#AnimasRiver: EPA weighs options for dumping Cement Creek treatment plant sludge

The EPA's wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 -- photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio
The EPA’s wastewater treatment plant near Silverton, Colorado, on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2015 — photo via Grace Hood Colorado Public Radio

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday they are deciding where to haul sludge from the temporary water-treatment plant for Gold King Mine wastewater.

The EPA periodically has updated the communities of San Juan and La Plata counties in recent months as a Superfund proposal moves forward, and most aspects of the agency’s work has been in the evaluation stages thus far.

On Wednesday, the EPA told La Plata County commissioners that the agency is considering whether to dispose of nontoxic sludge produced by the temporary treatment plant at a mining district site or a landfill.

La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake said he opts for the least expensive option.

“It’s not toxic waste, so it can go anywhere,” he said.

Commissioners inquired about the life of the plant, which is supposed to end this fall.

“It was designed and constructed to be an interim measure,” Superfund project manager Rebecca Thomas said. “We’ll continue to evaluate options, but we’ll come up with a comprehensive remedy for the entire mining district.”

Thomas said for now, the temporary plant is operating as usual, and a long-term solution could include a permanent water-treatment facility.

The EPA also is evaluating what Superfund designation will mean for private property owners, officials said Wednesday.

#AnimasRiver: New Mexico sues Colorado over #GoldKingMine spill

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From The Farmington Daily Times (Brett Berntsen):

The state of New Mexico has filed a lawsuit against the state of Colorado in U.S. Supreme Court, adding to a string of legal actions in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas filed the complaint on Monday, alleging that Colorado’s policies and practices led to the Aug. 5 incident. In May, Balderas’ office filed similar lawsuits against the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and two mining companies.

The case against Colorado focuses on the state’s attitude toward the threat that abandoned mines pose to downstream communities. The Gold King Mine spill north of Silverton, Colo., occurred when a crew from the EPA working to address wastewater seepage accidentally released 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into the Animas River.

New Mexico is demanding reimbursements for the costs incurred during the emergency and for cleanup efforts moving forward. The complaint also calls for Colorado to claim partial responsibility for the spill.

“It was Colorado’s permitting process that ultimately failed,” said Tania Maestas, New Mexico’s Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs. “It was a complete catastrophe that flowed downstream.”

The lawsuit points to a 1996 agreement between Colorado and the Sunnyside Gold Corp., a major mining company in the Bonita Peak Mining District outside Silverton, that allowed the mining company to plug leaking mine shafts, rather than operate expensive water treatment plants. This caused wastewater to build inside abandoned tunnels, eventually spilling out of sites that are higher in elevation, according to the complaint.

These new sources of seepage garnered the attention of the EPA, which in 2011 proposed designating the mining district outside Silverton, Colo., as a Superfund site to spur cleanup efforts. According to the complaint, however, Colorado fought the designation due to its negative connotations, “choosing instead to protect the local tourism and skiing economy.”

“While Colorado refused to act, the volume of water and hydraulic pressure within the Gold King Mine continued to build, setting the stage for the catastrophic blowout,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit also takes issue with Colorado’s plans moving forward.

“It’s the response that’s equally, if not more, frustrating,” said Ryan Flynn, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department.

Flynn said Colorado has focused on the impacts to recreation and tourism, rather than addressing the needs of downstream stakeholders in New Mexico. He said the move to sue is a last resort, but efforts to communicate outside of court have failed to produce results.

Colorado’s Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, however, expressed concern that the lawsuit will cost unnecessary amounts of time and money.

“I have done what I can within the bounds of my power and authority as Attorney General to resolve this matter without litigation,” Coffman said in a statement on Wednesday. “It could take years, even decades, to resolve this.”

Flynn said he thinks New Mexico has a strong case, though, and hopes that it will prompt action.

“Our job is to protect New Mexico,” he said. “All we want is to start getting results.”

Flynn added that he is open to further discussion if Colorado chooses to rethink its response. He said the issue lies in the state government, not with regional officials north of the state border.

Kim Carpenter, San Juan County’s executive officer, echoed this sentiment. He said he has worked well with county officials in Colorado, but doesn’t agree with how higher-ups in Denver have handled the situation.

“At times, it seems the state doesn’t think this is a big deal,” Carpenter said.

The gravity of the situation, however, is one of the main points that New Mexico has consistently argued. Flynn said the mine spill caused immense economic and environmental damage and will continue to pose problems in the future.

