From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
Federal steps toward a Superfund cleanup still consist mostly of meetings. The EPA decision on whether to designate the Gold King and other nearby mines a national priority disaster — crucial to secure cleanup funds — still hasn’t been made.
While the Gold King blowout boosted awareness of the tens of thousands of dormant mines draining into western waterways, Congress continues to debate remedies, failing so far to create a national cleanup fund and reduce Clean Water Act liability to encourage voluntary cleanups.
And Colorado lawmakers, too, have been considering the problem but haven’t yet acted to increase state mining regulators’ capacity. State inspectors have not begun planned visits of 140 leaking mines, those causing the worst harm along more than 1,800 miles of streams classified as impaired.
“The Gold King Mine release has prompted some activities, like the draining mines inventory and characterization efforts through the Mining Impacted Streams Task Force — but no new money for the Inactive Mines Program that the program wouldn’t potentially have received absent the Gold King release,” said Ginny Brannon, director of Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
“There’s nothing we can do now that we could not do before,” Brannon said.
So what is the overall legacy, one year later, of the Gold King disaster? It prompted Silverton and San Juan County to reverse their long opposition to a federally run cleanup. Numerous local forums have been held for planning what might be done. But conditions at the Gold King and hundreds of other inactive mines, steadily contaminating waterways to the point that fish cannot reproduce, remain the same as on Aug. 5, 2015, when EPA-led contractors botched efforts to open the portal and triggered a 3 million-gallon deluge.
“There’s much more awareness about the issue of abandoned mines,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the Animas River Stakeholders Group that for two decades drove efforts to deal the acid metals draining into mountains above Silverton.
Conservation groups acknowledged the lag but are hoping robust conversations after the disaster will lead to getting cleanups done.
“We really need a sense of urgency on this. Many of these old mines are leaching poisons into our rivers, day in and day out,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s southwestern Colorado coordinator.
“It’s good to see some momentum in Washington, D.C. to address two big needs: liability protection, and funding for mine cleanups. We’re eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work on cleanups, but we need the tools to do it,” Churchwell said, referring to efforts by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton, to push legal changes that would hold mining companies more accountable. “The sad truth is, mining pollution is forever. We need a sustainable, long-term fund for dealing with this long-term problem.”
No one at EPA has been punished. The Gold King site coordinator, Steve Way, retired in June. He was on vacation on Aug. 5, 2015, and fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold led efforts to gain access to the Gold King. A Government Accountability Office investigation and an internal EPA probe, demanded by House Republicans, haven’t been completed…
Nor have owners of the Gold King and adjacent Sunnyside mines been cleared as potentially responsible parties. Gold King owner Todd Hennis, and Canada-based Kinross, owner of Sunnyside, could be forced to pay cleanup costs if the EPA decides on a Superfund cleanup…
EPA officials would not discuss their efforts.
That agency has made internal changes to be more careful around toxic mines. EPA chiefs this year issued orders that, whenever anyone is working to open up a collapsed mine that could release fluids, senior officials in Washington D.C. must sign off first. EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus issued a statement saying “additional consultation, coordination, and technical review prior to site work being conducted will help minimize the potential for uncontrolled fluid releases.”
Yet in other ways the EPA approach, working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, still involves considerable expense and delay. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, visiting Colorado after the spill, vowed greater transparency. The agency communicates with reporters mostly through prepared statements, discouraging direct conversations, with instructions to reporters to attribute statements to officials. Neither McCarthy nor Denver-based regional director Shaun McGrath were made available for interviews.
And requested public documents — The Denver Post asked for Gold King-related records on Aug. 20, 2015, under the Freedom of Information Act — still are being reviewed by agency lawyers who said they are limiting the requested documents to about 75 that the EPA deems “responsive” and then redacting portions of those documents.
CDPHE water qualify officials have not received any new funding to deal with mines draining into streams, the agency’s senior hydrologist Andrew Ross said. However, the Gold King Mine incident has led to “a more coordinated effort between local, state and federal agencies that will, over time, be more successful at addressing water quality impairments from abandoned mines,” Ross said.
This month, EPA officials announced they’d work at the Gold King portal and 30 feet inside, the stabilization initiated after the EPA-run crew triggered the disaster. “EPA initiated these stabilization efforts immediately following the August 5, 2015 release and continued efforts through November 2015, when winter weather inhibited further action,” according to an agency statement attributed to spokeswoman Nancy Grantham.
EPA crews have been sampling water and sediment and the agency gave funds for locals to test water. The EPA also is working on plans for “stabilizing a waste pile on site and installing steel bracing and concrete to continue stabilizing the portal,” the statement said. “This work is designed to prevent collapses and ensure safe access for future work.”
EPA officials said the portal should be safe by October.
At other toxic mines, EPA-run cleanups typically take more than 20 years.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and local leaders repeatedly have urged EPA officials to commit to keep running a temporary water treatment plant below the Gold King, reducing contamination of Animas headwaters until a final cleanup is done.
EPA officials say they’ll run the treatment system until November, but that they haven’t decided what to do after that.
“The EPA’s water treatment plant at the Gold King Mine is operating now to protect Colorado’s waterways and communities. We are assisting EPA on mine sites in the area and on the national priority listing, and we trust that cooperation will continue,” Hickenlooper said.
“We’re working with the EPA and others to ensure that an appropriate long-term plan is in place that ensures the health and safety of our waters and communities. The temporary water treatment facility is one part of that process.”
In Washington D.C., environment groups steadily pressed for a more aggressive approach to the mines that pollute western waterways.
“The main thing that has changed” is that the problem has received attention, said Alan Septoff of the advocacy group Earthworks. “In Congress, both the left and the right have focused attention on the issue of abandoned and inoperative mines in a way that hasn’t occurred since the early 1990s,” Septoff said.