Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Rock Pile Superfund Site update — EPA lawsuit

Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede
Commodore waste rock superfund site Creede

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Federal and state officials have agreed in principle to a $6 million settlement with a mining company to recover cleanup costs at the Superfund site just north of town.

A proposed consent decree with Denverbased CoCa Mines was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver Thursday.

The proposal would still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and the approval of the court.
Through last June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had spent $10 million on the Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund site.

More than half of that money went toward the stabilization of the waste rock pile and the reinforcement of the West Willow Creek channel that runs along side it during an emergency response in 2008 and 2009.

In a complaint filed the same day as the proposed consent decree, EPA alleged that a company operating under a joint venture partnership with CoCa had sent 500 tons of mine waste onto the waste rock pile and contributed to its destabilization.

The complaint also alleged that CoCa inherited liability for the site when it bought out its former partner in 1989 and thereafter failed to conduct cleanup.

CoCa Mines owned and operated in an area that’s now part of the Superfund site from 1973 to 1993.
Cleanup work at the Superfund site has come to a halt while EPA conducts a feasibility study on potential remedies for the Nelson Tunnel, which is responsible for the majority of the contaminants in West Willow Creek.

One potential option would involve the dewatering of the collapsed tunnel, although it would be dependent upon the initiation of mining by Rio Grande Silver at the nearby Bulldog Mine. The tunnel, completed in 1902, was used to drain and ventilate mines along the Amethyst vein, while also providing a route to haul ore out of the mines.

EPA initiates lawsuit over Nelson Tunnel/Commodore Mine Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site

From The Denver Post (Kirk Mitchell):

The Environmental Protection Agency has sued a mining company operating in Mineral County in federal court to recoup hazardous waste cleanup costs.

The U.S. sued Coca Mines Inc. for cleanup of hazardous substances in the Nelson Tunnel and the Commodore Waste Rock Pile Superfund Site.

The superfund site is in the San Juan Mountains less than 2 miles from the town of Creede. Shafts were dug in a series of hard-rock silver mines operated between 1889 and the 1980s tapping the “Amethyst Vein.” Horizontal tunnels also were bored, including the Nelson Tunnel.

The Nelson Tunnel is partially collapsed but continues to drain acid runoff.

The Commodore Waste Rock Pile, just outside the entrance of the Nelson Tunnel, included a water conveyance system that failed around 1995, releasing mine waste containing heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese and zinc into West Willow Creek.

The creek flows into the Rio Grande River 4 miles below the site.

In 2008 and 2009, the EPA conducted waste removal studies at the waste pile site.

The EPA is now in the process of completing a feasibility study of remedial actions for the site.

Through June 30, 2015, the EPA incurred nearly $10 million in costs. Some of those costs were covered by the Asarco Environmental Trust.

The lawsuit says the discharge each day from the Nelson Tunnel into Willow Creek carries 375 pounds of zinc, 1.37 pounds of cadmium and 6.39 pounds of lead. Zinc levels have hit 25,000 parts per billion, hurting fish reproduction for more than 4 miles down to a confluence with the main stem of the Rio Grande, where dilution eases the impact.

Superfund tour through Colorado paints positive picture — The Durango Herald

From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

It was a long, difficult road as the community of Leadville went through a more-than-20-year process through the Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous cleanup Superfund program. But local government officials here on Thursday told a large constituency of Southwest Coloradoans that, ultimately, it was worth it.

Various agencies from the Animas River watershed are on a three-day tour of several Superfund sites in Colorado, hoping to gain knowledge on the process as stakeholders look to make a decision about long-term water treatment in the Animas basin.

The situation in Leadville, in many ways, has a striking similarity with the leaking mine network north of Silverton – with its long mining history, relative isolation and fragile economy…

But after more than a century of unregulated mining in Leadville, a two-hour drive west of Denver, an adit suffered a blowout, causing a die-off along the Arkansas River down to Pueblo. In 1983, Leadville was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, just a few years after the program was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the town was officially taken off the National Priorities List. After the many battles between local, state and federal agencies, local officials there said it left a bittersweet feeling throughout the community.

