#AnimasRiver: A consensus strategy for mitigating Cement Creek is coming together

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

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

Officials are edging closer to recommending a Superfund listing in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill after closed-door meetings Friday.

Gov. John Hickenlooper met with officials from Durango, Silverton and San Juan County late Friday afternoon. After the meeting, the governor said it appears stakeholders are on board to pursue the designation.

“These communities have made it clear that a Superfund designation is the most viable path to address pollution in the affected area and protect our public health and environment,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re all working around the clock to ensure that remaining points of negotiation are resolved in time for the March Federal Register listing in order to move this process forward.”

The governor has until Feb. 29 to meet a deadline extension to propose a new Superfund site in San Juan County.

Local officials are also hopeful that they are getting close to offering a formal opinion on the Superfund designation, which would culminate in a vote by Silverton and San Juan County elected officials. The communities delayed a vote in late January.

There are some outstanding issues to work out, including securing assurances that impacts to the town would be mitigated and ensuring a seat at the table for local governments. But San Juan County Administrator William Tookey believes the area has gone through a bit of an evolution on the subject.

“There’s been a perception that because we haven’t gone out and requested Superfund that we were somewhat anti-clean water, which we haven’t been,” Tookey said, underscoring that the local governments simply wanted assurances. “We recognized that … if in fact a treatment plant is a solution, the resources weren’t there without a Superfund site.”

[…]

Also Friday, the EPA met separately with tribal, state and local government officials for several hours to update them on the spill and plans for monitoring the affected waters.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff, who represented the county at the meeting, said it was the first time that all stakeholders got together in one room since the spill, including representatives from Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

Even though the meeting concerned public safety, including discussing next steps for a water monitoring plan, the agency opted to close the meeting, citing a legal opinion.

“We reviewed potentially applicable laws and did not find anything. The Sunshine Act does not, by its terms, apply,” an agency spokesperson told The Durango Herald in an email when asked why the meeting was not open to the public.

At the Friday meeting, EPA researchers released a preliminary analysis of water quality to describe the release, transport and final destination of the acid mine drainage. Results must be peer reviewed by an external panel during the week of Feb. 22. The report is expected to be completed by mid-March.

“We estimate that, by the time the plume reached the lower Animas River, the metal load in the plume was roughly equivalent to one day’s worth of high spring runoff,” the preliminary report states.

Researchers say “hot spots” of metal contaminants in the lower Animas and San Juan – unrelated to the spill – may warrant further investigation.

“It may not be possible to isolate the specific effects of the GKM event from the ongoing cumulative effect of multiple sources of metals from past or future runoff,” the preliminary report states.

In September, the EPA released a draft monitoring plan to evaluate pre- and post-event conditions. Sampling activities include water and sediment quality and biological and fish analyses in Cement Creek and the Animas. Cement Creek is a tributary of the Animas.

The EPA plans to collect the data for one year to review results.

Westendorff, however, said outstanding concerns remain with how the monitoring plan will take into account spring runoff, which could begin in as few as six weeks.

“My takeaway is there isn’t a plan now,” Westendorff said. “I hope they can get something worked out because people downstream are getting restless.”

The EPA says it is working on a long-term, robust strategy.

The EPA spokesperson, in emailed responses to questions, added: “Attendees also assessed tribal, state and local interest in collaborative approaches to monitoring water quality and solicit ideas for structuring a water quality monitor program across the watershed going forward.”

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

Environmental experts say spring runoff not a concern for dredging up sediment laced with metals from Gold King Mine spill

“When you have more spring runoff, you have a lot more turbulence, so sediments can get remobilized,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group.

“However, usually the lowest metal concentrations we see throughout the year are during spring runoff, and that’s because you have so much dilution. So I’m not really expecting an issue.”

Scott Roberts, an aquatic biologist with Mountain Studies Institute, said water samples from the Animas during storms in October show little sign of increased metal concentrations.

“I think most people were concerned with the sediment not only deposited around the river margin, but also at the bottom of the channel,” he said. “But it’s amazing how much it seems to already have washed off with the few storms we’ve had. You don’t see a lot of evidence left.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s temporary water treatment plant can handle 900 to 1,200 gallons per minute. Currently, the facility treats only discharges from the Gold King Mine, which averages 525 gallons per minute.

Mine discharges usually increase in the spring because of more ground water movement but are diluted in the runoff.

“But we may be dealing with a whole different ground now,” Butler said. “Nobody really knows what the flows are going to be like. That’s why the EPA oversized the treatment there, so they have the capacity to handle it.”

[…]

In the meantime, state health officials are developing a notification stakeholder group to address how best to notify local governments and agencies if a spill occurs.

Health officials added a second monitoring station on Cement Creek above the confluence with the Animas River. The department is coordinating with federal agencies on a long-term monitoring plan for the entire watershed.

“We’re very lucky the disaster did not have a long tail,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told The Durango Herald. “The consequences aren’t as dire as many of us first thought.”

Still, state water experts say they don’t have a full picture of the impact the spring runoff might have.

