#AnimasRiver: How Are Farms Affected? — Modern Farmer

Animas River photo via EPA
Animas River photo via EPA

From Modern Farmer (Gabrielle Saulsbery and Andrew Amelinckx):

Joe Wheeling, a co-owner of the James Ranch in Durango, Colorado, tells Modern Farmer that they rely almost exclusively on water from the Animas River for their irrigation needs. Their crops went without water for “three or four days” before the EPA agreed to provide them with water from Durango, but he says “it’s not a huge amount.”

Wheeling runs the The Gardens at the 400-acre ranch, along with his wife Jenn. They grow organic produce, flowers, and herbs. There’s also a dairy and grass-fed beef cattle operation there. He says that because they had ponds at the ranch they were able to water the cattle from there, but that “it’s impacted our irrigation and grazing cycle.”[…]

Trying to get an exact number on the farms and ranches impacted by the spill hasn’t been an easy task since information is still coming in from the various agencies…

A contact at the United States Department of Agriculture tells Modern Farmer that it’s still gathering information and doesn’t have any final data on what farms are affected, or how many, but that its county field offices are “communicating with producers in the interim to assess local conditions.”

The agency is “monitoring conditions closely to gather information on potential agricultural needs. That will let us know what might be necessary, or possible,” the source said.

What we do know is that in Colorado, there was a period of between three and seven days when irrigation water was shut down to an estimated 2,500 acres of land, and while that’s tough on crops, it’s the potential residual effects from the heavy metals that are more worrisome. And as of now there’s no way to quantify those effects…

Wheeling says they are taking it slowly when it comes to returning to using the river for irrigation purposes and will be looking for a variety of indicators before they do. Until then they’ll continue to use the water that’s being driven over from Durango to water their crops. He says the ranch invested in a sand filtering system for the farm a couple of years ago, which should help with providing clean water when they do return to using the Animas River.

“We’re pretty confident that that will filter out whatever remaining sediment might be there. We’re not just jumping into things. We’re being cautious,” he says by phone. “At the end of the day it’s the trust our customers have in us and we take that trust very seriously.

Mine Spills Not That Rare — Colorado Central Magazine

From Colorado Central Magazine (Christopher Kolomitz):

The blowout reminded Central Colorado residents of two eerily similar incidents that fouled the Arkansas River in 1983 and 1985. The toxic discharges on the local river occurred in a period of time when the Environmental Protection Agency was beginning Superfund clean-up of old mines around Leadville. The culprit of both discharges was the Yak Tunnel, which was one of three constructed to drain mines in the district.

Leading up to Superfund designation, the years of inaction were becoming a public health emergency. Drainage ditches in Leadville neighborhoods were turned orange or red because of the heavy metals coming from the historical mines. Annual discharge from the Yak Tunnel was pumping 210 tons of heavy metals into California Gulch, which was then reaching the river, according to the EPA.

A few days after the incident, the river through Salida was running clear but state wildlife officials were worried about the impact upon the brown trout spawn, and they estimated up to half of the eggs may have been lost, the local paper reported. Subsequent research found that high levels of cadmium prevented fish from living more than three or four years, wildlife officials said.

Threat of another catastrophic discharge surfaced once again in February 2008, when alarm was raised over the potential blowout of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. Tunnel collapses and blockages had created a potentially dangerous situation for an uncontrolled surge. In response the EPA drilled a relief well, which worked to reduce the danger.

Twelve specific cleanup units were identified as part of the Superfund designation and to date, seven have been wrapped up to a point where regulators are calling them deleted from the operational plan. Examples of the process include construction of water diversion channels and settling ponds to prevent heavy metals from reaching surface water, and consolidation of smelter waste and mine tailings which were then covered with clean soil.

At the Yak Tunnel, a water treatment plant has been credited with dramatically improving water conditions in the Arkansas River, and the overall cleanup has been hailed as a success, although the EPA has ruffled some local feathers. The river now supports a vibrant, healthy fishery with greater public access, and the residents of Leadville and downstream are living around less toxicity.

CDPHE: Trout from the Animas River safe to eat, tests show


Here’s the release from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (Meghan Trubee):

Fish tissue sampling by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have determined trout from the Animas River are safe to eat. Most fish tissue analyzed after the Gold King mine release showed metals below detectable levels. All results were below the risk threshold. Levels of mercury, selenium and arsenic in rainbow and brown trout were within the range of levels in fish previously sampled in the state. The results most likely represent background levels, not a change in levels because of the Aug. 5 mine spill.

