Navajos sue feds over Gold King Mine spill — The Durango Herald

The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)
The orange plume flows through the Animas across the Colorado/New Mexico state line the afternoon of Aug. 7, 2015. (Photo by Melissa May, San Juan Soil and Conservation District)

From the Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:

Leaders of one of the nation’s largest American Indian tribes blasted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as their attorneys sued Tuesday, claiming negligence in the cleanup of the Gold King Mine spill that tainted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye stood on the bank of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico and explained his people’s link to the water and the economic, cultural and psychological damage inflicted in the wake of the August 2015 spill, which occurred in an inactive mine north of Silverton.

“EPA, we’re holding your feet to the fire,” Begaye said, promising that generations of Navajos are willing to fight. “We will not let you get away with this because you have caused great damage to our people, our river, our lifeblood.”

[…]

The Navajo Nation joins New Mexico in pursuing legal action over the spill. The state of New Mexico sued the EPA and Colorado earlier this year, citing environmental and economic damage.

Tribal officials at the news conference and in the lawsuit pointed to delays and resistance by the EPA, saying the agency has failed to compensate Navajos for their losses or provide any meaningful recovery efforts over the past year.

The EPA has dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the spill and for monitoring, but much of that is going toward stabilization and ongoing drainage at the mine. Reimbursement of state, local and tribal costs is underway, but the tribe has received only a fraction of the nearly $1.6 million doled out to all the parties.

Begaye said Navajo farmers have felt the brunt of the spill. Some crops went unplanted this year and cultural practices such as the gathering of corn pollen were skipped…

He called the actions of the agency, its contractor and the mining companies reckless and reiterated his disappointment that Navajos have yet to receive a phone call or letter of apology from President Barack Obama.

Navajo officials said the government has denied repeated requests for everything from compensation for farmers to resources for long-term monitoring and an on-site laboratory for real-time testing of river water.

“They have not done a thing,” Begaye said during his impassioned address.

While the lawsuit doesn’t include an exact dollar figure for damages the tribe is seeking, Begaye said Navajos are owed “millions” and that the scope of the contamination is still unknown.

A criminal investigation into the spill is being conducted by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Justice Department, but it’s unclear how long that probe could take.

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill (Part 2)

Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.
Bulkheads, like this one at the Red and Bonita Mine, help stop mine water discharges and allow engineers to monitor the mine pool. Credit: EPA.

From Colorado Public Radio (Ann Butler):

A federal criminal investigation into the spill is now underway, and local governments and businesses are frustrated with the slow pace of compensation from the EPA one year later.

Matt Wilson, owner and operator of 4 Corners Whitewater, estimates he lost about $30,000 in revenue last year because of the spill. His was one of about six Colorado rafting companies affected from canceled trips and no customers for over a week.

“So after that it was hard to kind of reboot and get people back on the water after all that publicity,” Wilson said.

Wilson is now one of 68 individuals and businesses across Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Navajo Nation that filled out financial claims with the EPA.

Samples show water quality on the Animas River has returned to pre-spill conditions and the 2016 summer rafting season has been strong. But Wilson and others are still waiting to hear back on their claims.

Durango City Council member Dean Brookie said his city’s government is in another holding pattern. It spent over $440,000 responding to the spill. The tab includes everything from water-quality monitoring to “personnel that we assigned to the clean-up effort.”

He said Durango’s budget is strong without those funds, but other smaller communities may not have as much in reserves.

EPA Response

Laura Jenkins, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency continues to work with local governments on reimbursing costs.

“We’re limited by what the regulations allow us to reimburse communities for,” said Jenkins. “They have to meet the requirements that are in the statutes.”

The EPA says laws like the Clean Water Act govern what is reimbursable for communities. Overall it has spent $29 million responding to the spill, with $3.7 million going to local governments to reimburse expenses like overtime pay and local water quality monitoring.

There are other issues that aren’t covered, and in some places like New Mexico, talks have broken down.

“It was just continual failed efforts,” said Tania Maestas, Deputy Attorney General for Civil Affairs in the New Mexico Attorney General’s office.