“I don’t know, and that’s a problem for me,” said Patrick Pfaltzgraff, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. “I want to have some certainty, and where I don’t have certainty as a water quality professional, I want to have some process in place to respond to that.”

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill 6 months later — The Durango Herald

This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]
This image was taken during the peak outflow from the Gold King Mine spill at 10:57 a.m. Aug. 5. The waste-rock dump can be seen eroding on the right. Federal investigators placed blame for the blowout squarely on engineering errors made by the Environmental Protection Agency’s-contracted company in a 132-page report released Thursday [October 22, 2015]

From The Durango Herald:

On Aug. 5, 2015, contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated wastewater into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River. Six months later, questions about the effects of spring runoff, Superfund status and remediation remain unanswered.

Coyote Gulch has been reporting since August 5. Here’s the link to the Animas River category. Take a little scroll back in time.

#AnimasRiver: Durango sends letter to Colorado governor in support of Superfund — The Durango Herald

Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood
Animas River through Durango August 9, 2015 photo credit Grace Hood

From The Durango Herald (Jessica Pace):

Mayor to meet Friday with Hickenlooper

As Silverton and San Juan County officials continue struggling with the terms of Superfund designation, Mayor Dean Brookie said the city of Durango sent a letter this week to Gov. John Hickenlooper supporting National Priorities Listing for a Silverton-area mining network, pointing to concerns about water quality for Durango residents.

“What Durango needs might be different from what Silverton needs,” Brookie said. “This is not to upstage Silverton in any way, but the 20,000 people on our water system, compared with the repairs needed on our water system, creates vulnerability for next summer. This is a way to make sure we have a safety net in the event of another spill.

“This is fairly urgent on our part, and independent of Silverton action.”

[…]

Last month, the La Plata County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution of support for Superfund designation. Commissioner Julie Westendorff has expressed in public meetings that she thinks La Plata County should take a supporting role to Silverton’s lead, though Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said she would support sending pro-Superfund communication to the governor ahead of Silverton.

However, all commissioners are unanimous in their support for Superfund.

Brookie said he will meet with the governor on Friday to discuss Durango’s needs.

Two water wells in Security shut down as precaution over chemical — The Denver Post

Typical water well
Typical water well

From The Denver Post (Kieran Nicholson):

Concerns over a chemical found in water wells in El Paso County have resulted in the shutdown of two wells as a precautionary measure.

The chemical known as PFOA has been detected in two wells in the Windmill Gulch aquifer.

Those wells have been voluntarily shut down, Security Water District manager Roy Heald said last month in a Fountain Valley News Facebook post.

In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected PFOA in 94 public water systems in 27 states, including wells in Security, Widefield and Fountain.

The chemical, used in Teflon, can cause cancer, birth defects and heart disease, and weaken the immune system.

The Security wells in question pump water into a tank that “commingled” with water from the Fountain Valley Authority, diluting the Windmill Gulch water to safe, acceptable levels, Heald said in the post.

Still, the two wells have been “turned off indefinitely,” and Security will consult with the EPA on “how to move forward.”

The well in Fountain is a backup, used only in peak water use times, during summer months, said Fountain Utilities director Curtis Mitchell.

PFOA readings at that well have never exceeded EPA standards, Mitchell said Tuesday night.

Water from the Fountain well in question also commingles with other water — from the Pueblo Reservoir, the chief surface supply for Fountain — when it enters the system, Mitchell said.

Fountain will continue to monitor its water on a “voluntary” basis, Mitchell said. Fountain water recently met with the Colorado Department of Health and Environment to probe and discuss the situation.

At this time of year, Fountain doesn’t use well water…

Widefield average levels are .034 ppb, “which are well below” the maximum recommended level, the district said.

Gore Creek cleanup plan nears approval — The Vail Daily

From The Vail Daily (Scott N. Miller):

State officials in 2012 placed Gore Creek — as well as a number of other mountain-town streams — on a list of ecologically impaired waterways in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean the creek is the equivalent of a Rust Belt river that can catch fire. Still, humans have affected Gore Creek’s aquatic life — particularly bugs that are the food supply for fish.

To help repair that damage, town officials have been working for some time on a plan called Restore the Gore. The plan’s design so far has included working with consultants, the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and residents. The plan has also been the subject of six hearings at the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. The Vail Town Council is the final step to putting the plan — and its 217 recommended actions — into place. Council members Tuesday took a close look at the plan, with an eye toward final approval at the board’s March 15 evening meeting.

MINIMIZING POLLUTANTS

The plan in its current form has a good bit of regulation in it — including what people can spray on weeds they’re legally obligated to control.

But a majority of the recommendations fall into two categories: specific projects and management practices.

The identified projects cover nearly the length of Gore Creek, from the Interstate 70 runaway truck ramp nearest to town to the parking lots at the town’s two supermarkets. The projects run the gamut from restoring creekside vegetation to creating an artificial wetland area — a natural pollutant filter — to catch cinders falling off of I-70 to working to treat runoff from supermarket parking lots.

