But Superfund — the federal program designed to clean up America’s most toxic sites — usually only proceeds with community support. And in Silverton, that’s lacking. Even after the Aug. 5 spill captured national attention and reinvigorated downstream communities’ insistence that the leaky mines be cleaned up, locals continue to bristle at the suggestion of Superfund. “We’re a tourist area,” Bev Rich, a lifelong Silverton resident, told the Durango Herald in 2013. “You hear the word ‘Superfund’ site and 99 percent think ‘danger.’ So why would you want to go to a Superfund site?”
Those who support Superfund, however — including many residents of the downstream city of Durango — say that there’s simply no other way for the region to move beyond its toxic past. Travis Stills, a Durango lawyer who’s worked on and studied Superfund sites, thinks the problem is too politically entrenched (and expensive) to be handled by state or local authorities alone.
Fearn disagrees. The 71-year-old engineering consultant and former mine owner is one of the strongest voices in Silverton’s anti-Superfund contingent. In 1994, he helped form the Animas River Stakeholders Group to try to prove that acidic drainage from the watershed’s mines could be cleaned up without interference from the federal government. And in recent weeks, he’s explained to the New York Times and other national media why Superfund still isn’t right for Silverton. Among the reasons: a designation would stigmatize the town and turn away tourists. Litigation and bureaucracy could delay the clean-up. Property values could decrease, new mining ventures be deterred, and local input be ignored.
All are valid fears — but not entirely rooted in fact. True, the idea of visiting a Superfund site doesn’t exactly appeal to tourists, but neither does the idea of visiting a Superfund-eligible site. And any stigma seems not to linger after the project is completed: There was a Superfund project in Aspen, Colorado, where million-dollar homes now stand. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a peer reviewed study found that residential property values within three miles of Superfund sites increased 18.6 to 24.5 percent after the sites were cleaned up and deleted from the National Priorities List…
…asking Congress for emergency funds to deal with a long-term problem is unrealistic, and the piecemeal approach the Animas River Stakeholders Group has used isn’t a long-term solution either. While the group has been been moderately successful — it’s relocated mine waste away from streams, bought water rights and diverted ditches, and completed more than a dozen mitigation projects that have helped bring fish back to a once-lifeless stretch of the Animas — it hasn’t solved the problem. After more than 20 years of work, the Gold King Mine alone continues to dribble 200 gallons of tainted water per minute. More than a dozen others have similar discharge.
FromColorado Central Magazine (Christopher Kolomitz):
The blowout reminded Central Colorado residents of two eerily similar incidents that fouled the Arkansas River in 1983 and 1985. The toxic discharges on the local river occurred in a period of time when the Environmental Protection Agency was beginning Superfund clean-up of old mines around Leadville. The culprit of both discharges was the Yak Tunnel, which was one of three constructed to drain mines in the district.
Leading up to Superfund designation, the years of inaction were becoming a public health emergency. Drainage ditches in Leadville neighborhoods were turned orange or red because of the heavy metals coming from the historical mines. Annual discharge from the Yak Tunnel was pumping 210 tons of heavy metals into California Gulch, which was then reaching the river, according to the EPA.
A few days after the incident, the river through Salida was running clear but state wildlife officials were worried about the impact upon the brown trout spawn, and they estimated up to half of the eggs may have been lost, the local paper reported. Subsequent research found that high levels of cadmium prevented fish from living more than three or four years, wildlife officials said.
Threat of another catastrophic discharge surfaced once again in February 2008, when alarm was raised over the potential blowout of the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel. Tunnel collapses and blockages had created a potentially dangerous situation for an uncontrolled surge. In response the EPA drilled a relief well, which worked to reduce the danger.
Twelve specific cleanup units were identified as part of the Superfund designation and to date, seven have been wrapped up to a point where regulators are calling them deleted from the operational plan. Examples of the process include construction of water diversion channels and settling ponds to prevent heavy metals from reaching surface water, and consolidation of smelter waste and mine tailings which were then covered with clean soil.
