Click here for the inside skinny.
From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):
Environmental Protection Agency officials said Wednesday in a meeting with La Plata County and Durango city officials that funds will be awarded to the governmental entities within the next couple of weeks, though the precise amounts to each won’t be apparent until next week…
Reimbursement to businesses, such as local rafting companies, which took a hit last summer when the river was temporarily closed to recreation, is a separate matter, which Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said will be in the spotlight next week on the spill’s one-year anniversary…
In other updates:
EPA officials said in the coming months, crews will be investigating polluted tributaries around the Bonita Peak Mining District and whether they have the potential to support fish habitat.
Dan Wall, an environmental risk assessor on the Superfund team, said these studies will be “more specific to the physical habitat” than data collection done in previous years by other entities, including the U.S. Geological Survey and the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
In the months ahead, Superfund site manager Rebecca Thomas said the agency is planning a process called an engineering evaluation cost analysis, which will determine the need for and feasibility of continued operations at the Gladstone water-treatment plant.
The plant is a temporary facility intended to operate until fall 2016.
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
Federal steps toward a Superfund cleanup still consist mostly of meetings. The EPA decision on whether to designate the Gold King and other nearby mines a national priority disaster — crucial to secure cleanup funds — still hasn’t been made.
While the Gold King blowout boosted awareness of the tens of thousands of dormant mines draining into western waterways, Congress continues to debate remedies, failing so far to create a national cleanup fund and reduce Clean Water Act liability to encourage voluntary cleanups.
And Colorado lawmakers, too, have been considering the problem but haven’t yet acted to increase state mining regulators’ capacity. State inspectors have not begun planned visits of 140 leaking mines, those causing the worst harm along more than 1,800 miles of streams classified as impaired.
“The Gold King Mine release has prompted some activities, like the draining mines inventory and characterization efforts through the Mining Impacted Streams Task Force — but no new money for the Inactive Mines Program that the program wouldn’t potentially have received absent the Gold King release,” said Ginny Brannon, director of Colorado’s Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
“There’s nothing we can do now that we could not do before,” Brannon said.
So what is the overall legacy, one year later, of the Gold King disaster? It prompted Silverton and San Juan County to reverse their long opposition to a federally run cleanup. Numerous local forums have been held for planning what might be done. But conditions at the Gold King and hundreds of other inactive mines, steadily contaminating waterways to the point that fish cannot reproduce, remain the same as on Aug. 5, 2015, when EPA-led contractors botched efforts to open the portal and triggered a 3 million-gallon deluge.
“There’s much more awareness about the issue of abandoned mines,” said Peter Butler, chairman of the Animas River Stakeholders Group that for two decades drove efforts to deal the acid metals draining into mountains above Silverton.
Conservation groups acknowledged the lag but are hoping robust conversations after the disaster will lead to getting cleanups done.
“We really need a sense of urgency on this. Many of these old mines are leaching poisons into our rivers, day in and day out,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s southwestern Colorado coordinator.
“It’s good to see some momentum in Washington, D.C. to address two big needs: liability protection, and funding for mine cleanups. We’re eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work on cleanups, but we need the tools to do it,” Churchwell said, referring to efforts by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, and Rep. Scott Tipton, to push legal changes that would hold mining companies more accountable. “The sad truth is, mining pollution is forever. We need a sustainable, long-term fund for dealing with this long-term problem.”
No one at EPA has been punished. The Gold King site coordinator, Steve Way, retired in June. He was on vacation on Aug. 5, 2015, and fellow EPA coordinator Hays Griswold led efforts to gain access to the Gold King. A Government Accountability Office investigation and an internal EPA probe, demanded by House Republicans, haven’t been completed…
Nor have owners of the Gold King and adjacent Sunnyside mines been cleared as potentially responsible parties. Gold King owner Todd Hennis, and Canada-based Kinross, owner of Sunnyside, could be forced to pay cleanup costs if the EPA decides on a Superfund cleanup…
EPA officials would not discuss their efforts.
That agency has made internal changes to be more careful around toxic mines. EPA chiefs this year issued orders that, whenever anyone is working to open up a collapsed mine that could release fluids, senior officials in Washington D.C. must sign off first. EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus issued a statement saying “additional consultation, coordination, and technical review prior to site work being conducted will help minimize the potential for uncontrolled fluid releases.”
Yet in other ways the EPA approach, working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, still involves considerable expense and delay. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, visiting Colorado after the spill, vowed greater transparency. The agency communicates with reporters mostly through prepared statements, discouraging direct conversations, with instructions to reporters to attribute statements to officials. Neither McCarthy nor Denver-based regional director Shaun McGrath were made available for interviews.
