For days in early August, the Animas River ran Tang orange during the Gold King Mine disaster, but it was not the first massive discharge from mines along its upper tributaries nor the deadliest to aquatic life.
Members of the Animas River Stakeholders Group (ARSG), which has been looking into solutions for such pollution for more than two decades, provided some perspective on the event during recent interviews.
ARSG co-coordinator Peter Butler, who has been involved with the group since its beginning, said he was taken aback by the media maelstrom over the Aug. 5 spill of 3 million gallons of toxic mining wastes into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River that has been devoid of aquatic life for decades.
“I was very surprised at the huge media response that we got,” Butler said. “I’ve seen the Animas this mustard-yellow color before.”
ARSG co-coordinator Bill Simon, who has also been with the group since the beginning, said spills have happened about five times since the group was formed in 1994 and he was not immediately concerned over this one.
“I wasn’t concerned because this has happened before and I knew the nature of spills,” he said. “They are a quick flash, pass quickly, and generally don’t have much serious impact on aquatic life. This one wasn’t as strong as some in the past.”
Some of the other similar events include a spill at Lake Emma in 1978, when the lake collapsed into mining shafts beneath it and then spilled out the mouth of the Sunnyside Mine, sending contaminated water down Cement Creek and into the Animas.
There was a similar spill in 1975 when a dike broke at a tailings pond at the Mayflower Mill, also in the watershed. The spills did kill all the fish in the affected reaches of the Animas almost immediately, according to reports.
The attention to the recent spill was sensationalized due to its nature, its brilliant orange color, and its timing during tourist season, some members agree.
“The EPA caused it, which got a lot more attention than previous spills,” Simon said. “In the past, the community was different. Back in the 1970s, the Durango community was comprised of different people and there was a lot more interest in mining. They may not have considered it so dangerous.”
The ARSG is designed to draw from many viewpoints and perspectives in order to work out the best solutions to the chronic problem of mining contamination in the Animas watershed.
“The collaborative process is advantageous because it’s more efficient,” said Butler. “Whenever there’s an issue, we try to get the different entities together to work for many different people. We can do a lot of science together and there’s no real argument over the data and information.”
ARSG works to reduce heavy metals leaching from hundreds of abandoned mines, and, according to their website, “using a watershed approach, have developed a remediation plan, recommended feasible water quality standards and implemented remediation projects through the Upper Animas River Basin.” The group, formed as an alternative to designating the contaminated mining area as a “Superfund” site, is a voluntary, non-appointed collective of more than 30 stakeholders representing diverse interests.
ARSG is funded by the San Juan Resource Conservation and Development Council, which provides non-profit status, financial oversight, and water-quality and mine-site characterization and remediation projects.
Among ARSG’s many stakeholders are the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the cities of Durango and Silverton; Gold King Mines; the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad; the U.S. bureaus of Land Management and of Reclamation; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the U.S. Forest Service.
The involved participants offer their time and resources to further a cause they are personally vested in.
“These people are volunteering their time, are very capable and have put in a lot of work over the years,” Butler said. “It’s unusual to have that high level of capable people who are involved. Maybe it’s luck, or maybe it’s because this is an area that attracts a lot of those types who have a lot to contribute. I give a lot of credit to Bill Simon, who is a jack of all trades with a wealth of information you rarely find in anyone.”
Simon, who has also been with the group since the beginning, is the coordinator of ARSG and is grateful for the work of the EPA.
“The EPA has been one of our partners all along,” he said. “They’re very important and useful in the stakeholders group and an active participant on a daily basis, lending support.”
However, it’s widely recognized that the EPA was at fault in the spill.
Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the ARSG, said that the EPA should have sought more consultation and, at a minimum, made the group aware of the reopening of Gold King Level No. 7, where the spill occurred.
“We asked for information about what their procedure would be, because a number of members of [the ARSG] group have experience. It is risky and dangerous work and needs to be approached carefully,” he said. “We were concerned members of the EPA did not have the right type of experience.”
But the EPA did not respond and continued to work, Fearn said.
The result was much more water than anticipated and the ARSG is not pleased, Fearn continued.