“We want communities to be compensated for their losses,” Flynn said. “When people think about the Four Corners, I don’t want the image to be a yellow river.”

The lawsuit seeks restitution for the financial damages suffered in the wake of the spill, including declines in tourism and crop losses for farmers.

Maestas said the case against Colorado doesn’t specify a dollar amount. She said the federal tort claim against the EPA asks for $154 million, and it would be up to the EPA to determine how much Colorado would pay.

From The Albuquerque Journal (Dan Boyd):

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Supreme Court this week by Attorney General Hector Balderas and outside attorneys hired by the state Environment Department, seeks reimbursement for all costs – including “stigma” damages – connected to the mine spill, in which more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste was spewed into a tributary of the Animas River and flowed into New Mexico.

“The Gold King Mine release is the result of two decades of disastrous environmental decision-making by Colorado, for which New Mexico and its citizens are now paying the price,” Balderas said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn described the lawsuit as a last resort, saying his agency’s attempts to negotiate a deal with Colorado officials have been unsuccessful.

“We can’t continue to wait,” Flynn told the Journal . “At some point, we have an obligation with the citizens we’re serving to move forward.”

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges a Colorado department signed off on a plan to block the tunnels of a closed mine in the same network as the Gold King Mine with concrete plugs – or bulkheads – to try to block acidic wastewater from escaping, the lawsuit alleges.

The plan essentially turned the mine into an “enormous wastewater storage facility” and Colorado environment officials were aware of the possible risk of a blowout, the suit claims.

“It’s going to be very difficult for Colorado to explain why they ignored these warnings,” Flynn said…

In addition to the lawsuit against Colorado, New Mexico has also filed a lawsuit in federal court against the EPA and the owners of the Gold King Mine that seeks more than $136 million in damages. That amount would include money to pay for economic losses the state attributes to the mine spill, specifically in the tourism, recreation and agriculture sectors.

New Mexico is no stranger to lawsuits with its neighbors. The state has also been embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with Texas that hinges on whether groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico is draining the Rio Grande and depriving downriver water users in the Lone Star State from their rightful share.

That lawsuit also was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, as is typically the case when one state sues another.

In the Wednesday interview, Flynn acknowledged interstate lawsuits are typically not resolved quickly and said there’s a good likelihood the case could still be pending when Gov. Susana Martinez’s second term expires at the end of 2018.

“Anytime you go to court, there’s some risk,” Flynn said, adding that New Mexico officials are still open to negotiating with Colorado and hopeful the case might be resolved out of court.

Both mine spill lawsuits are being driven by Attorney General Balderas, a Democrat, working with the administration of Martinez, a two-term Republican.

This week’s lawsuit claims Colorado’s actions have “prejudiced New Mexico’s economy, finances and natural resources, and have injured the health, comfort, safety and property of New Mexico’s citizens.”

Although New Mexico officials have taken a hard-line approach to the Gold King Mine spill fallout, some Colorado officials have said their testing shows no risk to human health from the contaminants.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper even drank water from the Animas River just days after the spill – after adding an iodine tablet to purify the water – in an attempt to downplay environmental concerns.

“If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help,” Hickenlooper said, according to the Durango Herald.

From the Associated Press via the The Denver Post:

The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and the state Environment Department announced late Wednesday that they filed a complaint against Colorado with the U.S. Supreme Court.

It marks the second major legal salvo fired by New Mexico in the wake of the August 2015 spill, which fouled rivers in three western states with a bright-yellow plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals…

New Mexico is also suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the owners of two mines.

“We had hoped EPA and Colorado would try to work with us and come up with solutions,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told The Associated Press. “But the state of Colorado, its leadership, seems intent on defending EPA at every turn and is unwilling to work with us to move forward in a meaningful manner.”

The EPA has declined to comment on the litigation, but it has said repeatedly that it takes responsibility for the cleanup.

Colorado officials previously declined to comment on New Mexico’s claims, citing possible litigation…

The EPA said water quality quickly returned to pre-spill levels. But New Mexico officials and others continue to warn about heavy metals collecting in the sediment and getting stirred up each time rain or snowmelt results in runoff.

The lawsuit against Colorado details the results of recent soil samples taken north of Durango, Colorado, where discolored sediment was visible at residential properties. The results showed lead at concentrations far above the risk level established by EPA.