“In the beginning, it definitely had an impact on our economic development,” said Howard Tritz, an assessor at the time. “It was a real obstacle. But the stigma of being a Superfund site has pretty much blown away; people are starting to come back here. It was bittersweet.”[…]

Melissa Sheets, a reclamation project manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said this week’s tour, which includes a number of stakeholders, is a sign the agencies have learned from past mistakes in dealing with local communities.

“I think we’re learning as Superfund grows up,” Sheets said. “Unfortunately for this community (Leadville), they got the Superfund designation when this program was brand new, so I think they got a lot of the bumps in the road. This outreach we’re doing is absolutely unprecedented. We’re trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity for input.”

After visiting Leadville, the group went to Minturn’s Eagle Mine Superfund site, where residents said there really was no other option beside Superfund.

“There’s always some tension and disagreement as to what cleanup measures are going to be most effective,” said Bob Weaver of Leonard Rich Engineering. “But it’s really important to realize everybody wants to achieve the same goal. You’re not always going to agree, but it’s a lot better than doing nothing.

Representatives from the Animas River were sure to point out the many differences between Leadville and Minturn, ranging from potentially responsible parties to differences in geology. But San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman said overall it’s been a productive trip.

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Anything we’re going to get is from working together. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said seeing the actual physical implementation of Superfund helped push the decision-making process…

Leadville Mayor Jaime Stuever offered one last bit of advice for the group before a tour of the California Gulch Superfund site.

“We live in an environment in today’s world were we have problems,” he said. “If you look at how many years mining took place here, you realize it takes a long time to clean up a mess that’s been here many, many years. How could we have done it ourselves? We couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

The Willow Creek Restoration Committee is celebrating their 15 year anniversary

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From The Mineral County Miner (Guinevere Nelson):

The Creede Mining District had many waste rock piles, seeps, mine adits and mill tailings when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) performed their preliminary assessment of Willow Creek in 1994. The findings prompted further inspection of Willow Creek’s water and were summarized into a report in 1997.

This report provided the basis for listing the Creede Mining District on the National Priorities List under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Com-pensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund Act.

The Superfund Listing encompassed the entire Creede Mining District, including both branches of Willow Creek. The consequences of Superfund designation on Creede’s tourist based economy were unknown, but a few concerned citizens were not interested in finding out.

Steve Russell from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mark Haugen of the Rio Grande Soil Conservation Service and with the support of the City of Creede, held a meeting and informed attendees about the proposed listing.

A year later, the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee was taking action to address the issues causing poor water quality in Willow Creek without EPA intervention. The Creede Mining District was not listed as a Superfund Site and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee went to work.

To complete their work, the WCRC defined six core goals to guide their efforts: 1) Protect the Rio Grande from future fish kills associated with nonpoint source releases during unusual hydrologic events. 2) Improve the visual and aesthetic aspects of the Willow Creek watershed and its historical mining district. 3) Implement appropriate and cost-effective flood control and stabilization measures for nonpoint sources. 4) Protect and preserve historic structures. 5) Reclaim the Willow Creek floodplain below Creede to improve the physical, chemical, biological and aesthetic qualities of the creek as an integral part of the local community. 6) Continue to improve water quality and physical habitat quality in the Willow Creek watershed as part of a long-term watershed management program.

From its inception, the Willow Creek Project has had a firm commitment to find innovative, non-regulatory approaches to improve the water quality in Willow Creek and to protect the gold medal fishery in the Rio Grande River downstream – a premier fly-fishing stream. Local residents were ready and eager to apply best management practices (BMP’s) to reduce the metals in the stream so that water quality standards could be achieved, only to find out that the information and data on the sources and loadings of the metals were incomplete. The WCRC received CDPHE funding and spent from 1999-2003 sampling surface water, groundwater, waste rock piles, mine pools, macroinvertebrates and fish to fill in the information gaps.