The EPA – which was working with a contractor at the site – has assumed full responsibility for the spill and members of the ARSG said it is unfortunate that alternatives were not considered beforehand.
“The EPA admitted it was their fault and I have no doubt about that,” Simon said. “The contractor making a mistake, maybe. Whether they were negligent or not, I don’t have a good feeling about that, but alternatives could have and should have been made so it didn’t happen.”
One such alternative, according to Simon, would have been to drill from a different location instead of the portal itself to determine the pressure that had built up.
The EPA had been meeting with the ARSG to talk about cleanup in the area, including “Activities Regarding Red & Bonita [a nearby mine] and Gold King,” according to the minutes of the group’s May 27 meeting. Those minutes, posted on their website and in the sidebar on Page 5, show that it was known there was a water problem at the mine, but not its scope.
The ARSG had been discussing the situation for a long time. Minutes of its Feb. 20, 2014, meeting include a conversation with an EPA representative that concluded: “In addition, if possible, EPA would like to open up the Gold King #7 level to see what is going on inside with regards to water inflow to the workings before installing the bulkhead in the R & B [Red and Bonita mine]. Overall, the group supported both ideas.”
Following the blow-out in August, the EPA built a series of settling ponds below the mine to treat the contaminated water as it continues to pour out at a rate of about 600 gallons per minute.
In 2011, the Silverton Standard reported that the Sunnyside Gold Corp. had offered $6.5 million to improve water quality in the mining area because up to 845 gallons per minute was then draining into Cement Creek from abandoned mines.
Looking towards the future, one of the possible options is building a permanent water-treatment facility for cleanup and reduction of wastes.
Fearn, who said he does not personally feel Superfund status is the best or quickest solution to the problem, supports this alternative.
“The Town of Silverton and San Juan County should build a water-treatment plant and do further remediation,” he said.
Whether or not the spill could have been avoided if a water-treatment facility had been in place is hard to determine and some argue that the release was just a matter of time.
“If there had been a treatment plant near the Gold King Mine and water had been put in a pipe and taken to the treatment plant, there still would have been a blowout,” Butler said. “We just wouldn’t have known when.”
The water-treatment facility is expected for the future for further cleanup and remediation. “I’m certain we will need to have a permanent water facility,” Simon said. “What form that will take remains to be seen.”
One possible form is from funding provided by Sunnyside, headquartered in Silverton, which has now offered about $10 million for further cleanup efforts.
However, there is a caveat.
The money will only be available if there is a guarantee of no federal Superfund designation. If one is enacted, Sunnyside would then use those dollars to fight the EPA with litigation, Butler said.
Back in 2011, according to the Silverton Standard, the corporation wrote the ARSG and the BLM that it “does not view that a Superfund listing would be constructive and would vigorously contest any alleged liability under Superfund.”
No other topic related to the spill may prompt as much contention as the Superfund, an environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980. It requires a substantial amount of money and one of the stigmas that has restricted its acceptance is that it could adversely affect property values, discourage tourism, and disallow mining’s return.
The threat of Superfund designation has been a leading motivator since the group’s start-up over 20 years ago and they have fought to keep the watershed off the list, which was proposed in the early 1990s by the EPA.
“We were concerned about Superfund in 1994 because they wanted to make the entire watershed a Superfund site and we felt strongly that it was based upon the fact that they had not accounted for natural background loading,” Simon said.
A recent meeting held in Silverton focused on whether to seek a Superfund listing.
“Downstream users were very curious about why Silverton had not moved forward with the Superfund, and we really need to address why it would and would not work,” Simon said.
Reasons why the Superfund could be successful, according to Simon, include putting the work and cleanup efforts into the federal government’s hands, while reducing the burden on the local population and providing more available resources.
However, one problem is that Congress has significantly reduced funding for the CERCLA sites.
“The Superfund is no longer ‘superfunded’ and is only a fraction of what it used to be,” Simon said. “There was once about $350 billion in funding – now there’s no remaining balance.”
