Gold King catastrophe: Could that happen here? — Crested Butte News

From The Crested Butte News (Adam Broderick):

After the “catastrophe” last week near Silverton, Colo., when roughly three million gallons of toxic water ran into the Animas River, the question arose whether something similar could happen here in the Upper East River Valley. According to local environmental leaders, the answer is, possibly.

While Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials working on the old Standard Mine this summer say such an event isn’t likely, Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) says there is no guarantee that Coal Creek is completely safe from acid mine drainage…

Regional project manager for the EPA on the Standard Mine Project Christina Progess said that the EPA is very concerned about what’s happened at the Gold King Mine and that the management team at the Standard Mine on Mt. Emmons near Crested Butte has plans in place to help reduce the likelihood of a similar event happening there…

On a local level, Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) told the Crested Butte News this accident demonstrates how challenging it is to clean
up the legacy of acid mine drainage.

“Importantly, it’s not the EPA’s fault alone. Many are just as responsible,” Melton said of the Animas spill. “What we do or fail to do affects millions of people and animals and hundreds of local communities, not just ourselves.

“Over the years, we’ve seen how complicated these efforts often are when working in headwaters, involving complex hydrology between mine workings, ground water, and surface water, as well as seeps and springs, among other things,” Melton continued. “Most unfortunately, it’s the communities and taxpayers that are stuck with the legacy of contamination long after the mining has died out and still in 2015 with no silver bullet to remedy the contamination.”

Melton said although Crested Butte also has a legacy of acid mine drainage, here much of it is being treated by a water treatment plant operated and owned by U.S. Energy. However, no bond has been imposed on the plant, which would be a problem should U.S. Energy ever put operations on hold.

According to Melton, “Without a bond, we have no guarantee that the plant will continue to run without interruption, even though we rely on its continued operation to prevent Coal Creek from having acid mine drainage discharged directly into it.”

Steve Glazer, president of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition board of directors, noted that in the Gold King Mine, the bulkhead, or dam, had built up mine drainage pressure and failed, releasing the contaminated water.

Glazer said, ‘“In the Standard Mine, there is only juvenile water [current year’s snowmelt] that is contaminated in Level 2 before being discharged at Level 1. The bulkhead planned for installation in Level 1 will have a valve in it and its purpose is only intended to level out the seasonal hydraulic variations and not to build up storage with only minimal pressure behind it.”

Glazer wrote in an email that the water treatment plant (WTP) has a retention pond that can hold one to two days of draining water storage, plus an emergency retention pond that can hold multiple days of discharge. He said if the WTP were to stop operating, after the emergency storage capacity was exceeded, untreated acid mine drainage would contaminate Coal Creek, the Slate River and the East River below their confluences.

“The dilution from the Taylor might be enough to prevent toxic levels in Gunnison (or not). This would have to occur before EPA would step in and take over the WTP. In an emergency, the Town could extend its intake upstream to avoid receiving any contaminated surface overflow,” Glazer wrote.

At the request of the Red Lady Coalition and HCCA, the Crested Butte Town Council agreed at a meeting in late July to go on record that the town needs protection and state and federal agencies will be asked to impose a bond on the plant. A letter is being drafted and an update could be presented at next week’s council meeting.

Progess addressed several differences between the Gold King Mine and the Standard Mine in an email to the News. She said there is a much better understanding of the water levels inside the Standard Mine than at the Gold King Mine because the management team has been inside the Standard Mine and boreholes from the surface have been drilled into the old mine workings so the presence of contaminated water levels and any buildup in pressure can be measured.

Progess noted that the workings within the Standard Mine are not completely full of water.

“We are driving a new tunnel to intercept existing workings behind collapses within the lowest level of the mine,” Progess wrote, pointing out that work at the Standard Mine is proceeding cautiously to ensure contaminated water is contained.

Progess wrote, “We have precautions in place such as containment ponds to trap sediment and water as it flows from the workings, and will be treating this water as it comes out prior to discharging it to Elk Creek. We also have a communication plan set up with the Crested Butte water treatment plant whereby we will notify them if a major release of contaminated water were to occur as a result of our work at Standard. This will allow them to switch to an alternate drinking water source if necessary.”

