CDPHE: Trout from the Animas River safe to eat, tests show

rainbowtrout

Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (Meghan Trubee):

Fish tissue sampling by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have determined trout from the Animas River are safe to eat. Most fish tissue analyzed after the Gold King mine release showed metals below detectable levels. All results were below the risk threshold. Levels of mercury, selenium and arsenic in rainbow and brown trout were within the range of levels in fish previously sampled in the state. The results most likely represent background levels, not a change in levels because of the Aug. 5 mine spill.

Fish samples were compared to EPA regional screening levels in a manner similar to risk assessment of water and sediment from the Animas River. Risk assessment focused on short-term health effects since the mine spill was a short-term event. Because there is a potential for fish to concentrate metals in their tissue over time, the department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife will continue to monitor levels of metals in Animas River fish. New data will be analyzed and results reported when available.

More information on the Gold King mine release is available at: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/animas-river-spill

Durango: Councilors hope to get $68 million wastewater funding issue on fall ballot

Wastewater Treatment Process
Wastewater Treatment Process

From The Durango Herald (Mary Shinn):

Durango city councilors plan to finalize ballot language Tuesday that will ask voters in November to approve spending $68 million on moving the sewer plant, but councilors haven’t decided where to put it, and voters likely will not know, either.

The deadline for completing the ballot question is a week away. If councilors agree Tuesday on what to ask, it will keep the timetable for construction intact while giving councilors time to consider options for moving the plant out of Santa Rita Park.

“We’re not in a hurry to pick a site,” Mayor Dean Brookie said.

If councilors don’t approve the question by Friday, it can’t be placed on the November ballot, and the project would be delayed by at least a year. Brookie is hopeful councilors will have a location identified before the debt question goes to voters.

City officials say they have looked at every possible parcel where a new sewer plant could go without finding a viable alternative to its current location in Santa Rita Park, and they are on a tight timeline to build a new plant that will meet state regulations.

But critics say there must be other options that haven’t been pursued.

Councilors considered a resolution earlier this month that would have formalized their intent to remodel and slightly expand the existing plant. But after hearing extensive public testimony, they decided to wait to pick a site to see if other options could be found. The same resolution could be back on Tuesday’s agenda.

Without knowing where the sewer plant will be located, it may be difficult to tell voters how much it will cost.

The Santa Rita Park plant remodel would require an estimated $58 million, and the city plans to ask for an additional $10 million in contingency money that could be used for the plant or other infrastructure projects.

If the city finds the ideal site for a sewer plant after the ballot language is approved, the city would have to go back to the voters if the project were to cost more than the $68 million, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said.

#AnimasRiver: Antiquated mining law hamstrings cleanups — The Durango Herald

LegacyMineWorkCDPHE

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Outdated hard-rock mining laws enacted in the 1870s tie the hands of the federal government to curb pollution that contaminates water supplies, as was the case with the Gold King Mine spill.

Perhaps the most significant deficiency comes in the form of a “free and open” provision of the Mining Law of 1872, otherwise known as a “right to mine.” Limited reforms have been made to the law over the last 143 years, leaving in place a provision that prohibits the federal government from blocking a mine from opening or even collecting royalties from operations.

The law also left little to government regulation, falling in line with the theme of Manifest Destiny from Western expansion in the 19th century. When the nation’s mining laws were crafted, the goal was settlement, not environmental regulation.

“The 1872 mining law is the freest ride of all free rides on the books,” said Roger Flynn, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and the director and managing attorney of Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit that handles hard-rock mining cases…

Just who holds the liability remains unclear. Flynn said some of the responsibility rests with the mine’s owner, Todd Hennis. Some liability also may fall on the EPA, which became a sort of operator when it began working there.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Gold King, near Silverton, became inactive in the 1920s. But the neighboring mine of Sunnyside also is entangled in the web. The mine became inactive in the 1990s, and ownership at the time reached an agreement with Colorado to install bulkheads in the mine. Since that mine was dammed, wastewater in nearby mines has increased.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Kinross Gold, entered into a consent decree, allowing for the mine to continue to leak heavy metals, while the company agreed to costly reclamation projects.