The lawsuit also outlines the business and regulatory history of the Sunnyside Gold Mine, where operators were allowed to install plugs — or bulkheads — that eventually caused wastewater to back up and fill the mine and its workings. That led to problems at nearby mines.

The shuttering of a water treatment plant for mine discharge further aggravated the situation, according to New Mexico officials.

By 2011, acidic drainage from four inactive mine sites at and above the former treatment plant — including at Gold King Mine — was pouring into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, at a rate of nearly 850 gallons per minute, according to the lawsuit.

“The Gold King Mine release was the coup de gr—ce of two decades of disastrous environmental decision-making by Colorado, for which New Mexico and its citizens are now paying the price,” the lawsuit states.

New Mexico contends Colorado’s past, present and ongoing conduct and the resulting contamination amounts to a public nuisance.

Attorney General Hector Balderas said New Mexicans rely on the Animas and San Juan rivers for drinking water, ranching, farming, tourism and more, so communities must be compensated and protected from future health and safety risks.

The state is seeking damages and demands that Colorado address the problems at the mines.

New Mexico and Colorado officials had been in talks for months, and Flynn said the state is still open to discussions in hopes of settling with the EPA and Colorado.

“We’re here out of necessity,” Flynn said. “I would prefer to spend time and resources resolving this rather than duking it out in court.”

Mancos Water Conservancy District board meeting recap

Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR
Jackson Gulch Dam photo via USBR

From The Cortez Journal (Jacob Klopfenstein):

The Mancos Water Conservancy District board voted to put up for lease 150 acre-feet of water from the Jackson Gulch project, district Superintendent Gary Kennedy said.

The board approved the water lease at their meeting June 14. District officials will be going out to see if people need extra water, though they might not need extra because of the wet spring season, Kennedy said.

The board and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation found agreement on project water rights for Jackson Reservoir, Kennedy said. The rights will be assigned to the water district from the federal government, he said.

Also at the meeting, the board discussed the title transfer for the project, Kennedy said. The title transfer is an ongoing issue that will take many years to resolve.

The district had hoped to complete some appraisals of land associated with the project this summer, but that hit a snag, Kennedy said. The cost for the appraisals is almost double what the board anticipated, and another government agency will be involved, he said. Even if the board decides to pay the new price for the appraisals, Kennedy could not say how long that would take.

The district is planning a party to celebrate 75 years of the water district. The celebration will take place July 16 at noon at Jackson Gulch Reservoir on Road N north of Mancos. There will be a barbecue as well as some educational information on the history of the district. RSVP is requested by emailing Kennedy at gary.mwcd@gmail.com or calling 970-533-7325.

District officials also will be working on clearing the inlet canals to the reservoir this summer, Kennedy said. The reservoir’s two drop chutes also need some work, but that might not take place until 2019, when the district could receive money from the federal government to rehabilitate the chutes, Kennedy said.

Board member Boe Hawkins was reappointed to a four-year board term at the meeting.

The reservoir’s jet valve was rebuilt over the winter, and some safety issues came up with the valve, Kennedy said. After investigation, the valve was operating normally and there were no major problems, he said.

The hydro lease of the power permit for the project is still moving forward and the board is still working on it, Kennedy said. At next month’s board meeting July 12, board members will elect officers.

After dam release, river runs through the Lower Dolores — The Durango Herald

Dolores River Canyon near Paradox from the Coyote Gulch archives.
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox from the Coyote Gulch archives.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Overgrown banks, loads of sediment in the waterway and a depleted fishery cast a pale backdrop to an otherwise awe-inspiring float down the lower Dolores River, known for its deep canyons, lush ponderosa forests and seemingly endless succession of whitewater.

“And all of that is just a reflection of the channel starting to reflect the current hydrology,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist Jim White. “It has changed.”

[…]

Today, water out of McPhee Reservoir, considered the most expensive allotments in the Southwest, mainly supplies farms growing alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops used to feed cattle.

The divisive interests between farmers and recreationists have caused a debate over water rights to rage on for almost four decades.

A different riverSince the dam operates on a “fill, then spill” policy, enough water to float the lower Dolores River is only released when the dam is at capacity, and there’s no other place to store inflows.

That hadn’t happened since 2011 – until this year, when two small releases allowed boaters as well as wildlife officials to get an inside peek at what’s been happening to the long-neglected stretch of river.

And it didn’t look good.

The wildlife division’s White said a survey of the 19-mile stretch from Bradfield Bridge to the Dove Creek Pump Station found only 150 brown trout, a non-native species, and came up nearly empty-handed on native species.

