#AnimasRiver: A consensus strategy for mitigating Cement Creek is coming together

Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015
Gold King Mine entrance after blowout August 2015

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Officials are edging closer to recommending a Superfund listing in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill after closed-door meetings Friday.

Gov. John Hickenlooper met with officials from Durango, Silverton and San Juan County late Friday afternoon. After the meeting, the governor said it appears stakeholders are on board to pursue the designation.

“These communities have made it clear that a Superfund designation is the most viable path to address pollution in the affected area and protect our public health and environment,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re all working around the clock to ensure that remaining points of negotiation are resolved in time for the March Federal Register listing in order to move this process forward.”

The governor has until Feb. 29 to meet a deadline extension to propose a new Superfund site in San Juan County.

Local officials are also hopeful that they are getting close to offering a formal opinion on the Superfund designation, which would culminate in a vote by Silverton and San Juan County elected officials. The communities delayed a vote in late January.

There are some outstanding issues to work out, including securing assurances that impacts to the town would be mitigated and ensuring a seat at the table for local governments. But San Juan County Administrator William Tookey believes the area has gone through a bit of an evolution on the subject.

“There’s been a perception that because we haven’t gone out and requested Superfund that we were somewhat anti-clean water, which we haven’t been,” Tookey said, underscoring that the local governments simply wanted assurances. “We recognized that … if in fact a treatment plant is a solution, the resources weren’t there without a Superfund site.”

[…]

Also Friday, the EPA met separately with tribal, state and local government officials for several hours to update them on the spill and plans for monitoring the affected waters.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff, who represented the county at the meeting, said it was the first time that all stakeholders got together in one room since the spill, including representatives from Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

Even though the meeting concerned public safety, including discussing next steps for a water monitoring plan, the agency opted to close the meeting, citing a legal opinion.

“We reviewed potentially applicable laws and did not find anything. The Sunshine Act does not, by its terms, apply,” an agency spokesperson told The Durango Herald in an email when asked why the meeting was not open to the public.

At the Friday meeting, EPA researchers released a preliminary analysis of water quality to describe the release, transport and final destination of the acid mine drainage. Results must be peer reviewed by an external panel during the week of Feb. 22. The report is expected to be completed by mid-March.

“We estimate that, by the time the plume reached the lower Animas River, the metal load in the plume was roughly equivalent to one day’s worth of high spring runoff,” the preliminary report states.

Researchers say “hot spots” of metal contaminants in the lower Animas and San Juan – unrelated to the spill – may warrant further investigation.

“It may not be possible to isolate the specific effects of the GKM event from the ongoing cumulative effect of multiple sources of metals from past or future runoff,” the preliminary report states.

In September, the EPA released a draft monitoring plan to evaluate pre- and post-event conditions. Sampling activities include water and sediment quality and biological and fish analyses in Cement Creek and the Animas. Cement Creek is a tributary of the Animas.

The EPA plans to collect the data for one year to review results.

Westendorff, however, said outstanding concerns remain with how the monitoring plan will take into account spring runoff, which could begin in as few as six weeks.

“My takeaway is there isn’t a plan now,” Westendorff said. “I hope they can get something worked out because people downstream are getting restless.”

The EPA says it is working on a long-term, robust strategy.

The EPA spokesperson, in emailed responses to questions, added: “Attendees also assessed tribal, state and local interest in collaborative approaches to monitoring water quality and solicit ideas for structuring a water quality monitor program across the watershed going forward.”

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Environmental experts say spring runoff not a concern for dredging up sediment laced with metals from Gold King Mine spill

“When you have more spring runoff, you have a lot more turbulence, so sediments can get remobilized,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

“However, usually the lowest metal concentrations we see throughout the year are during spring runoff, and that’s because you have so much dilution. So I’m not really expecting an issue.”

Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, said water samples from the Animas during storms in October show little sign of increased metal concentrations.

“I think most people were concerned with the sediment not only deposited around the river margin, but also at the bottom of the channel,” he said. “But it’s amazing how much it seems to already have washed off with the few storms we’ve had. You don’t see a lot of evidence left.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s temporary water treatment plant can handle 900 to 1,200 gallons per minute. Currently, the facility treats only discharges from the Gold King Mine, which averages 525 gallons per minute.

Mine discharges usually increase in the spring because of more ground water movement but are diluted in the runoff.

“But we may be dealing with a whole different ground now,” Butler said. “Nobody really knows what the flows are going to be like. That’s why the EPA oversized the treatment there, so they have the capacity to handle it.”