And requested public documents — The Denver Post asked for Gold King-related records on Aug. 20, 2015, under the Freedom of Information Act — still are being reviewed by agency lawyers who said they are limiting the requested documents to about 75 that the EPA deems “responsive” and then redacting portions of those documents.
CDPHE water qualify officials have not received any new funding to deal with mines draining into streams, the agency’s senior hydrologist Andrew Ross said. However, the Gold King Mine incident has led to “a more coordinated effort between local, state and federal agencies that will, over time, be more successful at addressing water quality impairments from abandoned mines,” Ross said.
This month, EPA officials announced they’d work at the Gold King portal and 30 feet inside, the stabilization initiated after the EPA-run crew triggered the disaster. “EPA initiated these stabilization efforts immediately following the August 5, 2015 release and continued efforts through November 2015, when winter weather inhibited further action,” according to an agency statement attributed to spokeswoman Nancy Grantham.
EPA crews have been sampling water and sediment and the agency gave funds for locals to test water. The EPA also is working on plans for “stabilizing a waste pile on site and installing steel bracing and concrete to continue stabilizing the portal,” the statement said. “This work is designed to prevent collapses and ensure safe access for future work.”
EPA officials said the portal should be safe by October.
At other toxic mines, EPA-run cleanups typically take more than 20 years.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and local leaders repeatedly have urged EPA officials to commit to keep running a temporary water treatment plant below the Gold King, reducing contamination of Animas headwaters until a final cleanup is done.
EPA officials say they’ll run the treatment system until November, but that they haven’t decided what to do after that.
“The EPA’s water treatment plant at the Gold King Mine is operating now to protect Colorado’s waterways and communities. We are assisting EPA on mine sites in the area and on the national priority listing, and we trust that cooperation will continue,” Hickenlooper said.
“We’re working with the EPA and others to ensure that an appropriate long-term plan is in place that ensures the health and safety of our waters and communities. The temporary water treatment facility is one part of that process.”
In Washington D.C., environment groups steadily pressed for a more aggressive approach to the mines that pollute western waterways.
“The main thing that has changed” is that the problem has received attention, said Alan Septoff of the advocacy group Earthworks. “In Congress, both the left and the right have focused attention on the issue of abandoned and inoperative mines in a way that hasn’t occurred since the early 1990s,” Septoff said.
From The Lakewood Sentinel (Glenn Wallace):
A recent sunrise saw Joe Centeno, a maintenance plumber with Jefferson County schools, already busy at work at Arvada’s Peck Elementary, changing out water cutoffs, connector lines and fixtures in hopes of improving the water quality.
The district’s effort to test water outlets at all 158 schools for high lead levels found 10 elevated level sites at the 50-year-old school — a sink in the teachers’ lounge, three sinks in the kitchen and six classroom sinks, some of which had bubbler drinking attachments.
“This is the guinea pig,” Centeno said. “We’ll see if this works.”
His best guess as a plumber was that the repairs should fix the problem, based on the scattered lead readings, as opposed to schoolwide contamination that would have required more extensive and expensive replumbing.
From KOAA (Jessi Mitchell):
Venetucci Farm announced it would suspend the sale of its produce due to concerns over contamination in the Widefield aquifer.
The farm pumps its water from a well attached to the aquifer, and it was among the first properties to be tested for contamination. Those results are still pending, which led to Friday’s decision.
The EPA’s latest advisory level for PFCs is equivalent to one teaspoon of chemical in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. It may not sound like a lot, but in drinking water there are proven health impacts. Scientists are still studying fruits and vegetables grown with the water, but restaurants like Tapateria in Old Colorado City are hoping for the best.
“I think we just had some beets in about two weeks ago,” says Tapateria chef Jay Gust of his dealings with Venetucci Farm. He gets much of his meat and produce from southern Colorado growers.
“There’s been a huge push in getting local farmers into restaurants and I think it’s great and we definitely need it,” says Gust. “We need more of it, and hopefully this is just a mild speed bump and get back on track and just keep on pushing local cuisine.”
The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers tell Venetucci managers it could be up to two more months before there are any conclusive answers showing just how many, if any, PFCs show up in fruits and vegetables grown on the farm. So far, the EPA only advises pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid drinking contaminated water, but there are no advisories for food at this point.
The farm’s owner, Pikes Peak Community Foundation, is acting in an abundance of caution. CEO Gary Butterworth says, “The concern was in our distribution to restaurants that we would not be able to communicate that, convey that to the end user, so we have not been providing products to restaurants directly for a period of time.”