At the Yak Tunnel, a water treatment plant has been credited with dramatically improving water conditions in the Arkansas River, and the overall cleanup has been hailed as a success, although the EPA has ruffled some local feathers. The river now supports a vibrant, healthy fishery with greater public access, and the residents of Leadville and downstream are living around less toxicity.
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.”
If there is anything I have learned from the past 15 years of working on this issue, it’s that absent strong regulations and better-designed mines, mining companies will continue to pollute with impunity.
Earthworks estimates that there are over 500,000 abandoned and inactive hardrock mines strewn across the country, with a hefty price tag attached to their clean up — $50 billion, according to an EPA estimate.
Western communities face significant burdens associated with these old mines — ranging from a disaster from a failed cleanup like the one that occurred last week, to more persistent water pollution issues, and the ever-present danger of improperly secured underground mines that pose a serious threat to public safety. At least 40% of the streams feeding the headwaters of Western watersheds are polluted from mining. That’s because many mines — like Gold King — have significant acid mine drainage problems, which can persist for thousands of years if left untreated.
Unfortunately, in the 25 years since Earthworks first published our report on the legacy of abandoned mines, not much has changed. The reason for the lack of action is the antiquated law, 143 years old and counting, that still governs hardrock mining on public lands throughout the West.
President Ulysses S. Grant signed the 1872 Mining Law to help settle the West. And even though the West has surely been settled, this law is still on the books — unchanged. It allows corporations, foreign and domestic, to take public minerals, owned by us, the taxpayers, for free. It contains no environmental provisions, requires no cleanup after mining is over, and unlike the law governing coal mining, does not require hardrock mining companies to pay a fee to clean up the legacy of pollution.
This archaic law is why funds to clean up mines like Gold King remain limited, despite the magnitude of the problem, putting safe drinking water and our healthy environment at risk. A steady stream of long-term funding for hardrock mine cleanup, similar to the coal industry’s abandoned mine fee, is essential to dealing with the scope of the problems we face from mine pollution.
Mustard-colored water in the Animas River of southwestern Colorado illustrates more than anything else the long gestation time of many environmental disasters.
The surge was unleashed last week by a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency who unwittingly breached a dike, allowing contaminated water backed up in the Gold King Mine to flood into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas. The images from the river downstream in Durango were appalling.
The makings for the disaster, however, began almost 130 years ago. Located seven miles north of Silverton at an elevation of 11,400 feet, the Gold King was among several big mines and mills clustered around a company town called Gladstone. The Gold King had a brief but productive life. The mine was staked in 1886 and the vein that made it a bonanza was identified in 1896. Until mine portals were shuttered in 1922, it produced $8 million in ore. That was more than a tenth of all production in San Juan County, according to “The Rainbow Route,” a railroad and mining history.
If a bonanza to owners, the mine was deadly to workers. Six people died of carbon dioxide drawn into the mine by a fire at the nearby boarding house. Another five people died in an avalanche, reports Scott Fetchenhier, an amateur historian and San Juan County commissioner.
Mining can be hazardous to people living downstream, too. In the 1930s, farmers along Clear Creek, northwest of Denver, complained bitterly of their irrigation water being sullied by gold miners upstream at Central City and Blackhawk, to the detriment of their crops.
Even after state and federal laws were enacted, seeking to curb pollution, we’ve continued to cut corners. When mining ended in 1979 after a century at the Eagle Mine, located a few miles from Vail, Colo., a giant mess remained. Pollution made people uncertain whether they should eat fish caught in the Eagle River.
That question was soon answered. The settlement between the mining company and Colorado regulators assumed that sealing the mine would prevent water from flowing into the rivers. The experts were wrong. By early 1990, the Eagle River looked like Kool-Aid. The fish vanished. Belatedly, the EPA was called in and, after $100 million, the pollution has largely been cleaned up. However, heavy metals must continue to be removed from water in the mine before it gets into the river. The last time I checked, in the 1990s, the plant cost $1 million a year to operate. This will continue in perpetuity.
