#AnimasRiver: A silver lining to a toxic orange legacy? — Environment America


Here’s a call to action from Environment America (Russell Bassett):

“Catastrophe!” read the local headlines after 3 million gallons of metal-laden muck spilled into Colorado’s Animas River earlier last month.

The spill forced the city of Durango to close its drinking water intake, and local business that depend on the river were shut down for weeks. The spill traveled through Colorado into New Mexico and Utah, creating concerns for drinking water, crops, and wildlife all along its path.

The orange river made international news, but it also helped highlight a problem that is long overdue for a solution. Hard rock metal mining is the most destructive industry in the world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, metal mining is the nation’s top toxic water polluter.

Mining in the western United States has contaminated headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West. Remediation of the half-million abandoned mines in 32 states may cost up to $35 billion or more.

The main reason for this wide-scale degradation of our waterways is an antiquated law that still governs hard rock mining throughout the country. The 1872 Mining Law allows foreign and domestic companies to take valuable minerals from our public lands without paying any royalties, and it still allows public land to be purchased and spoiled for mining at the 1872 price of less than $5 an acre — that’s the price of one mocha for an acre of public land.

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

This outdated law contains no environmental provisions, allowing the mining industry to wreak havoc on water supplies, wildlife and landscapes. For example, abandoned mines are still leaking 540 to 740 gallons a MINUTE of acid drainage into the Animas River headwaters, degrading miles of the watershed. This was the case before the Gold King Mine spill and is still the case after the spill, and there are many more examples throughout much of the West. In fact, it’s estimated that there are half a million abandoned mines throughout the nation.

While the Animas River spill was a tragedy of the first order — and some polluters friends in Congress want to turn it into a witch-hunt of the Environmental Protection Agency — the spill should be the much-needed motivation to enact a solution to clean up after mining’s toxic legacy.

The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR 963) would fix the problem, but, unfortunately, due to the current political situation in both houses of Congress, this bill has basically zero chance of getting passed. And we need action now because several proposed mines throughout the country could be approved before a real solution to mining’s toxic legacy is passed by Congress.

The Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Upper Peninsula Mine near Lake Michigan, Black Butte Mine on Montana’s Smith River, and the Canyon Mine near the Grand Canyon are just a few examples of proposed mines that could wreak havoc on local ecosystems and potentially contaminate watersheds for generations to come.

People from across the country travel to raft and fish in these rivers and lakes. It’s time to protect them from toxic mining pollution. Tax payers are bearing the brunt of cleaning up after the mining industry through superfund designation and other federal funding programs. Using public funds to clean up after a toxic industry, while at the same time allowing that industry to continue to create new mines, is unacceptable. Since Congress won’t do what’s needed, our president should act quickly and decisively.

President Obama has the authority to put a moratorium on all new mines near our waters on public lands. The mining industry should not be allowed to use our public lands to build new mines in and around our cherished waterways until it cleans up from past mining operations. Please tell President Obama to reject all new mine proposals near our rivers until the mining industry cleans up its act. Let’s find the silver lining to the toxic orange river. Please add your voice now.

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton on Thursday [October 1, 2015] expressed concerns with the prospect of federal officials moving forward with a Superfund listing for Silverton near the inactive Gold King Mine.

A divide has emerged over the Superfund question, with some residents and officials of Silverton worried the listing would be a stain on the community. Silverton and San Juan County officials in August clarified their perspective, suggesting that they are open to a listing but that they have not “foreclosed any options.”

In comments before the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, Tipton, a Cortez Republican, stated: “Designating Silverton a Superfund site … could severely damage the town’s reputation and prove costly to the local economy.”[…]

Andy Corra, owner of 4Corners Riversports in Durango, who spoke at the same hearing, pushed officials to pursue a Superfund listing.

“Right now, adding the Animas Basin’s offending mines to the EPA’s Superfund National Priorities List is really the only clear path forward,” Corra said.