New Mexico sued the EPA this spring and the state has received $1.64 million from the EPA so far. The agency has made another $5.67 million available in unallocated funds to the state, but Maestas said it only covers a fraction of $130 million in estimated damages. The lawsuit covers everything from water quality monitoring to payment to local businesses for their losses.

“It’s our experience that the EPA met all these requests with either challenges, resistance or delays,” Maestas said about local business owners frustrated with the claims process

Maestas said other states could follow New Mexico’s path to court.

The Navajo Nation may be at the front of that line. Last August, it hired the California law firm Hueston Hennigan LLP to represent its claims. Attorney John Hueston said the firm has pursued multiple avenues resulting in some payment, but at the one year mark he said the window for cooperation is closing and the time for legal action is quickly approaching.

Rock cracked Cotter pipeline; contaminants contained at mill site — The Pueblo Chieftain

Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency
Lincoln Park/Cotter Mill superfund site via the Environmental Protection Agency

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Tracy Harmon):

Cotter Corp. Uranium mill officials say a leak that dumped about 7,200 gallons of contaminated water on the mill property was caused by a rock that punctured a hole in a feeder line.

The feeder line connects to the main pumpback pipeline above a Soil Conservation Service dam that helps prevent rainwater runoff from leaving the mill site. The pipeline carries contaminated water that seeps past the earthen dam and returns it to an impoundment.

“When Cotter personnel excavated the area of the leak, a large rock was discovered above the feeder line. The rock had punctured the pipe, causing the leak,” said Stephen Cohen, Cotter Mill manager.

“Because the puncture and associated crack were small, only a relatively minor percentage of the total actually leaked. Most of the flow continued into the pumpback pipeline,” he explained.

Cotter maintains a pressure monitoring system on the pumpback pipeline that deactivates pumps in the event of a sudden, large pressure drop. However, the feeder is isolated from the main pressure monitoring system, Cohen said. The leak could have occurred on Saturday and continued for 48 hours until workers discovered it on Monday.

It is believed that none of the contaminated water seeped off the mill site, according to Warren Smith, a state health department spokesman.

Cotter officials are replacing the broken section of pipe and the feeder line should be reactivated today, Cohen said. The main pumpback system continues to operate, Smith said.

Because leaks formed in the main pipeline on two separate occasions late last year, Cotter and state health officials are working to finalize a proposal to build a new pipeline.

“Cotter’s original plan does not include replacing any feeder lines. Because this line has broken, however, company (officials) plan to replace this entire section of feeder line when they replace the main pipeline,” Smith said.

Federal and state health officials also are working with Cotter representatives to come up with a plan to clean up and decommission the now-defunct uranium mill site.

The #AnimasRiver one year after the #GoldKingMine spill

Click here to read the first Coyote Gulch post about the spill.

Click here to view a video retrospective from the The Durango Herald.

Here’s a photo gallery from The Denver Post.

Ann Butler’s article in The Durango Herald explains that the, “Gold King Mine spill recovery better in some areas than others.” Here’s an excerpt:

The full impact of the Gold King Mine spill on Aug. 5, 2015, may not be known for years on any front, and recovery is far from over. And some of that isn’t environmental, governmental or economic – it’s healing invisible trauma in the people and communities affected…

“If there’s good news to a bad news story, awareness of the river, the river basins and how it all works is through the roof,” said Bob Kunkel, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office. “Not only from a local level or a Colorado level, but the whole western U.S. level. That is really going to pay some dividends because none of us understood the spillage was ongoing.”

[…]

Real-life lessons
If there was another silver lining to the spill, it was the material it provided for teachers and professors. Several Durango School District 9-R schools, including Durango and Big Picture high schools and Escalante Middle School, Animas High and Mountain Middle charter schools and Fort Lewis College incorporated the spill in science, math and humanities courses.

“As an educator, the event of it inspired me to localize my curriculum, and it was more meaningful to them,” said Jessica McCallum, junior humanities teacher at Animas High. “The students, on reflection, said, ‘Wow, this is really complex.’ Some students are very deeply affected still.”