Here’s the release from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation:
The Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF) has decided to temporarily suspend sales and distribution of Venetucci Farm products until results from water, soil and produce testing are complete.
Venetucci Farm draws its irrigation water from the Widefield Aquifer, which recently was deemed to have exceeded health advisory limits for perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) levels by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“While we do not believe there are any health risks associated with the consumption of Venetucci Farm products, it is with the best interest of the community in mind that we have decided to temporarily suspend sales and distribution of our products while we gather additional information and data,” said Gary Butterworth, CEO of the PPCF. “We are awaiting more conclusive water, produce and soil test results to inform our decisions moving forward. We feel this precautionary measure is the best course of action based on the information we have today.”
The Foundation will continue to work with officials in Widefield, Security, Fountain, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the El Paso County Public Health Department as these agencies and municipalities gather additional data.
ABOUT VENETUCCI FARM
Located on the southwestern edge of Colorado Springs, this historic 190-acre urban farm, known as the “Pumpkin Farm” was established by the Venetucci Family in 1936. In later years, Nick and Bambi Venetucci were known for giving away thousands of pumpkins each fall to area school children.
Wanting to preserve this valuable piece of land as a farm, the Venetuccis put it into conservancy and gifted it to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation in 2006. Thanks to the generosity of the Venetucci Family and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, Venetucci Farm is a working farm committed to growing healthy food and providing positive experiences for the Colorado Springs community.
ABOUT PIKES PEAK COMMUNITY FOUNDATION
The Pikes Peak Community Foundation (PPCF) was founded in 1996. The Foundation creates custom-designed charitable gift funds for individuals, families, and businesses, including donor-advised funds, donor-designated funds, endowment funds, memorial funds, and scholarship funds, providing flexible and inexpensive alternatives to setting up private or family foundations. PPCF also makes grants to support nonprofit organizations and community projects for the benefit of our community and stewards Venetucci Farm and Aspen Valley Ranch. For more information, visit http://PPCF.org.
From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):
Some 200 of the unique cutthroat trout were removed from Hayden Creek
State wildlife officers on Wednesday rescued rare cutthroat trout from a creek in the Hayden Pass fire burn area, quelling concerns about their possible extinction because of the blaze.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife says many of the rare fish — with genetic links to the iconic, pure greenback cutthroat trout — were taken from the fire zone to an isolation chamber at the Roaring Judy Hatchery near Gunnison.
Officials were worried ash and sediment from the Hayden Pass fire would wash down into the lower prong of Hayden Creek, where the fish live, strangling their oxygen and food supplies. However, videos taken from the rescue mission show wildlife officers removing several of the trout from the stream.
The trout that live in the creek share a unique genetic anomaly with a cutthroat found in the Smithsonian Museum and said to have been taken from Twin Lakes near Leadville in 1889, CPW says.
Fire commanders say the trout mission on Wednesday resulted in the netting and removal of 200 fish. One of the firefight’s main objectives has been to protect the fish as much as possible.
From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Jakob Rodgers):
Private well owners and people in several small water systems south of Colorado Springs will be eligible to receive the bottled water, said Steve Brady, a base spokesman.
Those places include the Fountain Valley Shopping Center, Security Mobile Home Park and NORAD View Mobile Home Park, according to the installation’s news release.
“It’s in place as an interim solution until they can figure out a long-term solution,” Brady said.
The water distributions will not include people relying on larger water systems, such as the Security Water & Sanitation Districts, the Widefield Water and Sanitation District and the city of Fountain, Brady said. That is because the smaller systems “don’t have any other options,” he said.
Thursday’s announcement is part of a $4.3 million initiative by the Air Force to address the presence of perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in drinking water across southern El Paso County.
The bulk of that money is expected to be spent on granular activated carbon filters installed on wells tapped into the contaminated Widefield aquifer, which runs along Interstate 25 from the Stratton Meadows area to Fountain and extends east to the Colorado Springs Airport.
The filters are viewed as vital to keeping contaminated water from flowing to the three larger water systems. But the filters are expected to take months to install, and no announcements have been made on how many filters water systems in Security, Widefield and Fountain will receive.
In the meantime, each water district has been working to reduce their reliance on the aquifer, often by pumping in PFC-free water from the Pueblo reservoir. That strategy has allowed Fountain to wean itself completely from the aquifer.
Security and Widefield, however, cannot meet demand without using contaminated well water – meaning some residents, particularly those along the western portion of each community, still receive PFC-laden tap water.
One stopgap measure for Widefield involves a water distribution site for people living along the community’s western edge.