Carol Worrall, director of public health in Gunnison County, said after seeing what happened to the Animas she also wondered if something similar could happen here. She believes there is a certain amount of “we have the purest water” mentality here in Crested Butte, but we might not be aware of particular metals. She guessed that nearly 70 percent of people in Gunnison County rely on private wells and most people, when testing their wells, test for bacteria. But for cases like these, water needs to be tested for heavy metals, which aren’t as easily detected.

“The responsibility for the private wells lies on the property owners,” Worrall said. “People tend to have their wells tested when they’re initially getting permits, but then go about their lives and don’t do further testing. Most people, when testing their wells, test for bacteria. But when you’re looking at mining, you’re looking at heavy metals.”

Worrall said when she read about the Animas spill, she thought the visuals were pretty shocking and had hopes that maybe the spill would help influence people here to test their own well water. She thinks it would be best for people to test their well water now and then, and if there were some later disturbance, conduct follow-up testing.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health website, there is no generic water test for everything, so each contaminant must be evaluated individually. However, if you’re buying or building a house and need to have a well tested, a standard test is available and testing supplies are free of charge. Call (303) 692-3048 for more information and to order water tests.

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

Gunnison River Basin: The June Watershed News from the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition is hot off the press

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Click here to read the news.

More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.

Crested Butte: Stricter water quality standards mandated by CWQCC for Coal Creek through town

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From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman/Alissa Johnson):

The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission voted September 11 to impose the stricter standards despite an argument from U.S. Energy that nearby domestic wells were pumping water from the Slate River instead of Coal Creek. “Frankly, I don’t even recognize my town in the diagrams presented to you from U.S. Energy,” said High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA) water director Jennifer Bock in reference to the claim that the wells were pumping water from the Slate River. The portion of the creek affected by the decision starts at just below the town’s water supply intake to the confluence with the Slate River. By voting to put stricter regulations on that portion of Coal Creek, the commission voted in agreement with positions advocated by HCCA, Gunnison County, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers.

The segment of Coal Creek is out of compliance with state water quality standards, and has been since temporary modifications were first put in place in the early 1990s. Bock explained that temporary modifications are put in place when a discharger releasing pollutants into a water body cannot meet quality standards and needs more time to assess the situation. “The legal word in the regulations is uncertainty, so if there’s uncertainty about why there’s a pollution problem, it does give the discharger time to resolve it,” Bock said. In this case, U.S. Energy Corp. was requesting an extension of the temporary modifications and more lenient standards on cadmium, zinc and copper.

Initially, U.S. Energy proposed loosening the temporary modifications in addition to extending them. Yet the current temporary standards are already significantly above state standards: of 2.3 micrograms per liter for cadmium as opposed to the more typical range of .15 to 1.2 depending on water hardness, and 667 micrograms per liter for zinc. State standards for zinc are typically between 34 and 428 micrograms per liter, again depending on the hardness of the water. After some back and forth, U.S. Energy instead proposed a slight tightening of the temporary modifications to 2.1 micrograms per liter for cadmium and 440 for zinc. In HCCA’s eyes, that amounts to the status quo, but that’s acceptable for the time being if steps are taken to understand where that pollution is coming from.

In addition to standards for drinking water, the commission granted U.S. Energy’s request for temporary modifications on standards for copper, cadmium and zinc. As part of the decision the Water Quality Control Commission is asking U.S. Energy to develop a comprehensive study on metal loading from Mt. Emmons, which will be the subject of another hearing on December 10 in Denver.

More Gunnison River Basin coverage here and here.

After a five year review the EPA has approved the remediation plan for the Standard Mine superfund site

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From The Crested Butte News (Alissa Johnson):

The two-phase plan would control the flow of water through the mine to reduce contamination, and if needed, use passive water treatment to further treat runoff.

The record of decision, signed in September, has the support of the local nonprofit Standard Mine Technical Advisory Group but still needs to be selected for federal funding. It could take until 2013 before the plan is implemented, complementing remediation work already done from 2007 through 2009.