“The loss of consistent spring flow to maintain habitat, coupled with altered base flow regimes, just all adds up to where we’re seeing reduced numbers of native species,” White said. “But what struck me, just the abundance of fish in general, native and non-native, is low through that part of the canyon.”

Another discernable transformation noted by many boaters was the unbridled vegetation that has started to bottleneck the river’s original channel. It was one of the most striking changes Sam Carter, board president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, noticed on his trip this year.

“The overgrowth was intense, and dangerous,” Carter said. “There were two places that made it dangerous to move in a rapid.”

Carter said for the most part, this year’s release was a success: The large turnout of Dolores River aficionados worked together at boat launches, the weather made for hot days and warm nights, and the past year’s lack of access to the river left campgrounds, and the canyon in general, as wild as ever.

Yet a larger issues looms.

“This one spill is not the answer,” Carter said. “There has to be a change in the paradigm how that water is used. The river is getting killed. It’s a slow process, but it is happening.”

Is change possible?Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores River Water Conservancy District, said at this point, it is “highly, highly unlikely” that any changes would occur to the management plan for the Dolores River.

Preston, a boater himself who took a trip on the Dolores River this year, said many farmers in the area made large investments setting farms up based on the water allocations.

“One boating day at 1,000 cubic feet per second is enough water to irrigate 1,000 acres for a full season,” he said. “And the farmers are paying us to maintain the facilities. And they also make payments to the federal government.”

Indeed, John Porter, a farmer turned Dolores Water Conservancy District manager who retired in 2002, said he’s clear in his bias for use of the river.

“There’s another side of it,” Porter said. “Do you just quit farming in this area and leave the water in the river? Until McPhee, it was dry river in the summertime because all the water was diverted. This project at least keeps it as a full-time river.”

Though the Dolores flowed anywhere from 800 to 1,500 cfs during the release, river levels throughout the year remain chronically low. In 2013, for instance, the river was at a trickle at just 13 cfs. The boating advocate’s president Carter said that doesn’t exactly constitute a healthy, flourishing river.

Carter said the group is “very actively” working on ways to secure annual releases out of McPhee for the benefit of recreationists and the environment.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re definitely working on it,” Carter said.

But for now, as the Dolores River slowly returns to its dispossessed flows, boaters look with a mixture of frustration and optimism toward next year.

“It was very much a bigger adventure than I think most people anticipated,” said Josh Munson, a board member of the Dolores River Boating Advocates. “Many longtime boaters noted the same things. It was faster, more wild. But the lack of water is really changing the characteristic of the river itself.

“When there isn’t a recreational release, it really isn’t much of a river.”

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

#AnimasRiver: Utah looking for link between San Juan River, Lake Powell water quality and #GoldKingMine spill

On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From The Salt Lake Tribune (Emma Penrod):

State regulators are calling for more study of Lake Powell and sections of the San Juan River in light of unusual test results that may or may not be tied to last summer’s Gold King Mine spill.

Two sections of the San Juan River were added to the state’s list of “impaired” waters in the latest state water quality report. Those portions of the river were found to have concentrations of aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead and mercury that exceeded state water quality standards on at least two occasions last fall.

The state also added portions of Lake Powell to the list — a move that greatly increased the overall percentage of freshwater lake acreage deemed as impaired, said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality (DWQ). In the state report, released this week, 71 percent of Utah’s freshwater lakes did not meet the water quality standards for their designated uses, which include providing drinking water, recreation or wildlife habitat.

The overages in the San Juan River were detected by the Environmental Protection Agency while the feds were sampling the river to evaluate the fallout from the Gold King Mine blowout upriver, and are possibly related to the Aug. 5 incident, said Erica Gaddis, assistant director of the DWQ.

Gaddis said the department had feared this spring’s runoff could dislodge even more contamination and flush it downstream, but so far, the division hasn’t found evidence of that. And though portions of Lake Powell are listed as impaired, it’s unlikely that it’s related to the Gold King Mine, Gaddis said.

Water directly downstream of the mine saw decreased pH levels — becoming more acidic — immediately following the Gold King spill in August, but Lake Powell has had unusually high pH readings — a situation that itself is a mystery.

Now, the division’s scientists are also wondering where the estimated 880,000 pounds of heavy metals released during the August 2016 Gold King Mine incident ended up.

