a federal Superfund site will likely leave the area better off, say those who experienced similar designations in other parts of the state.

From property values to environmental health, Superfund sites in Colorado have predominantly proved not to be the black eye feared by some.

As area county commissioners and town managers toured other Superfund sites in Colorado in the wake of last year’s Gold King Mine spill, anxiety over a listing waned, with officials seeing positive outcomes elsewhere.

“That was a critical series of events in our three-day tour of the other Superfund sites,” said Bill Gardner, Silverton town administrator. “The EPA had never organized such a tour before.”

[…]

While the EPA caused the spill – a result of poor planning during excavation work to begin restoration at the mine – the pollution is the result of more than 100 years of mining activities.

With a Superfund listing, millions of dollars would be injected into reclamation efforts, which over many years would potentially result in an end to the toxic drainage.

“EPA has been able to pull through these Superfund cleanups to very beneficial outcomes that I would say in all cases has been reasonable,” said Dave Holm, executive director of the Clear Creek Watershed Foundation and former director of the state’s Water Quality Control Division, where he served for 14 years…

In fact, Holm said a strange thing happens, where the Superfund site itself can actually drive tourism, as people are curious to visit high-profile sites. The Gold King Mine incident made international headlines.

“It certainly highlighted the legacy of mining in the Rocky Mountain West,” said Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District. “There’s certainly reason to pay attention to these old mine sites and what impact it had to the surface water quality in our state.”

Thomas agreed that communication is key to easing anxiety, underscoring that looking at other sites and engaging with communities helped relax fears.

“There’s a recognition that this mining district is so large and so complex … it really takes a program like Superfund that can take a comprehensive look and bring the resources to bear to look at this in a very holistic fashion,” Thomas said…

State Superfund and remedial programs managers say there have been examples of positive economic impacts as a result of Superfund listings. They also point out that cleaner water means more fish, which drives tourism to Southwest Colorado rivers.

“Overall, the Superfund process does improve human health and the environment,” said Doug Jamison, Superfund/Brownfields unit leader for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “These are large sites with significant environmental impacts. We do benefit communities and the surrounding environment.”

Peter Marcus covers the political side of the Gold King Mine spill in this article running in The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

In the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency – which caused the spill – defended itself in the face of congressional inquisitions and subpoenas, lawsuits, negative national headlines, allegations of deliberately misleading the public, conflicting accounts and claims of incompetence.

Most recently, the agency’s Office of Inspector General confirmed that a criminal investigation is underway. The criminal probe has been pending since last year.

The Durango Herald asked the EPA to grant an interview with Administrator Gina McCarthy to discuss lessons learned in the year since the spill and the politics surrounding it. The agency did not make her available.

McCarthy visited Durango once, a week after the Aug. 5, 2015, spill, where she spent 15 minutes answering questions from the media. She made no public appearances during her trip to Durango, instead meeting behind closed doors with federal and local officials…

EPA spokespeople have largely fielded the questions, with higher-ranking officials, managers and coordinators on the ground mostly kept shielded from the public and media. The agency has required formal records requests for documents related to the spill not posted on its website. Recently, the EPA released thousands of files in response to dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, but the data was not labeled and is not easily searchable. The agency said it is working to make the documents – mostly email communications involving EPA employees and attachments and meeting invites – more accessible.

EPA spokespeople often ask for questions to be emailed, which results in statements sent in reply. It’s difficult to get follow-up and clarification questions answered by EPA employees actually working on the project; those questions are also directed to Washington.

The agency has been more forthcoming when it comes to questions related to a possible Superfund listing for the site, which could be approved as early as the fall. That listing would pump millions of dollars into reclamation efforts…

For Republicans, the EPA spill was a gift. The agency and its federal partners were facing attacks last summer over a slew of rule-making when the spill occurred.

Federal proposals included stringent carbon pollution standards, ozone limitations, expanded oversight over water and regulations on hydraulic fracturing, to name a few.