Listening to the hearing was Colorado U.S. Sens. Cory Garner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat. They joined Tipton in pushing for good Samaritan legislation, which would allow private and state entities to restore inactive mines without the fear of liability. [ed. emphasis mine]

From the Associated Press via The Colorado Springs Gazette:

A rafting company owner, a county commissioner and a chamber of commerce official told the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee that they don’t yet know the full economic impact of the spill, but it has been devastating so far, scaring away visitors and triggering layoffs at travel-related businesses…

La Plata County Commissioner Bradford Blake said outdoor recreation companies, farms, greenhouses and other businesses that rely on the river and its water suffered immediate losses ranging from $8,600 to $100,000 each. “Clearly, we do not know yet what the long-term impact of the Gold King spill, and the publicity generated by it, might be,” he said.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Navajo Nation leaders on Friday announced they are asking the federal government for a preliminary damage assessment in the wake of the August Gold King Mine spill upstream in Colorado.

Navajo President Russell Begaye on Thursday sent a letter to the Federal Emergency Management Agency seeking the estimation.

Begaye said it is the first step in the application process for public assistance for recovery from a disaster for eligible applicants.

“The spill caused damage to the water quality of the San Juan River to such a massive extent that a state of emergency was declared by the Navajo Nation,” Begaye in the letter. “All of the economic, health, cultural and other impacts to the Navajo people are not yet known.”

#ColoradoRiver: Southwestern Water Conservation District Water 101 session recap #COWaterPlan #COriver

From The Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

The nightmare scenario for West Slope water nerds is a “call” on the Colorado River, meaning that Colorado, Wyoming, and Northwest New Mexico are not delivering a legally required amount of water to California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.

If or when that happens, some water users in the three Upper Basin states will have their water use curtailed so that the Lower Basin states get their share. Water banking as a concept being proposed on the West Slope to minimize curtailment and huge water fights between holders of pre-1922 water rights, which would not be curtailed, and holders of post-1922 rights that would be curtailed.

Durango water engineer Steve Harris spoke to this at the Sept. 25 Water 101 seminar in Bayfield.

The idea started in 2008 with the Southwest Colorado Water Conservation District and the Colorado River Conservation District. Those two entities cover the entire West Slope, Harris said. The idea of water banking is “to provide water for critical uses in cases of compact curtailment.”

West Slope agricultural water users would voluntarily and temporarily reduce their water use and be compensated for it. The water would go to Lake Powell to satisfy the legal requirement for the three Upper Basin states to deliver 7.5 million acre feet of water each year (averaged over 10 years for a total 75 million AF) to the four Lower Basin states and avert curtailment…

All this is dictated by a water compact signed in 1922. It committed 15 million AF per year divvied up between the Upper and Lower Basin states. “Average flow now is around 13 million AF in the Colorado,” Harris said. The result has been continued draw-down of Lake Powell and Lake Mead.

“Right now we are at around 90 million AF versus the 75 million AF over 10 years,” Harris said. If the amount delivered goes below the 10 year requirement, perfected water rights before 1922 would not be curtailed. Most of that is West Slope ag water.

About half of Bayfield’s and Durango’s municipal water is pre-1922 rights, he said. More than 90 percent of the 1-plus million AF of pre-1922 West Slope water is used to grow grass or alfalfa hay.

Post-1922 rights include area reservoir storage, water for coal-fired power plants, a lot of municipal and industrial water, and 98 percent of West Slope water diversions to Front Range urban areas. “So they would be curtailed. But that’s not going to happen,” Harris said, because Front Range residents aren’t going to have their water supply cut to grow hay.

“We want to set up a water bank so the pre-1922 users would set aside water for the post-1922 users. Otherwise, pre-1922 rights could be targeted for acquisition by post-1922 users,” he said.