More restoration/reclamation coverage here.

Whit Gibbons: ‘Why do we need the Environmental Protection Agency?’

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From the Tuscaloosa News (Whit Gibbons). Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

Want to have cancer-causing, bird-killing DDT sprayed in your neighborhood? How about having high levels of brain- damaging mercury dumped into your favorite fishing spot? What about paper mill wastes clogging up rivers and fouling the air people breathe?

These health hazards were once commonplace in communities throughout our country. That they are no longer the hazards they once were is due in no small part to the Environmental Protection Agency, which protects us from these and other environmental abuses. Without EPA oversight, the United States would be a much less healthy place to live.

Those who believe we do not need federal regulation of activities that can turn the country into a toxic waste dump are likely unaware of the far-reaching environmental and human health consequences of such actions. They may also not want to accept the fact that some individuals and many corporations will put profit ahead of all other considerations–including the health and well-being of the general populace.

More Environmental Protection Agency coverage here.

Creede: Willow Creek floodplain restoration planning meetings to start this fall

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Strewn with waste rock and mine tailings and largely bereft of vegetation, the 1 1/2-mile stretch that sits astride Colorado 149 is due for a face-lift. The project will take on a number of goals, including the transformation of the creek from a braided channel that races to the Rio Grande to park, recreational and open space for the town’s roughly 300 residents.

But what residents hope to see from the 151 acres in the flood plain recently annexed by the town will be determined, in part, by what they call for during planning meetings that could come as soon as this fall. “The fall planning will be one of the next big hurdles,” said Eric Grossman, a town trustee, who sits on the four-member board of the non-profit that will direct the flood plain’s cleanup…

Grossman said initial ideas have ranged far and wide, including a community garden, open space, a miniature golf course and trails for pedestrians and ATV users…

With public input this fall, the nonprofit also is going to try to nail down the design features for Willow Creek’s new alignment. The stream has run down the flood plain in a braided channel since at least 1939, according to aerial photos that were analyzed in a 2007 study of the flood plain by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The braided structure, in combination with water and soil contamination from nearly a century of mining in the area, has led to poor ecosystem function.

An important solution for water contamination will come when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settles on a cleanup remedy for the Nelson Tunnel, which is the watershed’s largest contributor of pollutants such as cadmium, zinc and lead. Agency officials said last month they are conducting a pair of studies that will help determine the cleanup measure for the tunnel. The tunnel, which sits upstream from the flood plain in the historic mining district, was declared an EPA Superfund site in 2008.

More Nelson Tunnel/Commordore Waste Rock superfund site coverage here and here.

Creede: Town Board moves to annex part of Willow Creek floodplain

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Here’s an update on actions up in Creede to restore the floodplain between the town and the Rio Grande, from Matt Hildner writing for The Pueblo Chieftain. From the article:

The board adopted a land-use plan and agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the property’s owners. The agreement with Creede Resources, which owns 156 acres south of town, was approved unanimously and calls for the company to request annexation for 94 acres of flood plain by Oct. 1 and submit an application to the Colorado Voluntary Cleanup and Redevelopment Program.

The floodplain – a 1.5-mile stretch between Creede and the creek’s confluence with the Rio Grande that greets visitors as they enter the town on Colorado 149 – has been left largely barren and incapable of naturally restoring itself after nearly a century of mining in the former boomtown. While the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee and, more recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have tackled cleanup of the mining district north of town, the floodplain has been largely untouched with the exception of the southwestern corner that was reclaimed for the Mineral County Fairgrounds. “It’s been a long time getting to this point,” Mayor Rex Shepperd said. The land-use plan adopted by the city calls for leaving most of the floodplain as open space suitable for parks, trails and recreation.

More Coyote Gulch coverage here.