Tipton acknowledged that it might seem like the GOP was attempting to politicize the catastrophe. But he said frustration with the EPA and other federal regulatory agencies has not solely fueled the attacks.

“We all want to be able to have the answers, we want to make sure communities are whole, we want to make sure the EPA does not replicate the same problem that they caused,” Tipton said.

Mathy Stanislaus, an Obama appointee who serves as the assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, spoke with the Herald about the spill and EPA’s activities over the last year…

“The incident brought acute focus on the impact of mines and on water quality on communities,” Stanislaus said. “It also underscores the need to establish a more rigorous process throughout the federal government.”

On Monday, the EPA released a one-year retrospective, which was light on new details, but it continued to connect the state to the incident.

Federal officials claim that mining experts from the state backed the plan to reopen the mine entrance. But the Colorado Department of Natural Resources maintains that it “did not have any authority to manage, assess or approve any work at the Gold King Mine.”

The issue is likely to be highlighted as the state defends itself against a lawsuit filed by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court. The state has until Aug. 22 to respond.

A separate case pending in a federal court in New Mexico goes after the EPA, the contractor and private mine owners. That case also could rely heavily on which parties were involved in the planning that led to the spill.

The 23-page EPA retrospective states that the agency has spent $29 million in response to the spill.

Stanislaus said the agency has established “best practices” for how to go about mining reclamation efforts, including how to measure pressurized water held up by debris…

As for costs that haven’t been paid, Stanislaus said, “We have no flexibility in the law,” underscoring that reimbursements must first be “substantiated.”

The agency is working with the Department of Justice regarding Federal Tort Claims Act claims that have been filed. It hopes to respond in the coming weeks.

Democrats also have expressed concerns about the EPA’s actions, especially with the reimbursement process…

Colorado lawmakers are working in Congress to pass legislation that would require the EPA to fully and expeditiously compensate all communities impacted by the spill. The legislation was introduced after reports that counties would not be fully reimbursed for costs associated with the event.

“We remain committed to working with the community to help mitigate the effects of the spill and make sure the EPA reimburses tribes, local governments, businesses and communities for the costs they incurred,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat. “We’ve called on EPA to fully reimburse our communities for all of the expenses they took on.”

Where Democrats split from Republicans is on how to address long-term concerns. Democrats encourage reforms to mining laws that haven’t been updated since 1872, including establishing royalties for minerals to pay for reclamation efforts.

Conservation Colorado released a poll Thursday that stated that 67 percent of Colorado voters want to see elected officials do more to clean up abandoned mines.

“Without an adequate funding source, we will never have the funds we need to clean up our watersheds,” Bennet said.

Republicans tend to believe that “Good Samaritan” legislation would solve the problem. The measure would ease liability concerns so that private organizations can restore mines without fear of facing a lawsuit.

In the short term, however, Republicans have been aggressive about the EPA making good on financial promises.

Jonathan Romeo asks, “How do you clean up potentially toxic sites that are also important historically and culturally?” in this report running in The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

The answer, if previous Superfund sites are any indication, lies within Rich’s level of dogmatic conviction that the small mountain town must preserve its nostalgic ties to the mining industry, which dates to the 1870s.

“We’re going to help them (EPA),” Rich said, “but we’re also going to watch them like hawks.”

According to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, all federal agencies – including the EPA – must identify significant historical sites within a federally funded project area before any work or cleanup can begin.

If the EPA finds a feature of cultural significance, it is responsible for working with invested agencies to reduce adverse impacts to the site.

While sound in theory, the process has over the years been mishandled.

“They totally ignored the National Historic Preservation Act,” archaeologist John Parker said of the agency’s work on the Elem Indian Colony reservation in Lake County, California.

There, Parker and other critics say the EPA did not complete an archaeological review of the project area before it removed soils from a toxic waste site between June and October 2006.