Fish samples were compared to EPA regional screening levels in a manner similar to risk assessment of water and sediment from the Animas River. Risk assessment focused on short-term health effects since the mine spill was a short-term event. Because there is a potential for fish to concentrate metals in their tissue over time, the department and Colorado Parks and Wildlife will continue to monitor levels of metals in Animas River fish. New data will be analyzed and results reported when available.

More information on the Gold King mine release is available at: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/animas-river-spill

Mining reclamation may be a pipe dream — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Part of the dilemma has to do with money. Estimates place national reclamation of inactive mines as high as $54 billion. Mining laws that govern the industry in the United States date back 143 years. The federal government is prohibited from collecting royalties on much of hard-rock mining, thereby leaving the coffers dry for reclamation.

Congress is expected to take up legislation that would allow the government to collect royalties, though the measure faces an uphill battle in a Congress plagued by political gridlock. Even still, there is the underlying issue of inadequate technology to address.

Reclamation work remains a pretty rudimentary process. For cleanup crews to really make a long-lasting impact, they must get beyond the opening of the mine. Back during the mining boom of the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was little engineering. Dams were installed, including a pile of material, and behind it was waste products, residual water and chemicals.

“You’re looking at the potential of these sort of hastily put together dams bursting, and the older they get, the more frequently that’s going to occur,” Cohen said.

For a mine to be properly restored, workers must address the waste rock pile, which includes all the rock that didn’t have enough ore to be worthy of processing. This material likely has a lot of pyrite in it, which can make acid mine drainage after it mixes with oxygen and water. This material is on the land surface.

There’s also tailings storage to address, which is the waste from processing the ore that took place to harvest metals. This fine texture also is on the land surface.

The waste piles – built on top of local soil – contained no liners and can be more than 1,000 acres large and taller than 300 feet.

“The idea was make gravity your friend. If we can dump it down someplace, rather than haul it far and up, we’re in business, and it’s less costly,” Cohen explained. “In the old days, that was their modus operandi.”

These waste piles must be moved to a place that has been properly prepared in a large pit lined with clay or a high-density polyethylene liner. A neutralizing material – like lime – is placed on the bottom of the acid-generating material and then on top of it. It is topped with another clay liner to spur vegetative growth. Some call it the “tailings burrito.”

But these pits will likely fail eventually, and there is usually a body of water running through it, which is problematic for water quality.

Often, a bulkhead, or reinforced concrete plug, is constructed at the mine opening. But this is a temporary solution at best. As Cohen pointed out, “water has this nasty habit of finding the path of least resistance.” The water simply finds its way through other openings, such as fractures in rock.

The bulkhead is really just a way to delay while money is sought for more permanent reclamation work. The ultimate solution is a treatment facility that could cost as much as $20 million to construct and another $1.5 million per year to operate 24 hours a day. The facility usually must be built at high altitudes in remote, difficult terrain.

But with a treatment facility, workers can control pipes in the bulkhead and adjust the flow of water so that it can be treated, offering a more permanent solution.

The EPA said that it is exploring building a treatment facility near Gold King in the wake of the spill. Groups have been calling for a treatment facility in the Upper Animas Mining District for years. Pollution from inactive mines has long contaminated Cement Creek near Silverton, which runs into the Animas. A treatment plant operated in the 1990s. But in 2004, the water-treatment facility was shut down.

In the meantime, EPA officials said water from Gold King is being captured and treated at a system of impoundments before being discharged to Cement Creek. Authorities have constructed four ponds at the mine site, which are treating water to remove as much metal loading as possible.

As Cohen pointed out, the government has few options.

“Even some of these treatment systems, what you see is these very basic systems,” he said. “We’re talking about a hole in the ground that’s lined where you throw some lime in. That’s only going to go so far.”

#AnimasRiver: Antiquated mining law hamstrings cleanups — The Durango Herald


From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Outdated hard-rock mining laws enacted in the 1870s tie the hands of the federal government to curb pollution that contaminates water supplies, as was the case with the Gold King Mine spill.

Perhaps the most significant deficiency comes in the form of a “free and open” provision of the Mining Law of 1872, otherwise known as a “right to mine.” Limited reforms have been made to the law over the last 143 years, leaving in place a provision that prohibits the federal government from blocking a mine from opening or even collecting royalties from operations.