That cost near Vail is being borne privately, by a corporate conglomerate. Not so the $155 million cleanup at Summitville, an open-pit mine in southern Colorado where cyanide was used to extract gold from low-grade ore. After the mess became public, Galactic Resources filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
Mines from around Silverton had been causing trouble long before this spill. The Silverton Standard & Miner had reported that water quality has worsened 2005. Four of five trout species in one area had vanished.
Since 1995, the non-profit Animas River Stakeholders Group has been working to address these legacy problems. It has been thwarted by absence of federal Good Samaritan legislation. Independent groups can’t afford to touch problems like the Gold King because, in case of accident, they “own the damages,” in the words of Ken Neubecker, of American Rivers, a conservation group. He explains that environmental communities worry that Good Samaritan legislation will allow big mining corporations to skip out on their responsibilities, such as occurred at Summitville.
The larger lesson derived from this giant mess in Silverton and Durango is that mining just doesn’t belong in headwaters areas, says Matt Rice, director of the Colorado River Basin program for American Rivers. He cites a copper-mining proposal for the Smith River in Montana. “Eventually, inevitably, the (contaminated) water will make it back to the river, whether it’s by catastrophic accident or a natural event,” he says.
I take a bigger view yet. Don’t blame the miners of 100 years ago. I have friends whose parents and grandparents worked at these mines near Silverton and Vail. They led hard lives.
But today we know better. We also know better than to pollute the atmosphere with reckless abandon, creating a bigger, denser greenhouse around the planet. Yet we keep doing it. People want 100 percent certainty. People complain about the costs. Right now, I’m wondering which would have cost more on the Animas River, prevention or cleanup.
From the Associated Press (Matthew Brown And P. Solomon Banda) via The Denver Post:
The spill of toxic wastewater from an abandoned gold mine high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains caused untold millions in economic disruptions and damages in three states — to rafting companies, Native American farmers unable to irrigate, municipal water systems and possibly water well owners. And largely because the federal government inadvertently triggered the release, it has vowed to pay the bill.
That bill could be years in the making. Attorneys general from Colorado, New Mexico and Utah vowed to ensure citizens and towns are compensated for immediate and long-term damages from the spill. But Colorado’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, acknowledged it could be years before the full impact is known.
“We have to be vigilant as attorneys general, as the lawyers for the state, as protectors of the environment, to be sure that the assurances that we received today from the Environmental Protection Agency are the same in two years, in five years, even 10 years when we discover what the damage to the environment actually is,” Coffman said Wednesday after she and her counterparts gathered in Durango.
EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said her agency took full responsibility for the spill, which was unleashed Aug. 5 when an EPA-supervised crew accidentally unleashed the torrent of wastewater from the Gold King mine. The plume of heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, flowed into southwest Colorado’s Animas River and into the San Juan River in New Mexico.
McCarthy also said she had ordered agency personnel across the country to cease field investigation work on abandoned mines while the spill was investigated. EPA officials said they were seeking details on what the stop-work order means.
The Gold King spill was proving devastating to the Navajo Nation, which recently negotiated a settlement giving it rights to water from the San Juan River. The tribe plans to build a $20 million water treatment plant in northwestern New Mexico to take in the extra volume of water granted by the settlement and provide a clean drinking source to more of the 16,000 families on the reservation who still haul water to their homes.
Heavy metals already were present in the tribe’s underground aquifers, and “now those same things are dumped in the river,” complained Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. He said meeting EPA standards for clean drinking water could double the plant’s cost and require millions more in operating costs each year…
Current Colorado law requires a mining company to post a bond to cover the eventual cost of cleanup before a permit is issued to start operations, said Tony Waldron, supervisor of mine programs for the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety. If the company fails to clean up the site when the mine closes, the state uses the bond to hire a contractor to do the work.