The Standard Mine, which is about five miles west of Crested Butte and drains into Elk Creek, was added to the National Priority List in 2005 because of elevated levels of metals in the soil and the creek. Elk Creek flows into Coal Creek, which is the site of the municipal water intake for Crested Butte.

“We were really fortunate that when the EPA first came in 2006, they had the funding to do some surface cleanup first,” said Anthony Poponi, executive director of Coal Creek Watershed Coalition and grant administrator for the advisory group. That work included building a repository for mine tailings that included waste rock and tailings rich in pyrite, a metal that creates acid mine drainage when exposed to air. After removing waste rock and tailings from Elk Creek, the EPA also reconfigured the creek.

“The miners had produced a creek channel around and through the mill site, which was not the natural orientation, so once we took the tailings out, we dropped the creek back to its natural alignment,” explained EPA superfund project manager Christina Progess. That alignment includes small wetlands and riparian areas and has led to a measureable reduction in metals in Coal Creek and Elk Creek…

“There are three connected mine levels,” said Poponi, “and the EPA knew water coming in at the highest level was in pretty good condition and by the time it came out at level 1 [at the bottom] it was really bad, so they did some investigations and what they came up with was the proposed plan.” The first phase of the remediation plan proposes filling the entrance at level 3, toward the top of the mine, with a flowable fill and foam. That fill, a concrete mixture, would seal off the entrance to the mine so that clean water could be prevented from entering mine workings and would reduce the amount of water coming out of level 1…

A flowthrough bulkhead would be installed at level 1 to control the water flowing out of the bottom of the mine. The bulkhead would allow for what Progess calls the “metered release” of water from the mine…

Residents interested in learning more about the plan are invited to attend an EPA-hosted community meeting on November 30, at 1 p.m. in Town Hall.

More Standard Mine coverage here and here.

The High Country Citizens’ Alliance and the Western Mining Action Project file lawsuit over prospecting activities at the Mt. Emmons mine

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From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

HCCA, along with the Western Mining Action Project, filed the suit in Denver District Court on Wednesday, March 2. “We firmly believe the mining company needs to put up a bond that should address water treatment issues,” explained HCCA executive director Dan Morse.

The Colorado Mined Land Reclamation Board, which oversees all mining decisions in the state, granted final approval for the proposal in January 2011, but failed to require any bonding amount for the treatment of polluted water from the Project.

According to a HCCA press release, “The approved activities include the construction of a mining drift that would be 8 feet wide by 10 feet high generating as much as 15,000 cubic yards of waste material, which is described as having the potential to generate acid mine discharge. This mining drift would be used to conduct a program of delineation drilling of the ore body. Many of the residents of the Town of Crested Butte are concerned about the project’s impacts because the activities would take place within the town’s municipal drinking watershed.”

More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

Gunnison River basin: The High Country Citizen’s Alliance files lawsuit over Mt. Emmons mine plans

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From the Associated Press via Bloomberg Businessweek:

The High Country Citizens’ Alliance filed a lawsuit in Denver last week over work planned at Mount Emmons. It says Colorado mining officials should have required U.S. Energy Corp. to post a large enough bond to cover water treatment costs from its proposed work before approving the company’s plans.

More Gunnison River basin coverage here.

CPDPHE and CWQD extend U.S. Energy’s Mt. Emmons mine water quality progress report until April 1

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From The Crested Butte News (Mark Reaman):

U.S. Energy was sent a “Compliance Advisory Letter” at the end of December by the division. The letter advised the company of “possible violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, its implementing regulations and permits, so that it may take appropriate steps to avoid or mitigate formal enforcement action.” U.S. Energy is the primary mining patent holder for the Mt. Emmons project, a proposed mine that would extract molybdenum from Mt. Emmons. Water quality sampling between 2008 and 2010 has shown that the water from the mine property exceeds water quality standards for Coal Creek, according to Dave Akers with the water Quality Control Division.

More Mt. Emmons mine coverage here.