Water banking is still an idea at this point. “We don’t know if the water bank will work,” Harris said. Two studies have been done, one is under way, and a fourth will be conducted by Colorado State University to look at the impacts on eight small farms of full irrigation, reduced irrigation, and no irrigation.

Harris said 50,000 to 200,000 AF of West Slope pre-1922 water might be able to go into a water bank, based on land that could be fallowed. But there is concern that some other senior water right holder could take the water before it gets to Lake Powell. Also, he said, “It’s very hard to measure water saved through fallowing. Every year is different.”

In contrast, there is an estimated 55,000 AF of critical post-1922 municipal and industrial use on the West Slope and 295,000 AF of critical diversions to the East Slope. “The amount of pre-compact water that might be available is much smaller than the demand,” Harris said. He cited another local issue: “If you don’t irrigate on Florida Mesa, people don’t have water wells.”

An assortment of water entities in the Colorado River Basin have contributed $11 million to do demand management pilot projects to get more water to Lake Powell. Durango applied to change their water billing to “social norming,” meaning how much water you use compared to your neighboors. Harris quipped that he’d pull the norm down because he made a show of removing his lawn back in the spring.

State Sen. Ellen Roberts also spoke at the seminar. “Even though we are a headwaters state, there’s a limited amount of water, and if the population is going to double by 2040 or 2050, where will the water come from? … Every direction from Colorado, there’s a neighboring state that has a legal right to some of our water.”

Eighty-seven percent of the state population lives between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and they like their Kentucky blue grass, she said, adding, “Kentucky is a much better place for it. … On the Front Range, all they care about is does the water come out when they turn on the tap.”

She noted the heated reaction to the bill she introduced in 2014 to limit the size of lawns in new residential developments that use water converted from ag, leaving the ag land dry. Harris initiated that idea. Roberts commented, “To feed their lawns, they need our water.”

As with population, 87 of 100 state legislators also live betwween Fort Collins and Pueblo, she said. “If they don’t come out here to know our world, they don’t appreciate why water is so important. … Water is our future.”

Roberts gave an update on the Colorado Water Plan, which is intended to address the projected gap between water demand and supply. Community meetings on the plan were held around the state last year and earlier this year. “The number one thing we heard was the need for storage,” Roberts said. “If we can’t capture and hold the water we have, we are hurting ourselves.” The next question is how to pay for storage projects. “That’s where the fighting begins,” she said.

The water plan needs more specifics on recommended actions, Roberts said. And after the Gold King spill of toxic mine waste, it needs something about water quality threats from abandoned mines.

The 470-plus page plan is being done by the Colorado Water Conservation Board and is supposed to be presented to the governor by Dec. 10. It’s available on-line at http://www.coloradowaterplan.com.

Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015
Colorado River Basin including Mexico, USBR May 2015

Bayfield: Water 101 session recap

From the Pine River Times (Carole McWilliams):

Two-thirds of the water that originates in the Colorado mountains must go to downstream states and Mexico, recently retired State Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs noted at the Water 101 seminar on Sept. 25 at the Pine River Library in Bayfield.

This includes Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mecico as well as Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922.  (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)
Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

“The legal doctrine is equitable sharing of interstate waters,” Hobbs said. This is governed by an assortment of interstate compacts, starting with the 1922 compact with three upper basin (Western Colorado and parts of Wyoming and New Mexico) and four lower basin states. Compacts are between states, but they become federal law when approved by Congress.

The 1922 compact dictates that 75 million acre feet, averaged over 10 years, must be delivered to the lower basin states. That’s measured at Lee’s Ferry in the Grand Canyon below Glen Canyon dam and Lake Powell. Seventy percent of that water comes from Colorado, Hobbs said.

There are nine interstate compacts governing Colorado water, he said…

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer's office
Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Within Colorado, the hot issue for many years, at least on the Western Slope, has been trans-mountain water diversions to the Front Range. “We are one Colorado. Isn’t that the problem?” Hobbs asked. Before his 19 years on the State Supreme Court, he represented the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District (northern Front Range) for 17 years.