[…]

In the meantime, state health officials are developing a notification stakeholder group to address how best to notify local governments and agencies if a spill occurs.

Health officials added a second monitoring station on Cement Creek above the confluence with the Animas River. The department is coordinating with federal agencies on a long-term monitoring plan for the entire watershed.

“We’re very lucky the disaster did not have a long tail,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told The Durango Herald. “The consequences aren’t as dire as many of us first thought.”

Still, state water experts say they don’t have a full picture of the impact the spring runoff might have.

“I don’t know, and that’s a problem for me,” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. “I want to have some certainty, and where I don’t have certainty as a water quality professional, I want to have some process in place to respond to that.”

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill 6 months later — The Durango Herald

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald:

On Aug. 5, 2015, contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. Six months later, questions about the effects of spring runoff, Superfund status and remediation remain unanswered.

Coyote Gulch has been reporting since August 5. Here’s the link to the Animas River category. Take a little scroll back in time.

#AnimasRiver: Durango sends letter to Colorado governor in support of Superfund — The Durango Herald

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Mayor to meet Friday with Hickenlooper

As Silverton and San Juan County officials continue struggling with the terms of Superfund designation, Mayor Dean Brookie said the city of Durango sent a letter this week to Gov. John Hickenlooper supporting National Priorities Listing for a Silverton-area mining network, pointing to concerns about water quality for Durango residents.

“What Durango needs might be different from what Silverton needs,” Brookie said. “This is not to upstage Silverton in any way, but the 20,000 people on our water system, compared with the repairs needed on our water system, creates vulnerability for next summer. This is a way to make sure we have a safety net in the event of another spill.

“This is fairly urgent on our part, and independent of Silverton action.”

[…]

Last month, the La Plata County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution of support for Superfund designation. Commissioner Julie Westendorff has expressed in public meetings that she thinks La Plata County should take a supporting role to Silverton’s lead, though Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said she would support sending pro-Superfund communication to the governor ahead of Silverton.

However, all commissioners are unanimous in their support for Superfund.

Brookie said he will meet with the governor on Friday to discuss Durango’s needs.

EPA blamed for delay on Superfund in Silverton — The Durango Herald

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo)

Frustration for failing to meet a Jan. 31 deadline to be considered for a Superfund listing this spring was evident Tuesday night in Silverton, but the town’s hired attorneys assured elected officials negotiations have not derailed.

Meetings early this week were supposed to lead up to a Thursday decision on whether Silverton Town trustees and San Juan County commissioners would direct Gov. John Hickenlooper to request Superfund status for the mining network north of town responsible for degraded water quality in the Animas River.

Instead, that vote was canceled Monday, and a Town Hall hearing on Tuesday saw much of the same rhetoric in meetings past: the need for more information.

Jeff Robbins and Paul Sunderland, attorneys representing the town of Silverton in Superfund negotiations, chalked up the delay to the Environmental Protection Agency’s slow-moving bureaucracy.

“We’ve given them our position,” Sunderland said. “The ball is now in the EPA’s court.”

Three points of contention stand between federal intervention on the mines loading heavy metals into the Animas watershed: the actual boundaries of the Superfund, a reimbursement for costs associated with the Gold King Mine blowout, and an assurance local entities will have a say in future decision-making.

Robbins said the chance of making the EPA’s March review of Superfund sites is “very much still in play,” but the process is solely contingent on hearing back from the federal agency on the unsettled terms.

#AnimasRiver: Silverton’s vote on Superfund letter won’t happen this week as planned — The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Silverton’s elected leaders will not decide this week on whether to approve a draft letter to Colorado’s governor supporting Superfund cleanup for the area’s leaching, abandoned mines…

Lawyers representing the two groups have been working to finalize language in the letter in the best interest of the community. Specifically, leaders want to clarify boundaries of any federal cleanup sites, reimbursement for costs incurred by the town and assurances any impacts will be mitigated.

“The talks are proceeding slower than we had hoped and while we have made good progress, the team is not ready to present a package to the county commissioners and town board this week,” said Mark Eddy, spokesman for the town and county. “There are still important details to be worked out.”

On Tuesday night, the group working on the letter will present to the town council members and county commissioners and the public will have an opportunity to ask questions and comment…

“The team is continuing its discussions with the state and EPA and everyone is working hard to try make the timeline so if there is a decision to move forward the site can be considered for listing by the EPA in March,” Eddy said.