McCallum’s students interviewed more than 70 people, including second-graders, decision makers and tourism employees, about the spill for Story Corps and met with high school students in Silverton to understand the spill from a different point of view. The interviews are available online, and they tell the story from many perspectives.

Some common themes were: Distrust of and anger at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose workers caused the spill; fear, whether it’s financial, safety or concern for other community members; and, as Kunkel put it, an awareness of the river and the watershed in a bigger picture way.

‘Technological’ disaster
Sad. Betrayed. Devastated. Scared. Grief. Blame. Anger. Hostility.

“There’s a uniqueness to what happened in Durango, but there’s also a pattern,” Fort Lewis College sociology associate professor Rebecca Clausen said. “My experience after the Exxon (Valdez) spill (in Alaska) gave me a good context for not seeing this as an isolated event.”

Social science has identified two kinds of disasters: natural – such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tornados, and technological or environmental – and human-made disasters such as Chernobyl, the BP Deepwater Horizon rig oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Gold King Mine spill, Clausen said. Communities tend to pull together and heal more quickly from the “acts of God,” she said, but technological disasters can rip them apart and have impacts that last generations…

A group of volunteers, including Clausen and hydrologist Jack Turner, without funding from any governmental agency or nonprofit, took on the task of addressing the mental health stresses on the communities impacted by the spill. Calling themselves the Animas Community Listening and Empowerment Project, they held listening sessions in Durango and Farmington.

“People tend not to go seek out a counselor for this kind of grief or anxiety,” Clausen said. “They’re hesitant to talk about it at the supermarket. We gave them an opportunity and permission to talk.”

[…]

River businesses
“From a tourism standpoint, it’s over,” Kunkel said. “For tourists, it ended like somebody pulled the shade down as soon as the river reopened. They essentially said, ‘All I want to do is get my family on the river, I don’t care about your local hooha.’”

The most affected, Kunkel said, were the river rafting companies.

“We’ll have a better answer in a year or so about how much it impacted us,” said Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep. “I expect it to have an impact for three to five years before it’s totally gone from people’s consciousness, but not catastrophic, not enough to put us out of business, and probably quite small in the third year.”

Two factors helped his rafting business get through, Mickel said, adding that his business is up slightly in June and up in July this year over 2015.

“We were having a really good season before the spill,” he said. “And I’m glad we have a clean and safe river to recreate in this summer, not just for the business but because our kids play in the river, and it’s just part of our lives.”

The big question is what would this summer’s business have been without the spill?

“We’ve had people call and not go because of it or cancel because of it,” Mickel said about this year’s bookings, with tourists concerned about the safety of the river. “But the hardest number to pin down is the people who are not calling. Our business really ties into how the state’s tourism goes, and Colorado is having a banner year. How much of that growth have we missed because of this?”

One indicator is how many people stayed in Durango’s hotels and motels during August 2015. Lodgers tax declined by about 5 percent, but the drop may not be attributable to the spill, Tim Walsworth of the Durango Business Improvement District said when the numbers came out in October 2015. Some of that was because the Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest of the year for visitors, fell totally in September.

Lodgers tax numbers for this summer will not be available until fall, but it has been a good season, Kunkel said…

Ongoing monitoring
Many organizations continue to monitor the river for water quality and health of fish and insects that call it home.

Nonprofit Mountain Studies Institute is collaborating with the city of Durango on Animas River monitoring. One big concern was whether spring runoff would re-suspend the sediment lining the riverbed.

“Our monitoring program aims to understand whether water quality this spring is any different than previous years,” said Marcie Bidwell, institute director, “and if metal concentrations in the river pose any threat to human health, agriculture or aquatic life. Results from the spring samples are encouraging.”

At least twice during the spring runoff, concentrations of manganese and lead, some of the metals contained in the spill sediment still lining the riverbed, surpassed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment water-quality standards of the Animas River as a source for domestic drinking water. All other results for all other purposes fell below screening levels.

The science is one part of the puzzle, Turner said. Another, individual use of the river, is something unmeasureable, but he believes it is down significantly.