The law also left little to government regulation, falling in line with the theme of Manifest Destiny from Western expansion in the 19th century. When the nation’s mining laws were crafted, the goal was settlement, not environmental regulation.

“The 1872 mining law is the freest ride of all free rides on the books,” said Roger Flynn, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law and the director and managing attorney of Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit that handles hard-rock mining cases…

Just who holds the liability remains unclear. Flynn said some of the responsibility rests with the mine’s owner, Todd Hennis. Some liability also may fall on the EPA, which became a sort of operator when it began working there.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Gold King, near Silverton, became inactive in the 1920s. But the neighboring mine of Sunnyside also is entangled in the web. The mine became inactive in the 1990s, and ownership at the time reached an agreement with Colorado to install bulkheads in the mine. Since that mine was dammed, wastewater in nearby mines has increased.

Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Kinross Gold, entered into a consent decree, allowing for the mine to continue to leak heavy metals, while the company agreed to costly reclamation projects.

Judging by the disaster earlier this month, overall efforts have not been enough, which begs the question: How did it get to this point?

The simplest answer is money. The Mining Law of 1872 allows companies to extract billions of dollars worth of precious metals – such as gold and uranium – pay no royalties and avoid liability for environmental damage in several situations. Without the royalties, there is limited government funding for reclamation, and few burdens are placed on the companies themselves.

Over the years, beginning in the 1970s, the federal government began to take action on environmental issues, enacting laws around clean water and endangered species. But companies have found loopholes. One example is hiring experts to vouch for water quality.

Because the federal government is charged with the “free and open” provision under mining laws, officials often default to this clause. In other words, if the experts say the water is safe, and the government is obligated to let a company operate, then there’s little recourse for regulators.

An option for reclamation is declaring an area blighted with a Superfund listing, which opens the doors to funding. But as was the case with Gold King, communities sometimes resist the federal listing, as they fear it leaving a stain. Flynn said the end result is a government that is rendered impotent.

“The 1872 mining law makes mining the highest and best use of the land,” he said. “Whatever minerals you find on that are free. … Agencies will say we can’t say no to the mine no matter how destructive, unless you can prove there will be a Clean Water Act violation on Day 1.”

The irony, of course, is that those violations don’t occur until well after operations have begun.

“The feds don’t have the ability on public land to say no – no matter how bad the idea is, how bad the place is – because of the 1872 mining law,” Flynn said. “So, they permit these things all over … and they allow potential pollution.”[…]

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is not so sure that the answer is additional regulations, suggesting that there are new technologies out there that allow for cleaner mining activities. Coram has years of experience in hard-rock mining, having owned several mines, including uranium.

“I don’t think the problem lies with what we’re doing today. … That changed. We do a lot better,” he said.

“I’m not comfortable with the EPA being in charge,” Coram said. “I would much rather that federal funding goes into letting the state run those projects.”

Meanwhile Durango and parts thereabouts are worried about the spill and its affect on the economy. Here’s a report from Jonathan Romeo writing for The Durango Herald. Here’s an excerpt:

Some fear the frenzy of images broadcast around the world when the Animas River turned a sickly orange for more than 12 hours could have an effect for years to come.

“Stigma is the perception of the public, even after fixing the problem,” said Tom Alleman, an attorney at Dallas-based Dykema Cox Smith. “The Animas had brand damage.”

Alleman told the crowd of about 20 people Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel that the state of Colorado does allow individuals to file claims for compensation for stigma damages, but those kinds of situations aren’t common and can be subjective.

He said the law lists stigma damage as an event that is not “reputationally enhancing,” and in the case of the Gold King Mine spill, that might be easier to prove.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director at the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said it’s too early to tell the long-term effect the spill will have on the city’s tourism industry, but there is no denying the hit river-related businesses took in the immediate aftermath of the blowout.

“We definitely saw an impact, and it directly affected the river-rafting industry. It was like shutting down Main Street at Christmas time,” Llewellyn said, referencing the fact that August is a critical revenue month for summer tourism businesses.

Llewellyn added that just the other day, a woman bringing 20 senior citizens to the area called ahead to ask if the water was safe to drink, and it’s that skepticism he fears might influence other visitors to choose a different destination when making vacation plans.