The common thought, Gaddis said, is that the metals were deposited in sediment somewhere upstream, on the Animas River in Colorado — and that they remained there, waiting for high river flows to flush them out.

It’s possible that those metals are already making their way downstream, she said, and increased river flow could be diluting the metals so that concentrations remain below the state’s screening values.

The potential for further contamination pushed the state to develop a long-term monitoring plan for the San Juan and Lake Powell, the likely final resting place for all that sediment, should it make its way farther down the river.

As part of that plan, the state has installed devices on the river capable of measuring the amount of sediment in the water in real-time. That data is available to the public at water data.usgs.gov.

It’s not yet clear how the amount of mobilized sediment correlates to the concentration of metals in the river. Gaddis said it could take another year for the DWQ to create a working model that will be used to issuing warnings when the river may be contaminated…

The primary concern, Gaddis said, is aquatic life. The state is also watching aquatic life in the region to determine whether metals in the river, or in the river’s sediment, are potentially harming fish or other creatures that live in the river. Gaddis said the DWQ has yet to see direct evidence of metals poisoning.

The long-term monitoring plan is anticipated to cost $1.2 million altogether, Gaddis said. So far the EPA has offered Utah $645,000 related to the Gold King Mine spill. Gaddis said the state intends to apply all of that money to its monitoring initiatives.

The state also intends to sue the EPA for its role in the Gold King Mine incident. Wade Fairway, an assistant Utah attorney general, told lawmakers during a Tuesday interim legislative meeting that his office was still in the process of hiring outside legal counsel to assist with the suit.

Meanwhile, Gaddis said, the DWQ has begun to turn its attention to the chronic effect of mining in the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado and on the San Juan River and its tributaries. The Gold King Mine alone, she said, could have released between 500 million and 850 million gallons of contaminated water over the past decade, and it’s just one of 48 old mines in the Bonita district.

The EPA proposed making the entire Bonita district a superfund site this past April.

#AnimasRiver: Is the EPA faithfully reporting water test results?

A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 -- photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin
A “get well soon” balloon floats in the contaminated waters of the Animas River flowing through Durango on Monday afternoon August 10, 2015 — photo The Durango Herald, Shane Benjamin

From the Associated Press via NewsChannel10.com:

The Latest on the reaction to the Colorado mine waste spill (all times local):

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is defending water tests it conducted after a massive mine spill in southwestern Colorado that tainted rivers in three states.

The EPA issued a statement Tuesday saying the tests were thorough and science-based.

Earlier Tuesday, New Mexico officials accused the EPA of misrepresenting test results to make water quality look better than it was.

They also criticized the EPA for saying the water met recreational standards after the spill instead of using the more stringent residential standard…

New Mexico’s criticisms were included in the state’s official comment on an EPA proposal to use the Superfund program to clean up the Gold King and nearby sites…

An agency spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to an after-hours request for comment. Previously, the agency has defended its handling of the aftermath.

Meanwhile the EPA supervisor who was in charge last August 5 is retiring from the agency. Here’s a report from The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Way was away on vacation Aug. 5 when contractors led by fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold triggered a blowout at the Gold King. But after the disaster, Way faced questioning about EPA activities around the Gold King.

Way, who worked for the EPA for 32 years, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Colleagues confirmed his departure, as did Silverton town administrator Bill Gardner, who added that Way was knowledgeable and effective.

“It would be fair to say the intense criticism of him at the congressional level could not have helped,” Gardner said. “He really had been put through terrible scrutiny.”

EPA officials declined to discuss the situation.

“The agency doesn’t comment on personnel matters,” spokeswoman Nancy Grantham said in an e-mail.

Two other EPA officials with extensive experience — Joyel Dhieux and Kerry Guy — will manage mine waste removal at the Gold King and adjacent Red and Bonita Mine and the temporary water treatment plant below the mines at Gladstone, according to an EPA notice sent to congressional, state and tribal leaders.

Dozens of EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment employees last week began testing water and soil along the Animas. The feds also have been moving heavy equipment above Silverton. Two toxicologists are part of the effort.

EPA officials did not respond to questions about current work. A Denver-based “community involvement coordinator” referred queries to headquarters in Washington, D.C. EPA officials in Washington also did not respond. CDPHE spokesman Warren Smith said the state agency would defer to the EPA. State health officials are involved in work around the mines.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Steve Way, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator for activities around the Gold King Mine, has announced his retirement, the federal agency confirmed Tuesday.