The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo via www.terraprojectdiaries.com)
The Animas flows orange through Durango on Aug. 7, 2015, two days after the Gold King Mine spill. (Photo by Esm Cadiente http://www.terraprojectdiaries.com)

Silverton officials hold Superfund hearing Tuesday ahead of Thursday vote — The Durango Herald

Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best
Silverton, Colo., lies an at elevation of 9,300 feet in San Juan County, and the Gold King Mine is more than 1,000 feet higher in the valley at the left side of the photo. Photo/Allen Best

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It’s going to be a busy and potentially landmark week for the town of Silverton as officials look to stamp a letter addressed to Gov. John Hickenlooper requesting Superfund status by Thursday.

All this week, Silverton Town Trustees along with San Juan County Commissioners will enter final negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency over its hazardous cleanup program with the hopes of a final vote on Thursday. The town will also hold a public hearing Tuesday.

“We’re negotiating the next 20 to 30 years of our county,” said Silverton Town Trustee Pete Maisel. “So it’s weighing pretty heavy on our shoulders.”

[…]

Despite local efforts, the long-inactive mining district has degraded water quality in the Animas River to the point that the presence of trout has all but disappeared in the 25-mile stretch downstream from Silverton, with 3 out of 4 species now gone.

But when the EPA accidentally triggered the Gold King Mine blowout in August, the sight of a disturbing bright-orange river cast a normally unseen problem into the spotlight of public attention. For Silverton officials under pressure from downstream communities, few options were left aside from a Superfund status.

“There’s really no other program out there with the financial resources to take care of the necessary remediation for this area,” San Juan County Manager Willie Tookie said in November. “Superfund is pretty much it.”

The EPA considers polluting sites for its National Priorities List twice a year: once in March and again in September. To be considered this spring, Silverton officials must send a letter to Hickenlooper, directing the governor to request Superfund status.

Throughout negotiations, three main points of contention have emerged: the boundaries of the Superfund designation; the promise of federal funding; and the name of the Superfund project.

“This is not going to be a fast solution, but we’re also not dragging our feet,” Maisel said. “Negotiations are going well, we’re working hard on it.”

#AnimasRiver: Silverton drafting Superfund-seeking letter to Colorado’s governor — The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Attorneys for Silverton and San Juan County are in the process of drafting a letter to the governor in support of Superfund cleanup for its leaching, abandoned mines.

While the request still must be approved by the town’s elected officials next week, the action represents the most significant move since the Gold King Mine spill in August prompted cries for a large-scale federal intervention.

“It’s a giant step,” said Bill Gardner, Silverton’s town administrator…

Next week, Silverton and San Juan County’s elected leaders will meet to discuss the letter and Superfund with each other and the town’s roughly 500 year-round residents. On Jan. 28, the leaders will take a final vote.

“It’s democracy in action,” Gardner said. “We are trying to ensure there’s absolute transparency.”

Ernie Kuhlman, chairman of the County Commission, says he doesn’t see any obstacles to the letter being approved.

The town’s leaders have been in talks with the EPA and Colorado health officials over the past several months about the extent of a hazard listing. Some locals have pushed back, questioning what Superfund could mean for their community.

Mark Esper, editor of The Silverton Standard and The Miner, the town’s newspaper, estimated that about 80 percent of the community now supports Superfund.

He said acceptance of the program really grew after Silverton leaders and county commissioners went on a three-day fact-finding mission in November to four of Colorado’s largest Superfund mine sites.

“I thought it was going to be a much tougher fight than it was,” Esper said of embracing a national priority listing. “That field trip was like the road to Damascus.”

While final details of what the cleanup would look like haven’t been made public, Silverton has stipulated that a Superfund designation not include the confines of their town or be named after their community.

Kuhlman said he still worried about stigma about a Superfund listing.

“I think everybody should be, to some degree,” he said. “We don’t want Silverton to be known as the Superfund site, necessarily. But we’ve got a problem that we’ve got to take care of.”

Meanwhile, heavy metals leach into the Animas River watershed from the mines that dot Silverton’s surroundings. A temporary water treatment plant erected by the EPA is treating the contaminants flowing from the Gold King at a cost of about $16,000 a week.

After the EPA-caused Gold King spill in August, and under immense pressure from its downstream neighbors, Silverton’s leaders have said it appears Superfund is their only option.

On Tuesday night, Durango’s City Council passed a resolution supporting Superfund for their upstream neighbors in Silverton.