In most cases, the bonds have been sufficient to cover the cost of cleanup when mine operators don’t finish, Waldron said. The state has a fund it can use to make up the difference.
But the Gold King Mine isn’t covered because it was abandoned in 1923, before the law was in effect. In the absence of an owner, the federal government was working with local residents and the state to do limited mitigation work in the area around the Gold King mine — one of a cluster of old and polluted mines perched more than 11,000 feet high — when the spill occurred.
Cleanup costs alone can be staggering — and continuous.
Colorado tightened its bond requirements in the 1990s after the operator of the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co., declared bankruptcy and couldn’t complete a cleanup. Summitville became a federal Superfund site, with the EPA in charge.
The cleanup is ongoing because contaminated water continues to drain from the mine. The total cost to date is more than $100 million, according to the U.S. Geological Service.
Authorities said Wednesday that the waste from the Gold King spill will continue to be dangerous when contaminated sediment gets stirred up from the river bottom.
“There will be a source of these contaminants in the rivers for a long time,” said hydrologist Tom Myers, who runs a Nevada-based consulting business. “Every time there’s a high flow, it will stir it up and it will be moving those contaminants downstream.”
EPA spill liaison Nat Miullo suggested the danger from the spill had diminished with the dissipation of the initial burst of tainted water. Any future spike in contaminant levels caused by stirring up sediments would be “much, much smaller in scale,” he said.
But environmental regulators in downstream New Mexico warned that it was crucial to determine where the contamination settles.
“Those are some of the longer-term issues that affect humans as well as wildlife,” New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said.
Seven days after her agency’s massive mine wastewater spill into a major southwest watershed, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said water quality in the Animas River through La Plata County has “returned to pre-event conditions.”
Administrator Gina McCarthy, in a boots-on-the-ground appearance Wednesday in Durango that’s expected to continue Thursday in Farmington, N.M., called the Aug. 5 incident “heartbreaking” and said the EPA “couldn’t be more sorry.”
“Right now, rest assured, we will learn lessons from this, and we will move those lessons forward in the work moving ahead,” she said of the spill of 3 million gallons at the Gold King Mine near Silverton.
In a 15-minute news conference, McCarthy said cleanup operations at similar mines throughout the country have been “put on hold” until the EPA determines how the Gold King accident happened. Speaking outside a command center, McCarthy said the EPA plans to solicit an independent investigation of the calamity.
Some Durango residents are angered that McCarthy is neither planning a trip to the Gold King Mine nor holding a public meeting. EPA officials and McCarthy said the mine — roughly a 55-mile trip, some of it over unpaved road — was too far to visit.
“As you know, it is a significant distance away, but I did visit the river. I took a look at it myself to get a sense of the river,” McCarthy said. “And I think the good news is it seems to be restoring itself, but we have continued work to do and EPA is here.”
Her appearance came after Colorado’s senators and the congressman representing Durango-area residents urged her to visit the impacted areas.
“The most important thing for me, for this trip, was to come to the unified command center,” she said, citing a necessity to meet with local and state officials to ensure that their needs are being fulfilled.
“That is my first order of business,” she added…
Just before McCarthy addressed the media Wednesday afternoon, members of the Colorado and New Mexico congressional delegations released a letter they sent to President Barack Obama requesting federal resources. In the letter, the group also said the federal government should explore creating a water-treatment plant in the Upper Animas River to remove heavy metals from the watershed at its source.
While the EPA says it’s treating contaminated water still flowing from the Gold King Mine, three adjacent mines continue to release more than 540 gallons per minute of waste laced with heavy metals.
Asked about what politicians across the Southwest have complained was a slow response by the EPA to notify the public of the spill, McCarthy said, “We will address those issues as we look at the investigation. … .
“The most important thing is we are moving forward. We are fully ramped up. We have data coming in. We can assess that data.”
Wednesday afternoon, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment informed the city of Durango that “drinking water treatment facilities can begin to use the Animas River to collect and treat water for customers.”