Judging by the disaster earlier this month, overall efforts have not been enough, which begs the question: How did it get to this point?

The simplest answer is money. The Mining Law of 1872 allows companies to extract billions of dollars worth of precious metals – such as gold and uranium – pay no royalties and avoid liability for environmental damage in several situations. Without the royalties, there is limited government funding for reclamation, and few burdens are placed on the companies themselves.

Over the years, beginning in the 1970s, the federal government began to take action on environmental issues, enacting laws around clean water and endangered species. But companies have found loopholes. One example is hiring experts to vouch for water quality.

Because the federal government is charged with the “free and open” provision under mining laws, officials often default to this clause. In other words, if the experts say the water is safe, and the government is obligated to let a company operate, then there’s little recourse for regulators.

An option for reclamation is declaring an area blighted with a Superfund listing, which opens the doors to funding. But as was the case with Gold King, communities sometimes resist the federal listing, as they fear it leaving a stain. Flynn said the end result is a government that is rendered impotent.

“The 1872 mining law makes mining the highest and best use of the land,” he said. “Whatever minerals you find on that are free. … Agencies will say we can’t say no to the mine no matter how destructive, unless you can prove there will be a Clean Water Act violation on Day 1.”

The irony, of course, is that those violations don’t occur until well after operations have begun.

“The feds don’t have the ability on public land to say no – no matter how bad the idea is, how bad the place is – because of the 1872 mining law,” Flynn said. “So, they permit these things all over … and they allow potential pollution.”[…]

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is not so sure that the answer is additional regulations, suggesting that there are new technologies out there that allow for cleaner mining activities. Coram has years of experience in hard-rock mining, having owned several mines, including uranium.

“I don’t think the problem lies with what we’re doing today. … That changed. We do a lot better,” he said.

“I’m not comfortable with the EPA being in charge,” Coram said. “I would much rather that federal funding goes into letting the state run those projects.”

Meanwhile Durango and parts thereabouts are worried about the spill and its affect on the economy. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Some fear the frenzy of images broadcast around the world when the Animas River turned a sickly orange for more than 12 hours could have an effect for years to come.

“Stigma is the perception of the public, even after fixing the problem,” said Tom Alleman, an attorney at Dallas-based Dykema Cox Smith. “The Animas had brand damage.”

Alleman told the crowd of about 20 people Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel that the state of Colorado does allow individuals to file claims for compensation for stigma damages, but those kinds of situations aren’t common and can be subjective.

He said the law lists stigma damage as an event that is not “reputationally enhancing,” and in the case of the Gold King Mine spill, that might be easier to prove.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director at the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to tell the long-term effect the spill will have on the city’s tourism industry, but there is no denying the hit river-related businesses took in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.

“We definitely saw an impact, and it directly affected the river-rafting industry. It was like shutting down Main Street at Christmas time,” Llewellyn said, referencing the fact that August is a critical revenue month for summer tourism businesses.

Llewellyn added that just the other day, a woman bringing 20 senior citizens to the area called ahead to ask if the water was safe to drink, and it’s that skepticism he fears might influence other visitors to choose a different destination when making vacation plans.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Owner Al Harper said the train suffered some cancellations at first, but ridership rebounded rather quickly. Most of the railroad’s projected 183,000 riders come from outside Durango.

He’s more concerned about how stakeholders of the mining network north of Silverton will implement a wastewater-treatment plan.

And that brings in yet another layer of “stigma” in connection to the Gold King Mine spill: a Superfund listing, which is an EPA program that cleans up hazardous waste sites.

Since the spill, there has been considerable pushback from Silverton residents who believe visitors will fear and avoid the small tourism town if it is designated a “Superfund” site and prefer to explore other options.

