#AnimasRiver: Mine pollution and kicking the environmental can down the river — Mountain Town News

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From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

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.

Central City back in the day
Central City back in the day

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.

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

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.

Summitville Mine superfund site
Summitville Mine superfund site

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.

Bonita Mine acid mine drainage
Bonita Mine acid mine drainage

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.

From The Denver Post (Jesse Paul):

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.

Not satisfied

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.

Looking ahead

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.

Eagle River Watershed Council Waterwise Thursday May 16: Are you wiser than a sixth grader?

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From email from the Eagle River Watershed Council:

Join us for a special Water Wise “Thursday” brought to you by the 6th Graders of Homestake Peak School of Expeditionary Learning. After an in-depth, multiple month study, these students are ready to teach you “the what, the so what, and the now what?” of the Eagle Mine Superfund Site.

The event will take place Thursday, May 16th at 5:30 at the Walking Mountains Science Center. The students will begin with a living history museum where you can chat with figures of the past and then, they take you in depth into the history, science and future of the Eagle River. Beverages and appetizers will be provided.

More Eagle River Watershed coverage here and here.

Restoration: Gilman mine mitigation helps clean up the Eagle River

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From the Summit Daily News (Randy Wyrick):

After many years of Eagle Mine cleanup — cleanup of contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc — the river is pretty healthy, [Melissa MacDonald] said.

“It’s pretty good. It meets the existing standard for the river,” said MacDonald, executive director of the Eagle River Watershed Council. “We’d like a little higher standard, but currently they’re doing a good job.”

“They” are CBS, the media company, formerly Viacom. They acquired the Eagle Mine in the mid-1980s as part of some other deal. What they acquired was a Superfund site, designating the Eagle Mine as one of the nation’s most polluted places.

More Eagle River watershed coverage here and here.