#AnimasRiver: Acid mind drainage, “almost impossible to fix and it lasts forever” — High Country News

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage via Animas River Stakeholders Group
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

Here’s a report from Jonathan Thompson writing for the High Country News. Click through and read the whole thing and check out Thompson’s drawings explaining acid mind drainage and the geology of the area. Here’s an excerpt:

While there are a variety of ways that mining can pollute watersheds, the most insidious and persistent is acid mine drainage, which is really a natural phenomenon exacerbated by mining. Acid mine drainage was the root cause of the Gold King blowout, and it plagues tens of thousands of abandoned mines across the West. It’s almost impossible to fix, and it lasts forever…

…the early settlers also were struck by the reddish orange color (like the Animas River after the “spill”) of some of the mountains. They were also struck by the same orange in some streams during times of high runoff, streams that were lifeless even then. Indeed, an observer in 1874 noted that Cement Creek was “so strongly impregnated with mineral ingredients as to be quite unfit for drinking.”[…]

Mining begins. The tunnels follow veins of gold or silver deep underground. The adits (horizontal tunnels) and shafts (vertical tunnels) intersect the cracks and faults through which groundwater had run toward springs. The groundwater follows the path of least resistance: The new mine adit. Whereas the cracks and faults are mostly anaerobic, or free of oxygen, the mine is relatively rich in oxygen. Meanwhile, the water as it flows through the mine runs over deposits of pyrite, or iron sulfide. Water (H2O) meets up with oxygen (O2) and pyrite (FeS2). A chain of reactions occurs, one of the products being H2SO4, otherwise known as sulfuric acid. The result is acid mine drainage, water that tends to have a pH level between 2 (lemon juice) and 5 (black coffee).

So now there is acidic water running through the mine. And since the mine follows the metals, so does the water, picking up the likes of zinc, cadmium, silver, copper, manganese, lead, aluminum, nickel and arsenic on the way. The acidic water dissolves these metals, adding them to the solution. After the water pours from the portal (mine opening), it percolates through metal-rich waste rock piled up outside the portal, picking up yet more metals. Next, the water may run through old tailings or leftovers from milling ore and pick up yet more nasty stuff. The soup that eventually reaches the stream is heavily laden with metals and highly acidic. It is acutely and chronically toxic to fish and the bugs they eat.

#AnimasRiver: EPA crews have cleaned up access road issues after Gold King mine release

Gold King Mine access road  August 2015 via the EPA/Twitter
Gold King Mine access road August 2015 via the EPA/Twitter

#AnimasRiver: EPA documents detail frightening Gold King Mine scramble — The Durango Herald

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A large SUV in the upper-left is barely visible because it is submerged in the initial deluge of contaminated wastewater Aug. 5 at the Gold King Mine — photo EPA via The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The EPA-released documents include a detailed chronology of events leading to the Aug. 5 blowout, which resulted in an estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater streaming into the Animas River. An EPA-contracted team was working on reclamation at Gold King Mine near Silverton when excavation work resulted in the disaster.

Stunning photos taken of the incident document how a leak quickly turned into a flood of mustard-yellow sludge flowing into a creek then the river from a hole about 10 feet wide by 15 feet high. The leak was first noticed about 10:51 a.m. The muddy water flowed around trucks and heavy equipment used by the team, clearly taking workers by surprise as they ran for safety and to save trucks and equipment, according to a contractor’s memo of the incident. The name of the contractor was removed from the document.

As the access road washed away, the team realized that a vehicle had been parked in the line of the rushing water. The vehicle would not start following the water damage. Meanwhile, the water continued to pile up.

Some of the team left on foot to get picked up and taken to an area with phone service to notify authorities. It took more than 90 minutes for a team member to get to a location where he could notify authorities. There were no satellite phones at the site, though workers were able to use two-way radios.

Meanwhile, a Flight for Life helicopter flew overhead, photographing the alarming situation. It turned out the helicopter was not there for the incident, but instead was related to a tourist who was injured on Corkscrew Pass…

All the while, pH readings plummeted, leading the team to believe that it had caused a major water disturbance.