“The water in these rivers is available to Colorado. There’s an overlay of federal supremacy,” he said. There are trans-basin diversions within the Colorado River Basin and around 24 diversions that go from Colorado headwaters to the east, he said.

Colorado water law is based on prior appropriation (first in time, first in right) and putting the water to beneficial use. A water right is conditional until it’s put to beneficial use.

The problem is, “If you can’t get your structure permitted by the Corps (of Engineers) or permits to cross federal land, you can’t put the water to beneficial use,” he said. “Getting the right is one thing; getting the permit to build the project is something else.”

Hobbs also listed a progression of federal laws – the 1862 Homestead Act to promote Western settlement, the 1866 Mining Law that severed water from federal lands and turned it over to states, and the 1902 Reclamation Act that opened the way for Western dam construction projects.

Colorado became a territory in 1861, he said. That year the territoriaal legislature created the right for settlers to build ditches to get water to their land that wasn’t next to the stream. It prevented corporations, railroads and land barons from buying up the river banks to control the water. In 1864, the legislature made prior appropriation the basis for water diversion and use.

San Luis People's Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain
San Luis People’s Ditch via The Pueblo Chieftain

The earliest ditch right was the 1852 People’s Ditch near San Luis. Ute water rights date to 1868, the basis for constructing the Animas/La Plata Project.

“Our (state) constitution from 1876 says the public owns the water. You get a right to use it by prior appropriation,” Hobbs said. “The most valuable rights in the state are water and ditch rights.”

He showed pictures of several historical hand drawn maps of rivers in the mountain region. One from 1841 showed a big blank space of unknown land. The land was considered vacant, at least to settlers coming from back East, he said, noting that Native Americans already lived “from sea to shining sea.”

Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP
Farview Reservoir Mesa Verde NP

Before all those maps, Hobbs showed a picture of Far View Village on Chapin Mesa at Mesa Verde and a nearby structure that he said was a water reservoir. There are four reservoirs at Mesa Verde and one at Hovenweep, Hobbs said. Paleohydrology is one of his interests. “I can’t teach about water law without talking about history, culture, governance. There are enduring problems that go way back,” he said.

“Everywhere across this country there are water features, because water is the basis of life,” he added

Hobbs was just appointed as Jurist in Residence at Denver University. He also serves on the Colorado Foundation for Water Education that publishes the quarterly Headwaters magazine and the Citizens’ Guide to Colorado Water Law.

#AnimasRiver: NM and #Colorado Congressmen draft mining legislation after Gold King mine spill

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

From MiningTechnology.com:

US Senators have introduced a new bill to help the Navajo Nation and communities in north-west New Mexico and south-west Colorado recover from the Gold King Mine spill.

The bill was introduced by US Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado…

Outlining allowable damages, the bill will is aimed at ensuring spill victims can receive compensation for their losses.

An Office of Gold King Mine Spill Claims will also be established within the EPA to carry out the compensation process under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Under the new legislation, the EPA is required to work with affected states and tribes, as well as other relevant agencies to identify the dangerous abandoned mines across the west and establish a priority plan for cleanup.

Agencies have to alert nearby communities and develop a contingency plan in case of a spill before deciding on any cleanup or remediation in an abandoned mine…

Ensuring that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to work with affected communities, the Gold King Mine Spill Recovery Act of 2015 would also require the agency to work with the states and tribes to fund and implement long-term monitoring of water quality from the mine.

Michael Bennet said: “In addition to the acid mine drainage that polluted our river, the disaster took its toll on businesses throughout the region, particularly our recreation and tourism industry.

“This bill ensures that those businesses, individuals, water districts, farmers, and local and tribal governments will be compensated by the EPA for costs they incurred due to the spill.”

Meanwhile, the Animas River Stakeholders Group meets in Durango for the first time in two years. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

The Animas River Stakeholders Group made its way downstream Tuesday, holding its first meeting in Durango in almost two years.