“To see the river like that was piercing, and it made me feel insignificant, really small and helpless, in shock,” he said. “I’m waiting to see the river go down to see if the yellow ‘bathtub’ stain is still there. I don’t know if I’ve put my feet in the river yet, and I keep asking what’s happening to this community if we’re not going to the river?”

The EPA has proposed the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in the aftermath of the spill and superfund status is warranted according the EPA project manager. From The Durango Herald:

Rebecca Thomas told more than 100 participants at the 2016 San Juan Mining Conference that she expects the Superfund designation to be finalized by this fall.

The sixth annual mining conference, which brings together people involved in mining in the Animas, Rio Grande, San Miguel and Uncompahgre watersheds, was held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango

The events of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King spill, in which an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew caused a release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River, dominated the discussions.

“Just 363 days ago we were bracing ourselves for a river disaster with a lot of concern,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt in her opening statements. “The color orange now has a whole new meaning for me. Yes, it was a lesson about our mining legacy, but it was also a lesson about our river’s health.”

Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle, too, acknowledged that the anniversary of the spill was a fitting backdrop to the conference, and a chance to provide insight on how communities affected by the event responded…

Speaking around noon, the EPA’s Thomas made the case for Superfund.

Thomas, based in Denver, said she worked in the highly-mineralized mountains around San Juan County about a week each month this summer, with crews sampling on a regular basis.

“Even though the (Superfund) site is just proposed, that hasn’t stopped us from beginning our work,” she said.

Thomas said that although there was resistance to federal intervention for years, she believes the only viable step toward improved water quality in the Animas River is through a Superfund designation.

She argued the federal listing would allow potentially responsible parties, such as mining companies, to be held financially liable for cleanup, and given the scope of the project, only the EPA could provide the funds necessary.

Thomas tried to quell frustrations that it can take more than 20 years for a Superfund to finish.

“This process … is one of the main criticisms of Superfund,” she said. “But we don’t want to wait 20 years to see improved water quality in the Animas, and we’ll take every opportunity we can to fast-track some of this stuff.”

The conference also showed how the spill affected communities around the region, all with a legacy of mining.

Randy Barnes with the San Miguel Watershed Coalition said the EPA recently steered away from remediating a draining mine near Ophir.

“They are not super enthusiastic about going and poking fingers into mines right now,” he said.

Barnes added that the project led by Griswold, which would clean up a mill tailings pile beneath the mine entrance, was canceled for undisclosed reasons.

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

Silverton is staging “Super FunDays” this weekend, a play on the Superfund cleanup expected to get underway in the distant future.

It includes “Environmental Pork Agency” sandwiches and a locally brewed India pale ale — or IPA — called EPA IPA.

Here’s where things stand in the aftermath of the spill:

SILVERTON’S PARTY

Bars and restaurants are serving up “EPA Fungi” ravioli, “Orange Creek-sicle” fruit smoothies and other specials for Super FunDays.

Silverton’s Golden Block Brewery brewed 10 gallons of spill-colored EPA IPA.

“It’s unclarified, so it looks kind of muddy, and we added a tiny bit of blood orange,” brewery co-owner Molly Barela said.

A fun run and community party are also planned.

Asked about the jovial tone, town spokeswoman Blair Runion said Silverton went through a long and serious debate before endorsing a Superfund cleanup.

“We need to turn it into something positive that we can embrace,” she said.

The EPA declined to comment, but it will have an information booth at the party Saturday.

Shane Benjamin (The Durango Herald) asks the question, “Who profited from the Gold King Mine Spill? Here’s an excerpt:

…the environmental mishap wasn’t all bad news for La Plata County businesses; in fact, several companies, including motels and restaurants, profited as government agencies opened their pocketbooks to help manage the disaster.

In the two months after the spill, La Plata County government spent $115,000 on goods and services related to the spill, much of which went to local businesses, according to receipts obtained through an open records request.

Several other agencies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, including the Environmental Protection Agency, which has authorized $23.3 million in spending as of July 15, including reimbursement to local communities but not including payroll or travel expenses. The agency, which triggered the spill, was not able to provide a detailed accounting of its expenses in time for this story, but county expenses provide a snapshot of how local businesses profited during the spill.