However, those in favor of the Superfund argue the stigma of a town that refuses to clean up once and for all a history of unregulated mining regulations that have tainted the Animas for decades is far worse.

Harper, who also owns a hotel in Silverton, said residents of the town may be more open to the Superfund designation if the EPA draws clear lines of where the boundary extends.

“Let’s face it, the city limits of Silverton have not been polluting the river,” he said. “We need to make clear the mining area is a Superfund; Silverton is not.”

#AnimasRiver: Tribes, Counties, Environmental Groups Unite to Prevent Future Mining Contamination

raftinganimasriver08152015gracehoodtwitter

Here’s the release from the Center for Biological Diversity (Rex Tilousi, Sherry Counts, Art Babbott, Art Goodtimes, Anne Mariah Tapp, Katie Davis, Bonnie Gestring, Matthew Sanders):

In the wake of the toxic spill in the Animas River earlier this month, tribes, local governments and environmental groups today petitioned the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture to reform outdated mining rules on the federal lands they manage. The 74-page petition requests four key changes to federal mining regulations to help protect western water resources from future environmental disasters like the recent Gold King Mine spill in Colorado, and ensure that mine owners cannot simply walk away from existing and inactive mines.

“The Hualapai Tribe supports the petition to make long overdue changes to the mining regulations,” said Councilwoman Sherry Counts of the Hualapai Nation. “Indian tribes have always viewed themselves as stewards with an obligation to take care of the Earth that has provided for them. The Animas disaster only accentuates the urgency for federal agencies and the mining industry to do a much better job of protecting our precious land, air, and water.”

The petition, submitted under the federal Administrative Procedure Act, requests that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service reform existing mining rules by: limiting the lifetime of a mine permit, imposing enforceable reclamation deadlines and groundwater monitoring requirements on mines, requiring regular monitoring and inspections, and limiting the number of years that a mine can remain inactive.

“As a county with hundreds of abandoned mines affecting two headwaters rivers of the Colorado Basin, we really place a high importance on sustainable uses of our public lands and protecting water,” said Art Goodtimes, a commissioner in San Miguel County, Colo. “The proposed rules will help ensure that existing and inactive mines are reclaimed in a timely manner and the environment will be better protected than what happened with our San Juan County neighbors.”

“The Animas River disaster must mark the end of the days where irresponsible mining threatens our region’s livable future,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, energy program director for the Grand Canyon Trust. “Our coalition’s petition provides the federal agencies with a reasonable path forward that will benefit western communities, taxpayers, water resources, and our most treasured landscapes.”

The threat that uranium mining poses to the Grand Canyon prompted the support of many regional governments for regulatory reform. Uranium mines in the Grand Canyon region are operating under environmental reviews and permits from the 1980s, with no requirements for groundwater monitoring once mining is complete.

“The Havasupai Tribe supports this petition that will better protect our aboriginal homelands and the waters that flow into our canyon home,” said Rex Tilousi, Havasupai tribal chairman. “This petition is an important part of our decades-long fight to protect our tribal members, homeland, and sacred mountain Red Butte from toxic uranium mining contamination.”

Along with the threats posed by existing mines, there are hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines in the United States that pollute an estimated 40 percent of streams in the headwaters of western watersheds. Most of these toxic mines, including the Gold King Mine, exist because the 1872 Mining Law, still the law of the land, didn’t require cleanup.

“If we are serious about the protection of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River water resources, we need to call for change,” said Art Babbott, a county supervisor in Coconino County, Ariz. “Common sense reforms to the federal agencies’ mining regulations and the 1872 Mining Law serve the interests of healthy watersheds, strong regional economies, and having science — as opposed to politics — guide our decision-making for mining on public lands.”

“For too long, the federal government has allowed our public lands to become toxic dumping grounds for mining corporations,” said Katie Davis, public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Federal agencies have the ability to start addressing the problems unfolding at existing mines now, without waiting for congressional action, to ensure better protection of public lands, water supplies and wildlife habitat.”