The decision to hold the group’s monthly meeting at the La Plata County Administrative Building was directly related to the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill that has drawn a renewed interest in the mine waste pollution occurring in the Upper Animas watershed.

Peter Butler, one of the coordinators of the group, said it’s now important to weigh the risks of managing a one-time major blowout as opposed to continuous metal loading. He said the ARSG is aware of four other major blowouts in the last 20 years, but preventing such an event can become very complicated. Sites at risk can be hard to identify, because sometimes a mine entrance can appear stable, and a collapse can occur further back in the workings, triggering a blowout.

In the aftermath of the Gold King spill, several departments compiled a preliminary “midnight list” for Gov. John Hickenlooper, identifying the most at-risk mine sites. Of the 230 potential risk sites statewide, 44 are located in the Upper Animas mining district.

But even with those sites identified, the question then becomes what method do you use to prevent such an event, and how much money are you going to spend? Stakeholders also called into question whether efforts should be directed toward continual acid mine drainage, which has longer-lasting impacts on the environment.

“People are focused on a blowout, but when you start talking about what physically you can do about it, it becomes a hard issue,” Butler said. “I’m trying to put that a little bit to the side so we can focus on continuous flow.”

Doug Jamison with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment admitted he is in support of a Superfund, but he said the Environmental Protection Agency and the state health department are offering the designation as only a potential solution. As in past meetings, officials for the two agencies were unable to answer specific questions related to site boundaries, timelines and the promise of funding – stressing the need for more data…

Only a little more than a month since the Gold King Mine discharged 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage, most communities have not reached a consensus on whether to choose a Superfund. Jamison said the community around the state’s most recent Superfund site, Colorado Smelter, took almost a year to decide. However, which communities will factor in to the decision for the Upper Animas mining district’s treatment is still unclear.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via The Durango Herald:

Researchers say they found scattered accumulations of heavy metals along a 60-mile stretch of riverbank in Colorado and New Mexico a month after the Gold King Mine wastewater spill and say that any potential threat to crops and livestock should be studied further.

David Weindorf of Texas Tech University and Kevin Lombard of New Mexico State University said they found patches of discolored sludge containing elevated levels of iron, copper, zinc, arsenic and lead along the Animas River from around Farmington to just north of Durango.

The concentrations of those metals were higher than at other sites they tested on the riverbank and on nearby irrigated and non-irrigated land, Weindorf said.

None of the high readings was found in ditches that carry irrigation water to crops, Weindorf said. Irrigation systems along the Animas were closed before the mustard-colored plume of tainted wastewater drifted downstream after the Aug. 5 blowout at the Gold King…

EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said the agency will review the researchers’ findings. She said the EPA plans its own long-term monitoring project and has asked the affected states and tribes for their input.

Weindorf described his and Lombard’s work as a pilot study and said he didn’t want to cause undue alarm, but he believes soils need to be tested over the long term. Over time, the metals they found along the riverbank could be washed into the river, get into irrigation ditches and gradually build up in the soils of land used to grow food and to graze livestock.

“There’s a risk those metals could work their way into our food chain or the food chain for animals. That’s why we want to do this long-term study,” he said.

Weindorf and Lombard have asked the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to fund a three-year study that would closely monitor five or six sites along the river. They estimated it would cost $750,000 to $1 million. No decision has been made.

Weindorf and Lombard conducted their pilot study Sept. 1-3.

Lombard, who works at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Farmington – where the Animas joins the San Juan River – said researchers also took soil samples from irrigation ditches before the polluted plume passed to compare with future tests…

Asked about that kind of cleanup, the EPA said it doesn’t anticipate any human health problems from contacting or accidentally ingesting river water, and that the risk to livestock was low.

Colorado officials believe risks are low for most human exposure and don’t warrant removing sediment, health department spokesman Mark Salley said.