As a result, nearly 8,000 cubic meters of archaeological-rich soil, which trace back 14,000 years to the tribe’s first inhabitance in the region, were destroyed, to the outrage of tribal elders.

“They (EPA) knew it was legally required, and they just broke the law,” Parker said. “And they did it right in front of the people whose cultural resources it belonged to.”

Parker said he took his experience with the EPA to a national archaeology conference, and asked colleagues if they had similar dealings with the agency.

“There was plenty of ammunition,” he said.

While there are a number of other examples of EPA mishandling culturally important sites during cleanups, the agency is credited in many instances for showcasing a town’s history.

At a steel complex in Roebling, New Jersey, that closed in the 1980s, surviving buildings during remediation were turned into a museum, which celebrates the industry’s role in the small town along the Delaware River.

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Final approval of the proposed [Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund] designation may come as early as this fall.

The Environmental Protection Agency formally proposed the San Juan County listing in April, after Gov. John Hickenlooper and local governments expressed their support. It’s rare for Superfund sites to be proposed and approved in the same year.

The speed at which the proposal is moving through the process – which included a public comment period that saw few individual comments and little opposition – underscores a remarkable evolution.

“It was an evolution because there had been years of resistance to Superfund, there’s no doubt about that, and years of fear. But we rolled up our sleeves,” said Bill Gardner, Silverton town administrator.

Gardner had only been administrator for two weeks when the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King Mine spill occurred, releasing an estimated 3 million gallons of mining sludge into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

The proposed Superfund site near Silverton would include 48 mining-related sites.

Remediation efforts would likely include a permanent water-treatment facility, as well as long-term water-quality monitoring. Construction of the treatment plant could cost as much as $20 million, based on estimates from previous projects.

Preliminary costs to Superfund are covered entirely by the EPA. Once construction begins, then the EPA would cover 90 percent of costs, and the state would handle the rest. After 10 years, the state would be responsible for operation and maintenance costs, which could exceed $1 million per year.

The process might take a decade or longer, which leaves much uncertainty. But leaders say if the EPA continues to give local communities a voice, then restoration should unfold smoothly and with little fanfare.

“We had worked so hard through the months to keep the public and downstream partners and communities involved …” Gardner said. “That work finally resulted in what I’ve been told by the EPA is the most voice at the table of any community that they’ve ever worked with. We have a real good chance of sustaining that.”

The EPA continues to host community meetings in San Juan County.

“We’re doing our best to really engage people in this process,” said Rebecca Thomas, EPA’s remedial project manager for the proposed Bonita Peak Mining District.

“I know there is often some criticism about Superfund in that it takes so very long to get through one of these projects. My response to that is it took a long time for these projects to get in this state – we’re talking about decades of mining.”

Thomas said there will be plenty of opportunities for individuals and groups to weigh in, especially as officials move into the final decision-making phase on how to perform reclamation, which could take years to develop.

“There’s often a lot of interest right up front and then you might find that as you get further along in the process, some people might be more interested in one aspect of the project than another aspect of the project,” Thomas said.

In terms of progress, the EPA has implemented better communication strategies and the state has begun real-time monitoring of water in the area, looking at such factors as pH.

“That data will tell us, is it something with respect to the addition of contaminants into the stream that people need to be concerned with, or is it just a normal variation in the fluctuation of the stream,” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.

“The silver lining in the Gold King event is being able to have this type of real-time network in place.”

From The Denver Post (Dave Migoya):

The EPA said it will send $161,000 to Colorado, $106,000 to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, $99,000 to La Plata County, $43,000 to San Juan County and $43,000 to the City of Durango. An additional $258,000 is headed to Utah…

Local businesses hurt by the spill have not yet received any reparations and the EPA has not said when that might occur.

“The announcement of this funding is certainly a step in the right direction as Southwest Colorado continues to deal with the aftermath of this disaster,” U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said in a statement.