It took the team nearly five hours to reconstruct a temporary road to remove equipment and personnel, according to the document.

The event actually began on Aug. 4, when the team was clearing away rubble in front of the “plug” that ultimately gave way. An email released by the EPA describing the chronology states, “Because all this was unconsolidated material it was considered safe to remove, it was not buttressing the plug.

“We were constantly and carefully watching for and closely inspecting the digging for indications of the plug,” the email continues.

The document was redacted by the EPA, removing the name of the team member who sent it. He was described as an EPA on-scene coordinator.

The rock face of the wall was described as a “puzzle,” with the email stating that material had to be removed just to see the plug.

On the morning of Aug. 5, the team saw the outer face of the plug, which appeared dry and solid, but they couldn’t get close because of dirt from overhead. There was no change in water flow at the time, according to the email.

“Keeping in mind that the mine should be assumed to be full of water – that is backed up to the top of the plug or higher – we did not want to get anywhere close to the top of the plug,” the email from the team states.

The team needed to determine where the bedrock was to plan a safe approach to the plug, and that is where the problematic excavation work happened.

When the leak was spotted, the team first assumed it was a rock spring.

“On as close inspection as I dared, I could see that the clear water was spurting up not down. A couple of minutes later red water began to flow out from near that spot. …” the email states. “In a couple of minutes it became obvious there was a lot of water coming.”[…]

“EPA is establishing a longer term watershed monitoring strategy for the surface water and sediments that have been affected by the Gold King Mine spill to identify potential long-term impacts working closely with state and local officials,” EPA officials said in the release.

#AnimasRiver: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye OKs resuming irrigation for three chapters — Farmington Daily-Times

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

From the Farmington Daily Times (Noel Lyn Smith):

Farmers in the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters of the Navajo Nation were cleared Thursday to resume using San Juan River water for irrigation soon.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye gave the directive Thursday night to open the the Fruitland Irrigation canal, which delivers water from the San Juan River to the three chapters. Begaye made the announcement during a meeting with chapter officials and farmers inside the Nenahnezad Multipurpose building.

The chapters have been without water since the canal was shut down in response to the Gold King Mine spill…

In a presentation, Begaye said the entire canal will be flushed before irrigation can start.

“You’ll have water that’s good for irrigation,” the president said.

Begaye added that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency will continue monitoring the water quality, and collecting soil and water samples for testing.

Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy said flushing could start as soon as he receives the written directive from the president’s office.

Colorado Is Cleaning Up Its Toxic Mining Legacy, One Creek At A Time — KUNC

LegacyMineWorkCDPHE

Here’s report Stephanie Paige Ogburn writing for KUNC. Click through for the photos. Here’s an excerpt:

…Kerber Creek, is just a small piece of the legacy left by hard rock mining across the West. When Tang-colored water spilled from a mine into the Animas River, it caught the nation’s attention. Yet unknown to most, there are people who work day in and day out cleaning up the many hundreds of abandoned mine sites across Colorado. This sort of mine cleanup work is a seldom never-ending process, fraught with logistical challenges, financing problems, even the looming threat of lawsuits.

To understand what killed Kerber Creek, it’s helpful to drive 15 miles above Wagner’s ranch, into the mountains where miners tunneled and blasted searching for gold, silver, and copper over 100 years ago. You’ll pass hillsides bored through with abandoned mine tunnels. Old mine structures, like the Cocomongo Mill and mine, and piles of rocky waste dot the landscape.

Operations at Cocomongo ended in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The mill is giant. The piles of mine waste around it are equally impressive.

Much of mine waste is referred to as tailings, pea-sized rocks that were processed by miners. That, along with larger waste — stained yellow, orange, white, gray, brown — reaches many stories high. It almost looks like the mountain was turned inside out…

The Rawley 12 tunnel and rehabilitation site once gushed orange, acidic water into Squirrel Creek, then down into Kerber Creek. The tailings below were difficult enough to walk on that some workers used snowshoes so they wouldn’t sink in.