The Animas River in La Plata County, including Durango, remains closed by authorities. The county sheriff’s office has not said when it will reopen the water. Meanwhile, local businesses that rely on the Animas’ flow remain shuttered.
EPA officials Wednesday said the plume of contaminants is approaching Lake Powell in Utah and that apparatus are in place there to conduct testing.
“We are already there,” McCarthy said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, saying his state has mobilized resources.
A spokeswoman for the San Juan Basin Health Department on Wednesday said results of water testing on private wells in the area have not been returned but are expected “very soon.” A county spokeswoman says the EPA is paying for the tests.
The department earlier this week said a call center set up to answer questions and take requests for well testing was “overwhelmed.” Samples have been sent to labs in Denver and Georgia.
A river once left for dead by mine-polluted runoff in the southwestern corner of the San Luis Valley is coming back to life.
The Alamosa River, which once included a 17-mile dead-zone thanks to the Summitville gold mine, has seen the return of fish and a local group is seeking to keep it that way by adding to the river’s flows.
“We still have a ways to go but we’ve done a lot,” said Cindy Medina, head of the Alamosa Riverkeepers.
The group is close to finalizing a pair of in-stream water rights in court that could add as much as 550 acre-feet per year to the river below Terrace Reservoir where it runs to the valley floor.
That amount, which translates to roughly 180 million gallons, would be stored in the reservoir and released during times of the year when flows are low to nonexistent.
Last week, the Colorado Water Trust honored Medina for her work on the Alamosa with the David Getches Flowing Waters Award.
Key to the in-stream flows, which also would boost groundwater levels in the area, was the cooperation of the Terrace Irrigation Co., which has made storage space available in the reservoir.
Medina also credited landowners along the river like Joe McCann and Rod Reinhart.
“Both of them have been instrumental in this project,” she said. Reinhart, who grows alfalfa and barley north of Capulin, said he came to understand the importance of riparian habitat and how the in-stream flows could help.
But the importance of how they might help the aquifer also was important given the looming groundwater regulations that might face the valley.
“I think that is huge,” he said. “That’s a big help.”
The need for the restoration on the river and part of the means to do so, stem from the legacy of the Summitville gold mine, which sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet on a tributary.
In 1986, the Summitville Consolidated Mining Company began operation of an open-pit mine on 1,200 acres and used a cyanide formula to extract gold from ore.
A faulty liner meant to contain the cyanide and a company-installed water treatment plant that was far too small ensured high levels of pollutants migrated downstream.
By 1990, fish were gone from the reservoir and the stretch of river above it.
After six years of operation, the company declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency to take over emergency management of the property.
The mine was designated a Superfund site in 1994.
Prosecution of the mining company led to a $28.5 million settlement, $5 million of which was set aside for restoration work in the watershed.
The work of the riverkeepers to increase stream flows is one of the legacies of that funding.
Water quality on the river improved after the Superfund designation, enough so that state wildlife officials began stocking trout in the reservoir in 2007.
In 2011, a permanent treatment plant was built with $19.2 million in federal stimulus funding.
“That improved the water quality significantly,” Medina said.
One year later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lifted restrictions on the consumption of trout in Terrace Reservoir.
Medina is among those who have eaten trout from the reservoir.
“They’ve come out fine,” she said.
But the riverkeepers hope to add more water to the river, by buying water rights from others.
Their goal is to reach 2,000 acre-feet of in-stream flows.
“We’re always looking for more water for the river,” she said.
State and federal health officials are inviting the public to submit informal preliminary comments on the Cotter Corp. Uranium Mill’s Draft Quality Management Plan.
The 53-page plan outlines quality assurance, training, implementation of work, record keeping, response and corrective action protocols for the now-defunct mill as it moves toward decommissioning. The mill has been an EPA Superfund site since 1984 due to the seeping of uranium and molybdenum contamination into groundwater and soil which was caused by the use of unlined tailings ponds.