La Plata County used its Twitter account to call the announcement “making progress,” but that there was “still more to go.”

In all, EPA has paid $1.4 million to entities affected by the August 2015 spill.

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Since the spill, the federal agency has repaid more than $3 million to affected entities, with officials repeating that they will continue to evaluate claims. An additional $2 million in Clean Water Act grants also have been awarded.

No funds have been awarded to businesses that suffered when the Animas River was temporarily closed to recreation. In a recent meeting with La Plata County and Durango leaders, EPA officials had no answers as to when the businesses might see some money.

The latest reimbursement covers costs associated with response, including field evaluations, water sampling, lab analyses and personnel, according to an EPA news release.

“The announcement of this funding is certainly a step in the right direction as Southwest Colorado continues to deal with the aftermath of this disaster,” Bennet said in a prepared statement. “These resources will be welcome news to communities still recovering, but plenty of work remains to ensure they are fully reimbursed. We will continue to push EPA to prioritize completing this reimbursement process as soon as possible.”

Conservation Colorado teamed up with Chism Strategies to poll Coloradans about the spill and the response:

One Year After the Animas River Spill: Coloradans Want to See More Done to Clean Up Mining Pollution

On the anniversary of this destructive spill, we wanted to see what Coloradans think about mining pollution. Working with Chism Strategies, we found that Colorado voters are still very concerned about mine waste and believe that not enough has been done to clean it up. Today, 92 percent of Coloradans know about the Gold King Mine spill, and 86 percent are concerned about Colorado’s rivers and streams. According to the poll, 88 percent of Coloradans think it’s a serious problem that our state’s inactive mines have not been cleaned up.

Colorado’s mining roots run deep. Our state wouldn’t have been settled when it was if a lucky prospector hadn’t discovered gold in a stream on his way to the West Coast. The history of the American West is intrinsically tied to mining — a fact that can’t be forgotten among mountain towns, where Leadville, Silverton, Telluride, and others can never shake the history embedded into their names.

Unfortunately, some remnants of the mining legacy are extremely problematic. There are tens of thousands of abandoned and inactive mines in Colorado alone, many of which are leaking toxic waste into our watersheds every day. This pollution can be harmful to wildlife, and can burden local communities, due to both financial and quality of life impacts.

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

The Gold King Mine incident isn’t isolated. In fact, the overall discharge from inactive mines across Colorado equals at least one Gold King disaster every two days, dumping heavy metals into our rivers. This pervasive problem is much less visible than a river turning suddenly yellow — but the issue is the same, and the impacts to our environment are far-reaching…

Most Coloradans want to see fixes to the toxic legacy of mining pollution. A majority (68 percent) support closing policy loopholes to keep mining companies from avoiding cleanup costs. In addition, 64 percent say mining companies should direct a percentage of their revenues towards future cleanup. In terms of liability, 70 percent of Coloradans agree that mining companies should be financially responsible for their damage and pollution.

This is an issue that we should keep in mind for elections in November. We have the ability to tackle this issue at the state level, but we need conservation-minded policymakers in office. An incredible two-thirds of Coloradans think their elected officials should do more to clean up unsafe and polluting mines. (Colorado’s legislators, meanwhile, showed their willingness to reach across the aisle on this issue when they passed a bill this year to put aside funding for mining disasters.) On national policies, 54 percent of Coloradans believe we should update our country’s mining laws. Considering that 77 percent of Colorado voters say they consider the environment when deciding who to vote for, politicians on both sides of the aisle should take note.

As we reflect on what has (and hasn’t) happened in the year since the Gold King Mine spill, it’s important to remember that this mining disaster didn’t happen in isolation — pollution from dormant mines is a widespread problem across Colorado. Though it’s easy to ignore it, mine waste is affecting our watersheds, economy, and natural heritage every day.

For more details on polling numbers mentioned, read the full report here.

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed

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