The county has received reimbursement for some expenses and is seeking compensation for others.

The county’s first expense occurred on Aug. 6, 2015 – the same day the mustard-yellow water snaked its way through the county – to purchase a case of copy paper for $27.65 from Office Depot. The county made several return trips that month to Office Depot, purchasing $2,020 worth of supplies, including six easels, 12 easel pads, sticky notes, ink cartridges, a wall clock and much more. The county is seeking reimbursement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The county also purchased hundreds of meals for government employees. They were fed at at least a dozen different restaurants, including Macho’s, J. Bo’s, Carvers, Doughworks, Steamworks, Raider Ridge Café, Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, Rice Monkeys and Hot Tomatoes Café, to name a few. Many of the purchases fed dozens of people, including tabs for $305 at Domino’s Pizza, $517 at Serious Texas Bar-B-Q, $325 at Raider Ridge Café, $400 at Schlotsky’s, and $1,309 for a “thank you lunch” for city of Durango and La Plata County employees catered by Zia Taqueria. The county is seeking reimbursement for the food, including the thank you lunch, from the EPA.

Dozens of snacks and meals were purchased from area grocery stores, including Albertsons, Walmart, City Market and Nature’s Oasis. Receipts suggest some less-than-healthy eating habits, including large quantities of Lays potato chips, candy, doughnuts and soda pop.

The county also picked up several hotel bills, but it appears most employees sought reimbursement from their individual agencies rather than the county, because the county paid only $4,533 to house eight people, according to the open records request. The bills range from $79 a night at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton to $720 for six nights at the Super 8 in Durango.

Several other businesses profited as a result of the Gold King Mine blowout, including:

  • Fast Signs, which charged about $1,125 to make vinyl signs used to close the river.
  • Best Cleaning, which billed $2,522 to clean the La Plata County Fairgrounds after the EPA used it as a headquarters.
  • Durango Party Rental, which charged $746 for a temporary room divider.
  • Durango Joe’s, which charged $45.75 to serve 45 people coffee.
  • But the company that profited the most is Wright Water Engineers, which raked in about $70,000 to provide consulting and water sampling on behalf of the county.

Overall, charges appear to be fairly well spread out between businesses, without a preference for specific vendors, restaurants or grocery stores.

Assistant County Manager Joanne Spina said that is a good thing, but it’s likely a result of luck, preference and necessity rather than policy. Most people don’t want to eat the same meal every day, she noted, so multiple restaurants were visited.

“This was an emergency situation, so I think those decisions were made in the moment by the folks who were needing to acquire whatever the goods or services were,” Spina said.

A Year After The #GoldKingMine Spill, US Still Grapples With Abandoned Mines — #Colorado Public Radio

Colorado abandoned mines
Colorado abandoned mines

From Colorado Public Radio (Grace Hood):

The Gold King Mine Spill has exposed a bigger problem whose solution seems incredibly complex. Hundreds of abandoned mines in southwestern Colorado have leached tainted water into nearby streams for decades. The EPA has been trying to get a handle on the issue for years. That’s why the agency had crews working at Gold King Mine last August.

It’s emblematic of a much larger problem that exists across the Western United States. One GAO report estimates 33,000 hard rock abandoned mines are causing environmental problems. And one year after the Gold King Mine spill, many experts say the country is no closer to a solution.

The proposed Bonita Peak Mining District contains 48 mining-related sites in the region. But local officials said it wasn’t easy getting on board with the Superfund idea.

“There was a lot of sleepless nights,” said Willy Tookey, San Juan County administrator. For more than a decade, the government here shied away from Superfund status.

The two biggest concerns for local leaders was that a listing would cause a drop in property values and a drop tourism.

Tookey said intense negotiations with the EPA over this past year led to new confidence. And assurances.

“Because of the circumstances I think we were able to get these answers that we weren’t able to before,” he said.

The EPA expects to make a final decision on whether Superfund status will be approved this fall. From that point, it could take years for the agency to approve a work plan and funding.