The department advised avoiding any contact with discolored sediment and water and washing after any exposure.

The New Mexico Environment Department hasn’t reviewed Weindorf and Lombard’s findings but believes contaminated sediment is one of the more serious risks, spokeswoman Allison Majure said. New Mexico is planning its own long-term monitoring.

Gold King Mine’s temporary treatment plant to open by Oct. 14 — The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

The portable plant will treat 550 gallons per minute of water still discharging from the mine in southwest Colorado, according to an Environmental Protection Agency news release. The system, intended to meet treatment needs through the coming winter, will replace temporary settling ponds constructed by the EPA in August…

The portable system is necessary because winter temperatures at the mine’s elevation of 10,500 feet north of Silverton can drop to 20 degrees below zero.

EPA’s contractor, ER LLC, awarded a subcontract on Sept. 22 to Alexco Environmental Group Inc. to do the work.

The treatment system will neutralize the mine discharge and remove solids and metals, the news release says. The EPA continues to evaluate data to determine the impact of the Gold King Mine on water quality.

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)

#AnimasRiver: EPA considers treatment facility — The Durango Herald

Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)
Confluence of Cement Creek and the Animas River from the Coyote Gulch archives (11/21/2010)

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Documents released this week highlight a bidding process that began a little over two weeks after last month’s spill. The request is for a subcontractor to begin work in anticipation of a treatment facility. Water would be piped from the Gold King Mine near Silverton to Red and Bonita Mine and the “future site” of a water-treatment plant in Gladstone.

The EPA tasked Environmental Restoration, LLC with the Request for Proposal. The contractor was performing reclamation with the EPA on Aug. 5 when an excavation error by the team at Gold King caused an estimated 3 million gallons of orange mining sludge to pour into the Animas River. Initial tests showed spikes in heavy metals.

Experts agree that the best solution is a treatment facility, though such a plant would be costly. The EPA offered no cost estimates for such a facility, nor would it say where the funding would come from. A reclamation expert with the Colorado School of Mines told The Durango Herald a temporary treatment plant would cost around $3 million…

“The issuance of a work order doesn’t mean that there has been a final decision to build a wastewater treatment plant. Agency staff initiated the RFP process immediately after the spill so that the procurement process would be well underway if that decision were to be made,” said EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Clair…

“The agency is conducting an analysis to determine if a temporary treatment plant provides a measurable benefit to water quality downstream in the Animas River,” St. Clair said. “The agency is closely coordinating with officials in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Southern Ute tribe, Mountain Ute tribe and Navajo Nation to develop a comprehensive, long-term plan for the Gold King Mine site.”[…]

“The system must be able to be operated all year at elevations between 11,400 feet and 10,500 feet. Extreme cold and heavy snow are to be expected and planned for. The system must be self-contained as there are no amenities on site,” the RFP says.

Meanwhile, the EPA on Thursday released a long-term monitoring plan to evaluate water conditions after the spill. Tests have continued to show that water quality has returned to “pre-event” conditions, though the Animas has long been plagued by inactive-mine leakage.

“This monitoring plan represents the next phase of this important work and reflects our commitment to continue working closely with state, local and tribal officials to evaluate the potential impacts of the spill,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement.

The long-term plan calls for sampling for water and sediment quality, biological impacts and fish tissue under a variety of flow conditions at 23 sites in Cement Creek, the Animas and San Juan rivers and the upper section of Lake Powell within Colorado, Southern Ute Reservation, New Mexico, Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, the Navajo Nation and Utah.

Stakeholders, including state, local and tribal officials, have until Oct. 8 to comment on the monitoring proposal.

The goal is to begin long-term monitoring in the fall. Data would be collected for one year and reviewed to determine if additional steps are needed.