It took hundreds of dump trucks to remove the tailings mess. The Fish and Wildlife Service, working in conjunction with a couple handfuls of state, local and federal agencies, had to build a holding pond to store and treat the mine wastewater as they worked. Workers also had to rebuild part of the mine tunnel here before they could plug it. It’s hard, expensive work.

“Sometimes mine restoration looks a lot like mining,” Archuleta said, showing off a picture of workers in hard hats and head lamps.

Today, the tailings have been trucked away and safely stored. Native grasses and plants have sprouted, and tiny evergreens are beginning to colonize the bare soil. Archuleta points to the ground.

“Dandelions are growing here, dandelions are actually a good sign because they will not grow in metals enriched soils.”

All this had to be done before any restoration could happen lower down, at the creek running through the Wagner’s ranch. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service started a cleanup at the ranch…

Finding that money is an ongoing problem for these large scale cleanups. One solution could be requiring existing mines on public lands to pay royalties, said University of Colorado law professor Mark Squillace.

“You could easily impose a fee on the tonnage that is produced from these mines to fund a program to reclaim hardrock mines.”

That would take legislation, though, which is unlikely, said Squillace.

Liability is another issue, since groups that take on big cleanups can be sued if they can’t bring a creek up to Clean Water Act standards. That limits groups like Trout Unlimited’s ability to take on certain types of cleanups. So-called “Good Samaritan” legislation to address these problems has been proposed, including by former Colorado senator Mark Udall, but has failed to pass.

The highly visible spill on the Animas River has led to renewed calls to update these laws. Those involved say Good Samaritan legislation could be hard to get right, for a couple of reasons. First, changes to the law would need to ensure it didn’t over protect mining companies who could reopen mines, make money, and then hide behind Good Samaritan liability protections. Second, because it involves opening up the Clean Water Act for modification, some on the environmental side are worried the law could be weakened through the amendment process.

Back at the Wagner ranch, an excavator clangs as it lifts giant boulders and places them in the creek, stabilizing the bed and preventing erosion. That heavy equipment will also till in lime to neutralize the soil, and compost to help plants grow. Since the rehabilitation work began, Carol Wagner said she’s seen a huge difference.

“And now there’s trout living here in the creek and a lot of wildlife are here, and it’s just changed everything,” she said.

That cleanup has been decades in the making. For Colorado to deal with its abandoned mine problem, this work has to happen over and over, in various iterations and circumstances. The state Division of Mining Reclamation and Safety estimates out of the 22,000 abandoned mines across the state, 500 of them are currently polluting the water down below. It will take decades to address the problem, one mine tunnel and creek at a time.

EPA: Sediment a “long term” concern in Colorado mine spill’s wake — The Denver Post

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 Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

Environmental officials said Thursday their long-term concern after the 3 million-gallon Gold King Mine spill centers around the metallic sediment left in its wake.

Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency says it is worried about the “effect of metals deposited in sediments in the entire watershed and their release during high-water events and from long periods of recreational use.”

The EPA mentioned the concerns as part of a data release accompanying 77 pages of documents chronicling the minutes and hours before and after the agency-triggered spill…

Experts say metals lining the riverbed could continue to cause long-term effects for agriculture, aquatic life and other life-forms along the Animas River.

The EPA specifically has been studying concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury in surface water.

The acidic heavy metals that flooded into Cement Creek in Silverton and the Animas River through La Plata County after the spill initially broke state water quality limits.

The new data comes after the EPA on Wednesday released an internal review of the events leading up the Gold King spill showing crews underestimated waste pressure behind the mine’s collapsed opening.

The report called the underestimation of the pressure the most significant factor leading to the spill.

According to the report, had crews drilled into the mine’s collapsed opening, as they had done at a nearby site, they “may have been able to discover the pressurized conditions that turned out to cause the blowout.”

Water Lines: Animas River mine waste spill in context — Hannah Holm

Gold King mine entrance August 2015 via the EPA
Gold King mine entrance August 2015 via the EPA

From The Grand Junction Free Press (Hannah Holm):

On Aug. 5, about 3 million gallons of contaminated water burst out of an abandoned mine above Silverton and sent a plume of cloudy, orange water down Cement Creek to the Animas River, through the heart of Durango, and on into the San Juan River in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah. Downstream: Lake Powell.