#AnimasRiver: Sunnyside asks judge to dismiss #NewMexico lawsuit

General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library
General view of the Sunnyside Mine, southwestern Colorado photo via the Denver Public Library

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

On Friday, Sunnyside – now owned by international mining conglomerate Kinross Gold Corp. – called for New Mexico’s lawsuit over the Gold King Mine spill’s impact to the state to be dismissed.

“We see no basis for us even being named in this litigation,” Sunnyside spokesman Larry Perino wrote in an email.

In May, the state of New Mexico, seeking compensation for environmental and economic damages, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, naming the Environmental Protection Agency and its contractor, as well as Sunnyside and its parent company, as responsible parties for the Aug. 5, 2015, mine blowout.

In the complaint, New Mexico state officials claim the “root cause” of the disaster dates back more than 20 years to Sunnyside’s attempt to block waste water drainage by building bulkheads in tunnels below the vast Sunnyside Mine network north of Silverton…

In its July 29 motion to dismiss, Sunnyside argued that installing the American Tunnel bulkhead was done at the direction of the state of Colorado, and that New Mexico officials “point to no facts to support that historic discharges from the Sunnyside Mine pool in Colorado, unrelated to the Gold King Mine blowout, somehow impacted New Mexico.”

The motion further alleges New Mexico has no personal jurisdiction over Sunnyside; the state of Colorado is a required party in the case and is not named (Colorado was sued by New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court); and New Mexico is not entitled to punitive damages.

Sunnyside has long dismissed claims that water backed up behind the American Tunnel has seeped to other mine workings, though most experts in the region suspected the opposite.

Regardless, as a result of the proposed Superfund listing, the EPA plans to enter the mine and investigate, which should provide clarity, EPA officials previously said. It is unclear if those efforts have started this summer.

And Sunnyside’s involvement does not end with the New Mexico lawsuit, as the company has emerged high atop the list of potentially responsible parties that the EPA would seek financial costs from should a Superfund be declared.

Though Sunnyside claims an agreement with the state of Colorado to install three bulkheads in the 1990s would release the company of further liability for pollution in the district, officials familiar with the Superfund process say otherwise.

“It’s a different law,” Doug Jamison, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a previous interview. “(Sunnyside) was relieved of their liability from a discharge permit under the Clean Water Act. It has nothing to do with Superfund liability.”

It’s been a convoluted, and expensive, quarter century since the company last hauled gold, silver, copper and other precious metals from the highly mineralized mountains surrounding San Juan County.

After the mine shut down in 1991, a number of remedial efforts began, with Perino estimating about $15 million has been directed to cleaning up sites around the basin.

Still, ever since Sunnyside’s water treatment plant shut down in 2004 (a result of a sale to local Steve Fearn, who was evicted by current Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis), water quality in the Animas River has degraded.

The town, too, felt the departure.

“It was a wrenching time,” Silverton native Bev Rich said.

Rich said nearly 150 workers lost high paying jobs. The only school in the small mountain hamlet of about 600 full-time residents went from 150 students to about 50, and San Juan County lost $300,000 – about one third – of its annual budget.

Meanwhile the U.S. Attorney General’s office has launched a criminal investigation into the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill. Here’s a report from Jesse Paul writing for The Denver Post. Here’s an excerpt:

Federal authorities have confirmed for the first time that a criminal investigation into the 2015 Gold King Mine spill is underway, saying their probe involves the U.S. Attorney’s Office and came at the request of members of Congress.

The announcement Monday came from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) as it released letters sent to lawmakers about the status of its work to analyze the disaster. Documents reviewed by The Denver Post on Monday indicate the probe has been in progress for nearly a year.

Jeffrey Lagda, spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said the OIG is working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on the criminal investigation. It was “based on requests from several members of the House and Senate,” he added…

In a June 29 letter to Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, the inspector general’s office said a number of investigations into the spill “have been underway.”

Gardner said Monday in a statement that he appreciates the criminal review and urged the expedited release of a full report on the disaster. He added: “I look forward to a response to my questions surrounding EPA’s insufficient and untimely recovery efforts immediately following the spill.”