This is concerning for many reasons, including that once a mine is placed in Superfund status, no other entity can work on it besides the federal government, Simon said.
It is also not clear that a Superfund designation prior to the spill would have made a difference.
A Superfund designation was granted to the Nelson Tunnel and Commodore Waste Rock site in Creede. However, no real groundwork has yet to be seen.
“The Creede designation has been in place for eight years and it’s at a standstill,” Simon said. “They were supposed to install a treatment plant, but that hasn’t happened and they have not gotten what they expected.”
Butler countered this statement by saying that a lot of valuable research has been done, although nothing has happened on the ground. “They have yet to address the bigger issue,” he said.
Although the stakeholders are welcome to have different views on moving forward, 100 percent consensus is needed to reach a decision on a stance representing the group.
Currently, there are many perspectives, according to Simon, which range from being strongly for Superfund designation, adamantly opposed, or uncertain and looking for more information.
“It isn’t a matter of us wanting to go one way or the other,” he said. “It’s about remediation in the most effective way, and that’s our main goal. The Superfund is a possible option.”
There are both pros and cons to all the publicity and the community’s concerned reaction.
“The focus brings attention to the issues, possibly leading to more resources for cleanup,” Simon said. “But negative publicity for Durango has created a bit of a media crisis.”
At this time, it is hard to discern if there will be long-term effects to the river, Butler said.
“We don’t know whether sediments will have long-term effects,” he said. “I think they won’t be very major and we would notice them within months or a few years if there were to be any.”
The ARSG is designed to raise awareness, provide information, and answer questions, not pressure the community into one form of thinking.
“It’s a good uphill battle to get the information to the public about spills in general and what can and cannot be done,” Simon said. “It’s a complex situation and a long story. We learn more everyday, although we’ve known about it for 20 years.”
Since their beginning, they have received recognition and have witnessed positive change resulting from projects they have worked on throughout the Upper Animas River, including Mineral Creek.
The Mineral Creek project, which took about 20 years and is set to be completed early this month, has seen a reduction in loading of zinc and copper by about 70 percent, Simon said.
Trimble Lake has also been improved and now meets Class I aquatic water quality standards, Simon added.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group holds open meetings; the next will be held in Durango on Sept. 22.
For more information on the ARSG, see www.animasriverstakeholdersgroup.org.
From the ARSG’s minutes of May 27, 2015:
“Steve Way with EPA and Allen Sorenson with DRMS [the state Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety] gave a presentation on installing the Red & Bonita bulkhead this summer. Much of the discussion focused on the location of the fracture zone we call the Bonita fault which may be the source of most of the water. The expectation is that the water level will rise in the fracture zone and possibly express in a new location. The question is where might it surface, how much will surface, and what will be the quality. One possibility is that water will surface where the North Fork of Cement Creek crossed the fault zone, below the Gold King #7 level. EPA plans on an intensive sampling program at many sites within the vicinity of the Red & Bonita once the bulkhead valve is closed. Work will begin in a few weeks. Closure is expected in early fall. The process will be reversible if need be because the valve can be re-opened.
“The first step for installing the bulkhead is to muck out the sludge in the tunnel back to the bulkhead site. The sludge will be caught and treated in a system directly below the mine. (As a side note, Allen mentioned that last year when the mine was explored, they found evidence of check dams and diversions indicating that at some point, the miners were dealing with water in the mine workings.) Once this step has been completed, the contractor will start to open up the Gold King #7 level. There is a pool of water several feet deep behind the collapsed portal. The treatment system at the Red & Bonita will be used to handle the water and muck from the Gold King as work begins there. EPA is willing to remove the initial blockage into the Gold King, but if there is another collapse farther in, they may not want to expend the resources to open it up.”
Library creates guide for spill
Reed Library at Fort Lewis College has created a library guide for the Animas River spill. The guide will serve as a repository for information and resources related to the spill, including media coverage and government releases. The guide is open to everyone and can be viewed at http://subjectguides. fortlewis.edu/c.php?g=364191. The guide will be updated on a regular basis as more information becomes available. Reed Library’s main website can be accessed at https://library.fortlewis.edu.