Gary Brooks, an engineer who is part of the town’s consultant team, said the idea behind all of the projects is to either dilute or interrupt pollutants that would otherwise make their way into the stream.

EDUCATION IS KEY

Education and management practices are similarly broad. Vail Environmental Sustainability Director Kristen Bertuglia said education is a significant part of virtually every element of the plan, from helping homeowners to teaching the landscaping companies those property owners hire.

Those educational efforts seem to be well-received so far. Bertuglia said an informational meeting for landscaping companies in 2015 drew between 80 and 100 people, most of whom were company owners.

Landscape companies that take a sustainable landscaping class — organized in cooperation with the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and scheduled for the spring of this year — can earn a creek-friendly certification from the town. Those companies can use that certification in their own efforts to line up clients for the coming season.

And residents in general seem interested in learning more, Bertuglia said.

“I’ve been inspired by how the community has gotten behind this effort,” Bertuglia said.

VAIL RESORTS INVOLVEMENT

Responding to a question about Vail Resorts’ involvement in the plan, Bertuglia said the environmental team from the company has been involved in drafting the plan, and this winter has moved one of its major snow piles on the valley floor so it will have less impact on the creek when the pile melts.

PRICE TAG FOR PROJECTS

All of these efforts will cost money, of course. Just one project — the stormwater treatment project at the I-70 truck ramp — has an estimated price tag of more than $150,000. Better treatment of runoff from the supermarket parking lots will certain cost more. Another project, a 2017 redo of Slifer Plaza, carries an estimated price of more than $1.3 million, much of which will be spent on replacing an aging storm sewer that runs from north of the Vail Village parking structure into the creek.

The best use of taxpayer money will be a key element of the plan.

State provides $9.4 million for small community wastewater and drinking water system improvements

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

Thirty-two drinking water and wastewater systems in small communities throughout Colorado will receive a total of $9.4 million to fund planning, design or construction of public water systems or treatment works necessary for the protection of public health and water quality.

Governmental agencies, nonprofit public water systems and counties representing unincorporated areas with fewer than 5,000 people were eligible to apply for grants up to $850,000. Funding was provided by the state Legislature under Senate Bill 09-165 and SB14-025.

In the event a recipient cannot accept the grant in whole or part, available funds will be distributed per the small communities grant program rules. This list is subject to change based on contract negotiations.

cpdheawardssmallwaterprojects

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Three Pueblo communities are among 32 entities receiving $9.4 million in state grants for planning, design or construction of water projects.

The Colorado Department of Health and Public Environment announced the funding this week. It is available to small towns or water systems serving fewer than 5,000 people.

Boone, located east of Pueblo, will receive $850,000, which will be used to upgrade its water system.
The town is looking for an alternative source, because its wells suffer from water quality issues, said Mayor Robert Ferriter.

Rye, located southwest of Pueblo, will get $440,000 for its water system. The town has been improving its water system since 2009, when it was under a boil order.

The Avondale Water and Sanitation District will get $596,057 to make sewer improvements.

“We were happy to get it,” said Bert Potestio, president of the district. The grant will be matched by local funds and used to lift water to treatment lagoons. “We plan to start work as soon as possible.”
Several other area water and sanitation providers also are tabbed to receive funds. They include: Pritchett, $185,000; Manassa, $15,000; La Veta, $850,000; Manzanola, $253,328; Baca Grande Water and Sanitation, $88,300; Costilla County (Garcia Water), $99,816; Sheridan Lake Water Co., $609,568; Patterson Valley Water Co., $150,500; Fowler, $304,355; and Bristol Water and Sanitation, $94,500.

EPA blamed for delay on Superfund in Silverton — The Durango Herald

Cement Creek aerial photo -- Jonathan Thompson via Twitter
Cement Creek aerial photo — Jonathan Thompson via Twitter

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo)

Frustration for failing to meet a Jan. 31 deadline to be considered for a Superfund listing this spring was evident Tuesday night in Silverton, but the town’s hired attorneys assured elected officials negotiations have not derailed.

Meetings early this week were supposed to lead up to a Thursday decision on whether Silverton Town trustees and San Juan County commissioners would direct Gov. John Hickenlooper to request Superfund status for the mining network north of town responsible for degraded water quality in the Animas River.

Instead, that vote was canceled Monday, and a Town Hall hearing on Tuesday saw much of the same rhetoric in meetings past: the need for more information.

Jeff Robbins and Paul Sunderland, attorneys representing the town of Silverton in Superfund negotiations, chalked up the delay to the Environmental Protection Agency’s slow-moving bureaucracy.

“We’ve given them our position,” Sunderland said. “The ball is now in the EPA’s court.”

Three points of contention stand between federal intervention on the mines loading heavy metals into the Animas watershed: the actual boundaries of the Superfund, a reimbursement for costs associated with the Gold King Mine blowout, and an assurance local entities will have a say in future decision-making.

Robbins said the chance of making the EPA’s March review of Superfund sites is “very much still in play,” but the process is solely contingent on hearing back from the federal agency on the unsettled terms.