Way spent 32 years working for the EPA, and the last two in the area north of Silverton known as Gladstone, where the largest concentration of heavy metals discharge from inactive mines into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

However, on Aug. 5, Way was on vacation when his EPA-contracted crew breached the loose pile of dirt and rock collapsed over the Gold King Mine, releasing a massive mustard yellow-colored plume of heavy metal sludge.

Regardless of his absence and clear orders not to touch the entrance of the mine, Way became the center of intense criticism.

“Sadly, it appears that Mr. Way is going to be the sacrificial lamb here and that is very disappointing,” state Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, wrote to the Daily Sentinel.

“Mr. Way has had an exemplary career, having worked with the Washington, D.C. anthrax mitigation project, and the Hurricane Katrina and World Trade Center recovery efforts. Mr. Way and his field team are well qualified and experienced mine reclamation officials, but it seems the bureaucratic EPA leadership ignored their concerns for a potential blowout.”

[…]

In 2014, the EPA decided that metal-laden discharges from the Red and Bonita and the Gold King mines had gotten so bad, it would begin a $1.5 million remediation project.

The plan, originally, was to place a bulkhead on the Red and Bonita mine, which at the time, was pouring out 500 gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, accounting for about 18 percent of the heavy metals in the Animas River.

Knowing that plugging the mine might have the same effect as the American Tunnel (Sunnyside Gold Corp.’s bulkhead, which is considered the culprit for increased discharges out of Red and Bonita and Gold King), Way laid out a monitoring plan that would allow the agency to open and close the valve as needed.

In late July 2015, crews began exploring the Level 7 adit of the adjacent Gold King Mine, which was well documented for its potential of a blowout. Way, aware of this risk, postponed further work on the mine pending further preparation and study.

But while he was on vacation, his replacement, Hayes Griswold, ordered crews to clear the dirt blocking the tunnel to install a pipe to divert the contaminated water.

The contractors, St. Louis-based Environmental Restoration LLC, dug too far, causing the massive blowout on Aug. 5. The actions of that day remain a source of suspicious speculation.

The EPA has claimed Griswold’s orders were “completely consistent” with the direction set by Way prior to his leave. Yet, emails released after the spill clearly show Way said to not excavate the adit until a series of tasks were completed to prepare for its opening – tasks an investigatin found Griswold did not complete.

In a Feburary report, the House Committee on Natural Resources flogged Griswold for veering from Way’s instructions, and said Griswold’s post-spill testimony raised “serious questions about nearly everything …. about the EPA’s work at the Gold King Mine and the disaster caused by the EPA.”

“EPA needs to come clean on who gave the order to proceed as the contractors did on August 5, 2015 at Gold King #7 level,” local filmmaker Tom Schillaci wrote in a public comment. “Who gave Hays Griswold the order to use an excavator to open that portal that day?”

EPA officials confirmed that Griswold still works for the EPA.

Despite the spill, Way is regarded among colleagues as an apt, sharp manager when it comes to mine remediation. Peter Butler, coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, said the longtime volunteer coalition agreed with many of Way’s decisions in the mining district.

“We supported putting a bulkhead in Red and Bonita, and opening up the Gold King,” Butler said. “I think he was a very capable person.”

Butler also commended Way for the quick cleanup of mine waste left behind from the blowout in a nearby gulley, as well as the speedy installment of a temporary water treatment plant for Gold King discharges before the hazardous winter weather set in on the remote area.

Speculation on whether the spill would have occurred had he not gone on vacation remains just that: speculation.

“It’s 20-20 hindsight at this point,” Butler said.

The EPA said in a prepared statement, that in Way’s place, “Joyel Dhieux will manage removal activities at the Gold King and Red and Bonita Mines, and Kerry Guy will manage the interim water treatment plant at Gladstone. Paul Peronard will serve as backup OSC and provide technical support to the team.”

On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

AnimasRiver: Deadline for comments on Superfund status passes

On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

From the Associated Press via The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Time is up for people to comment on a proposed Superfund cleanup for leaking mines in southwestern Colorado, and not many have spoken up.

A few hours before the Monday deadline, 34 people had submitted comments

to the Environmental Protection Agency on the planned Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

The site would include the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, which released 3 million gallons of acidic waste into Colorado, New Mexico and Utah rivers last August.

A finally tally on comments is expected later Tuesday.

The low number of comments came as a surprise after years of controversy over a Superfund site. Some worried it would hurt the region’s tourist economy or give the federal government too much power over local affairs.