“We must act to prevent future disasters like the one that turned the Animas River orange,” said Earthworks’ Bonnie Gestring. “Our petition for stronger mining rules would help reform dangerous industry practices while we push to reform the 1872 Mining Law, which would fund the cleanup of the hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines that litter the West.”

Background
Today’s petition, submitted under the federal Administrative Procedures Act, requests four changes to existing federal mining regulations: (1) limit the duration of approved plans of operations to 20 years, with the option to apply for 20-year renewals; (2) require supplemental review under the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act, as well as a new approval for any mining operation that has been inoperative for 10 or more consecutive years; (3) require the BLM and Forest Service to regularly inspect mining operations, and mining operators to regularly gather and disclose information regarding the status and conditions of those operations, during non-operational periods; and (4) impose deadlines for commencing and completing reclamation activities once a mining operation ceases, and impose long-term monitoring requirements for surface water and groundwater quality.

The petition was prepared by the Stanford Law Clinic and is supported by the Havasupai Tribe (Arizona), the Hualapai Tribe (Arizona), the Zuni Tribe (New Mexico), Coconino County (Arizona), and San Miguel County (Colorado), as well as more than a dozen national and regional environmental organizations including the Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, the Sierra Club, the Information Network For Responsible Mining, Uranium Watch and others, representing millions of people who treasure our public lands and waters.

#AnimasRiver: Acid mind drainage, “almost impossible to fix and it lasts forever” — High Country News

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Here’s a report from Jonathan Thompson writing for the High Country News. Click through and read the whole thing and check out Thompson’s drawings explaining acid mind drainage and the geology of the area. Here’s an excerpt:

While there are a variety of ways that mining can pollute watersheds, the most insidious and persistent is acid mine drainage, which is really a natural phenomenon exacerbated by mining. Acid mine drainage was the root cause of the Gold King blowout, and it plagues tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the West. It’s almost impossible to fix, and it lasts forever…

…the early settlers also were struck by the reddish orange color (like the Animas River after the “spill”) of some of the mountains. They were also struck by the same orange in some streams during times of high runoff, streams that were lifeless even then. Indeed, an observer in 1874 noted that Cement Creek was “so strongly impregnated with mineral ingredients as to be quite unfit for drinking.”[…]

Mining begins. The tunnels follow veins of gold or silver deep underground. The adits (horizontal tunnels) and shafts (vertical tunnels) intersect the cracks and faults through which groundwater had run toward springs. The groundwater follows the path of least resistance: The new mine adit. Whereas the cracks and faults are mostly anaerobic, or free of oxygen, the mine is relatively rich in oxygen. Meanwhile, the water as it flows through the mine runs over deposits of pyrite, or iron sulfide. Water (H2O) meets up with oxygen (O2) and pyrite (FeS2). A chain of reactions occurs, one of the products being H2SO4, otherwise known as sulfuric acid. The result is acid mine drainage, water that tends to have a pH level between 2 (lemon juice) and 5 (black coffee).

So now there is acidic water running through the mine. And since the mine follows the metals, so does the water, picking up the likes of zinc, cadmium, silver, copper, manganese, lead, aluminum, nickel and arsenic on the way. The acidic water dissolves these metals, adding them to the solution. After the water pours from the portal (mine opening), it percolates through metal-rich waste rock piled up outside the portal, picking up yet more metals. Next, the water may run through old tailings or leftovers from milling ore and pick up yet more nasty stuff. The soup that eventually reaches the stream is heavily laden with metals and highly acidic. It is acutely and chronically toxic to fish and the bugs they eat.

#AnimasRiver: EPA crews have cleaned up access road issues after Gold King mine release

Gold King Mine access road  August 2015 via the EPA/Twitter
Gold King Mine access road August 2015 via the EPA/Twitter