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Owner Al Harper said the train suffered some cancellations at first, but ridership rebounded rather quickly. Most of the railroad’s projected 183,000 riders come from outside Durango.

He’s more concerned about how stakeholders of the mining network north of Silverton will implement a wastewater-treatment plan.

And that brings in yet another layer of “stigma” in connection to the Gold King Mine spill: a Superfund listing, which is an EPA program that cleans up hazardous waste sites.

Since the spill, there has been considerable pushback from Silverton residents who believe visitors will fear and avoid the small tourism town if it is designated a “Superfund” site and prefer to explore other options.

However, those in favor of the Superfund argue the stigma of a town that refuses to clean up once and for all a history of unregulated mining regulations that have tainted the Animas for decades is far worse.

Harper, who also owns a hotel in Silverton, said residents of the town may be more open to the Superfund designation if the EPA draws clear lines of where the boundary extends.

“Let’s face it, the city limits of Silverton have not been polluting the river,” he said. “We need to make clear the mining area is a Superfund; Silverton is not.”

#CleanWaterRules Litigation Update: Let’s All Just Take a Breath — Jon Devine

Photo via Aspen Journalism — Brent Gardner-Smith

From Switchboard (Jon Devine):

If you’re following the legal fallout from the Obama Administration’s finalization of its initiative to protect critical streams and wetlands – called the Clean Water Rule – you were probably on the lookout for action this week. (And, you’re a bit odd. It’s OK – me too.)

That’s because the rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Gina McCarthy, and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, signed back in May, was scheduled to take effect today.

That didn’t entirely happen as planned, due to a single court ruling yesterday. More on that in a minute, but first some background to provide context for my ultimate message in this post: this is just part of the process, and there is no need to overreact to a preliminary ruling in one case…

What Happened [last] Week

In the run-up to the rule’s implementation date today, a number of the parties that sued the agencies claiming that the rule is too protective of the nation’s water resources asked four trial-level courts to block the rule from taking effect. One of these courts, in Oklahoma, where two cases were pending, granted the federal government’s request weeks ago to put those cases on hold while the government seeks to have the cases transferred and consolidated in Washington, DC. The other three courts – located in Georgia, North Dakota, and West Virginia – all issued rulings this week. (All but one of the remaining district courts with pending challenges from state or industry opponents have postponed any further proceedings in the cases, at the federal government’s request. Similar requests are pending in the challenges that the conservation groups have filed.)

Of the three courts that issued rulings this week on opponents’ requests to delay the rule, two of them, the Northern District of West Virginia and the Southern District of Georgia, both refused to grant the delay and held instead that the cases should be heard by the appellate court.

That leaves one court – the District of North Dakota – which ruled yesterday that it both has the jurisdiction to decide the case and that it should temporarily prevent implementation of the rule while the case is more fully argued. The court concluded that the state plaintiffs in that case, led by North Dakota, were likely to prevail on their legal claims that the rule was too protective, and that the states would be harmed by the rule taking effect.

Although we are still reviewing the decision closely and evaluating our options for next steps, we profoundly disagree with the court’s conclusion that the extraordinary remedy of an injunction is justified here, and are disappointed that the rule’s implementation will be delayed, at least to some extent. Every day the rule is not in force in a given place, the streams, ponds, and wetlands that people swim in, fish from, boat on, and depend on for drinking water are at unnecessary risk of being polluted or destroyed.

At the same time, let’s see this ruling for what it is – a temporary delay in one of a dozen or so cases. Indeed, the agencies have explained that the Clean Water Rule will take effect today for those states not involved in the North Dakota litigation. And, even in that case, proponents of the Clean Water Rule will have additional opportunities to explain why the rule’s safeguards are well within the bounds established by the Supreme Court and are supported by the voluminous scientific evidence of the importance of the waters that the rule protects.

Consider a recent point of reference: the Affordable Care Act was found to be invalid by some different courts when it was similarly challenged in a number of places. At the end of the day, however, it was twice upheld by the Supreme Court, and is now the law of the land.

Cases such as that, plus the certainty that the Clean Water Act authorizes the agencies to protect those water bodies that significantly affect downstream waters, give me confidence that, despite the delay in this instance, the cases attacking the rule as too protective will ultimately fail. When that happens, the rule will remain in place with necessary protections for the health and well-being of our families and communities, as well as our prosperous fisheries and tourism industries.

Inhale, exhale, repeat.