In recent letters to members of Congress, the OIG wrote: “There is investigative material that we cannot reveal in any report about our program evaluation until the investigation reaches a point where the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA’s OIG’s Office of Investigations inform us that we may do so. Many of your questions to us, including those that go to the heart of what you asked us to address, directly implicate and will have to be answered in part by investigative results that are not currently releasable.”

[…]

Also Monday, the EPA released a 23-page retrospective report on the Gold King and its efforts since the incident to restore and protect impacted communities.

The agency said that as of July 15 it has dedicated $29 million in response efforts and for continued water quality monitoring. Officials say they are also evaluating more incident-related expenses and that they are working to expedite the distribution of those funds.

“We have been responsive in terms of doing the cleanup and demonstrating how we’ve done the cleanup,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA’s assistant administrator, told The Post in an interview Monday.

He added that 68 claims that have been filed against the EPA, which include a mixture of individuals, businesses and local and state governments, are pending review…

The National Wildlife Federation on Monday proclaimed “no meaningful effort has been made” since the Gold King spill to address the ongoing threats from hundreds of mines across the country. Jim Lyon, the federation’s vice president of conservation policy, called for legislation to stop the clock from ticking toward another similar catastrophe.

Stanislaus said the universal problem is broader than the EPA and is being examined from many federal levels.

“I think the EPA can only take on an extremely small subset of the abandoned mine situation,” Stanislaus said. “We only get involved in the highest risk situations where you have this high risk (to) ecological and public health.”

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 (Jonathan Romeo):

In a July 22 interview with the Telluride Daily Planet, Hays Griswold, speaking of a cleanup project set to begin at a mine near Ophir, cautioned residents there that work might cause some discoloration in the Howard Fork of the San Miguel River.

“You may see some yellow water. Don’t get excited like they do in Durango,” Griswold said.

EPA press secretary Melissa Harrison wrote in an emailed response that Griswold’s comments do not reflect the views of the agency. Requests for an interview with Griswold were ignored, and independent attempts to reach him Thursday were unsuccessful…

Griswold last August was charged with taking over cleanup efforts at the Gold King Mine north of Silverton while the EPA’s permanent on-scene coordinator, Steve Way, was on vacation.

Just days into his command, Griswold gave the EPA’s contracted crews orders to dig into the loose pile of dirt and rock that covered the entrance to the mine – despite clear instructions left by Way to postpone any such work due to the inherit risk of a blowout…

Griswold is now tasked with cleaning up 15,000 cubic yards of mill tailings at the Carribeau Mine, west of Ophir, according to the Telluride Daily Planet. He will not, however, be touching the mine’s adit, which is leaking anywhere from 600 to 800 gallons of mine drainage a minute.

The EPA’s Harrison wrote that the remediation plan for Carribeau Mine is under review by the regional office, and no final decisions have been made about the work.

The EPA’s efforts in the Silverton mining district, now proposed for Superfund listing as the Bonita Peak Mining District, are under the direction of Rebecca Thomas, remedial project manager.

From Reuters (Keith Coffman):

At the urging of congressional leaders, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is investigating the rupture from the Gold King Mine above Silverton, Colorado, that fouled waterways in three states and Native American lands, the agency said in a statement.

“Based on requests from several members of the House and Senate, the OIG is conducting both a program evaluation and a criminal investigation of the Gold King Mine spill,” the EPA said in a statement.

The OIG is an independent office that audits, investigates and evaluates the agency’s activities, the EPA statement said…

Jeffrey Lagda, a spokesman for the EPA’s Inspector General, told Reuters that the probe has been ongoing for some time, and that investigators are working with prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

#AnimasRiver: #GoldKingMine spill update

On April 7,  2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear. Eric Baker
On April 7, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the “Bonita Peak Mining District” to the National Priorities List, making it eligible for Superfund. Forty-eight mine portals and tailings piles are “under consideration” to be included. The Gold King Mine will almost certainly be on the final list, as will the nearby American Tunnel. The Mayflower Mill #4 tailings repository, just outside Silverton, is another likely candidate, given that it appears to be leaching large quantities of metals into the Animas River. What Superfund will entail for the area beyond that, and when the actual cleanup will begin, remains unclear.
Eric Baker

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.

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