#AnimasRiver: NM Sec. of State claims that EPA kept Gold King Mine spill data secret for weeks

Bottom of Animas River at Durango August 8, 2015 via Twitter and The Durango Herald
Bottom of Animas River at Durango August 8, 2015 via Twitter and The Durango Herald

From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown) via the Farmington Daily-Times:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials refused for weeks to share water-quality data with their state counterparts following a blowout of toxic wastewater from a Colorado mine that fouled rivers across the Southwest, New Mexico’s top environmental regulator testified Thursday.

The move by federal agencies aimed to downplay the severity of the spill, hobbling the state’s response to the high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants involved in the spill, New Mexico Secretary of Environment Ryan Flynn said.

His criticisms, aired before a U.S. House committee investigating the Aug. 5 accident, offered more fodder for congressional Republicans eager to find fault with a federal agency they perceive as having an anti-business agenda…

EPA spokeswoman Laura Allen said water-quality test results were made public on the agency’s website as soon as they were validated. The EPA has closely coordinated with state officials and American Indians from the Navajo Nation, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes to keep them apprised of the test results, Allen said.

But Flynn said the EPA’s warning about the pollution came belatedly, and it was followed by incomplete testing data presented in a way that minimized the presence of contaminants above drinking-water standards. He called it a “PR stunt” by the EPA…

Flynn said he remained concerned about contaminated sediments harming the environment, and a long-term monitoring plan offered by the agency is inadequate. That echoed concerns raised by Navajo President Russell Begaye, who questioned the EPA’s role overseeing the response to a spill that it caused.

Thursday’s hearing before the House committees on Natural Resources and Oversight and Government Reform was the fourth this month examining the spill. Republican lawmakers have used the events to bash the EPA for its handling of issues ranging from climate change to the protection of streams.

Democrats have sought to put the focus on the mining industry and ongoing pollution from tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the country…

The Colorado spill came from a cluster of century-old mines in the San Juan mountains that together discharge an estimated 330 million gallons of toxic wastewater annually, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified. That’s over 100 times more pollution than the Gold King spill.

“We were trying to get a handle on a situation that was growing increasingly dangerous,” McCarthy said. “This is not the EPA’s … finest hour. But I am here to tell you that we are taking responsibility.”

She added that mining companies contribute “close to zero” money to help clean up such sites, under an 1872 mining law that the administration of President Barack Obama has proposed to change…

McCarthy responded that she did not believe the law had been broken, but a review of the accident needs to be completed before a final determination. An Interior Department investigation of the spill is due in late October. The EPA Inspector General’s office is conducting a separate review.

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

The 3-million-gallon blowout of mine waste last month didn’t cause a massive die-off of trout in the Animas River, but wildlife officials are still concerned about the steady decline of fish populations over the past decade.

In August and early September, Colorado Parks and Wildlife crews conducted a survey of trout numbers in sections of the Animas near Durango and Silverton.

“We did it last year, and normally we skip a year,” Parks and Wildlife spokesman Joe Lewandowski said at the time. “But because of the spill, our biologists decided it’d be a good time to do it again, and see what’s going on.”

A prepared statement from the Parks and Wildlife on Tuesday said the survey did not show effects on fish from the mine spill, but the results did provide a “mixed picture” for trout.

In Durango, officials saw an increase in the overall biomass of fish, but aquatic biologist Jim White said that’s because Parks and Wildlife stocks about 40,000 fingerling trout every year.

Two segments – from the La Plata County Fairgrounds to the Ninth Street Bridge, and from Cundiff Park to the High Bridge – met the “Gold Medal” water status for biomass, a standard of 60 pounds of fish per surface area.

But overall, the river did not meet the Gold Medal status.

Fish greater than 14 inches improved slightly from 2014 – from nine to 11 fish per acre – but the Gold Medal standard is 12 fish longer than 14 inches or more per acre.

Parks and Wildlife officials said the number of large fish remains low, and trout have shown little signs of natural reproduction, issues that wildlife experts have been combating for almost 10 years.