From from the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:
The head of the New Mexico Environment Department blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday during a legislative committee meeting, saying federal officials are downplaying the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill.
Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told members of the House agriculture committee that the agency has been pressuring communities to get behind a proposal that calls for monitoring water quality for only a year.
Flynn also argued that the proposal would look at whether the water is safe for recreation rather than digging deeper into recurring spikes in the readings of heavy metals that state officials fear could affect crops, livestock and wildlife in the years to come.
The EPA has maintained that water quality returned to normal in the weeks following the Aug. 5 spill. Flynn disputed that, and he pointed to readings taken after a series of storms last fall.
“When storm events occurred, the sediment was remobilized, and we’re seeing the levels of lead and other metals in the river increase well above safe drinking water standards,” Flynn testified. “So the idea that: ‘Hey, everything is back to normal, we’re good,’ is just flat out false and that’s a problem.”
Flynn said the agency needs to treat the incident as a human health issue.
The EPA did not respond directly to Flynn’s criticisms, but noted that it has been working with communities in the region on a draft monitoring plan. Flynn is part of that working group, according to the agency.
“The work group’s goal is to finalize a plan based on broad stakeholder input that has support among the jurisdiction,” EPA spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in a statement.
State, local government and tribal representatives met last week in Colorado to discuss steps forward, but the timing on a final monitoring plan remains unclear.
An environmental assessment and other documentation on Lake Nighthorse may soon be available for public review and comment, bringing residents a step closer to recreational use, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials say.
Kathleen Ozga, resource division manager for the Bureau of Reclamation Western Colorado Area Office, said the comment period will last 30 days. The agency will then continue massaging the environmental assessment with a tentative completion date in late April.
“We’re reviewing the documents internally and hoping by the end of the month, a draft of the EA will be available,” Ozga said. “Once that’s done, there would be construction at the entrance area, signage, an overflow parking lot and possibly improvements to the access road. Ideally, we’re looking at (opening recreation) sometime in 2017.”
Lake Nighthorse was filled with 1,500 surface acres in June 2011 with the purpose of providing water for local tribes and water districts. But fishing, boating, swimming and other recreational uses have been prohibited, to the public’s dismay, as stakeholders weigh the impacts of such uses and figure out which entity – which could be the city of Durango – should be charged with managing recreation.
Most concerns from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes, which have a significant claim to water rights at the lake, are connected with the impact to cultural resources and water quality. Proposed compromises entail limiting lake access to day-use only and prohibiting camping.
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.”
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.”
Photo via the @USGS Twitter feed
Cement Creek remains lined with orange sediment after the Gold King Mine spill. The Environmental Protection Agency accidentally triggered the release of orange wastewater laced with heavy metals into Cement Creek on Aug. 5. The creek flows into the Animas River at Silverton, and eventually crosses into New Mexico and Utah
The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio
The Environmental Protection Agency’s new water-treatment facility at Gold King Mine is expected to begin treating mine runoff on Friday via Steve Lewis/The Durango Herald
The confluence of Cement Creek, at right, and the Animas River, left, as seen September 2015 in Silverton, Colo. This is where the plume of contaminated water from the Gold King Mine entered the Animas River. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Acid mind drainage Cement Creek watershed
Cement Creek August 8, 2015 — Bruce Finley via Twitter
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
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.
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.
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.
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.