The plume of acidic orange water, containing arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals, had built up as a result of “wild west” mining activity dating back to the 1870’s, as well as work to plug some mines, which ultimately redirected contaminated water into other mines. The massive plume was set loose by workers for the US Environmental Protection Agency attempting to assess and remediate the source of an ongoing trickle of pollution from the Gold King mine.

Immediate impacts appear to be less dramatic than the appearance of the water suggested. Colorado Parks and Wildlife held fish in cages in the Animas River to see if exposure to the plume would kill them, and it didn’t. The Mountain Studies Institute reports that the small bugs that live in the stream bed and make up the base of the aquatic food chain are holding on at sampling sites in the Durango area.

In terms of human health impacts, drinking water intakes on the Animas and San Juan Rivers for Durango, CO, Farmington, NM and other communities were shut off before the plume arrived. These communities relied on stored water and other sources until they were cleared to begin diverting and treating from the rivers again.

Medium-term, irrigators forced to forego irrigation from the rivers for over a week could face crop damage. Rafting companies took a hit as people were kept off the river during the peak rafting season and may still be wary. People are still being advised not to eat fish from the rivers, pending the results of testing for levels of contaminants that may have accumulated in their tissues.

Long-term impacts are harder to assess, since health impacts to both people and wildlife depend on the level and duration of exposure to the contaminants. It’s clear that the heavy metals will settle out into the sediments on streambeds and the bottom of Lake Powell, but it’s not clear how concentrated the contaminants will be and to what extent they will move back into the water column in response to storms and floods.

In assessing how this catastrophe fits into the overall regional water picture, it is instructive to zoom out geographically and look back in time. The 3 million gallons of contaminated water from the spill translate to a little over 9 acre-feet of water. This quantity is dwarfed by the approximately 13 million acre-feet currently in Lake Powell, despite the fact that it is only 54 percent full. Particularly given that the heavy metals will increasingly drop into the lake floor as the water slows down, impacts to the Grand Canyon and downstream water users should be minimal.

Looking back in time, Jonathan Thompson points out in a web article for High Country News (“When our river turned orange”) that pollution of the Animas River from mines has been a problem for over 100 years, with previous dramatic blow-outs, and waxing and waning impacts to fish as remediation efforts have gained and lost ground.

Looking ahead, this latest catastrophe may stimulate more comprehensive solutions to this long-standing problem, in the Animas Watershed and around the region.

The Colorado Geological Survey inventoried abandoned and inactive mine sites on National Forest lands across Colorado between 1991 and 1999. Of the 18,000 mine features they inventoried, 900 presented environmental problems significant enough for future study. About 250 of those were found to be causing significant or extreme environmental degradation. Priority watersheds were identified in the Animas, Uncompahgre, Arkansas and Rio Grande headwaters.

Fortunately for the Grand Valley, the inventory did not identify any mine features on the Grand Mesa National Forest that were causing environmental degradation. The Grand Mesa National Forest is the source of most of our drinking water. However, problematic sites do exist in the Gunnison National Forest.

Cleanups of leaking abandoned mines have been hampered by the fact that many of the companies that established and worked the mines no longer exist. Nonprofit watershed groups often take on these problems, but are hampered by a lack of resources and liability concerns — which the Gold King blow-out demonstrates are not just hypothetical. Additional federal government resources can come with “Superfund” designations, but communities often shy away from the stigma associated with such a designation, which had previously been proposed for the upper Animas. Communities may now reassess the dangers of the potential stigma of a Superfund designation in light of the flood of publicity that has attended the orange plume descending the Animas and San Juan Rivers.

This is part of a series of articles coordinated by the Water Center at Colorado Mesa University in cooperation with the Colorado and Gunnison Basin Roundtables to raise awareness about water needs, uses and policies in our region. To learn more, go to http://www.coloradomesa.edu/WaterCenter. You can also find the Water Center on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WaterCenter.CMU or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WaterCenterCMU

LegacyMineWorkCDPHE