Next steps for the Animas: Superfund status remains a controversial idea, but cleanup efforts continue


Graffiti scrawled across a health-advisory warning posted along the Animas River shows skepticism about the condition of the river two months after a spill of more than 3 million gallons of toxic mining wastes. Photo by Janelli F. Miller.

A little more than two months after the Gold King Mine discharged 3 million gallons of acidic drainage into Cement Creek, the Animas River, and eventually the San Juan River, affected communities are still trying to decide what to do next.

When the Animas Rivers Stakeholders Group met in Durango on Sept. 22, it drew an actively participating audience of more than 70, including representatives of a number of government entities, as well as students and citizens.

The ARSG is made up of concerned individuals with various interests and perspectives who have been meeting since 1994 to address metal-loading caused by historic mining in the Animas River watershed near Silverton. The informally structured group has no legal authority to make decisions regarding the river, but it does research and makes recommendations.

Peter Butler, one of three co-coordinators of the ARSG, who led the Sept. 22 discussion, sought input multiple times from the audience about the best course of action. He stated that the ARSG does not have all the answers and will not claim to have them. If there are solutions, he said, it will take a collaborative effort to find them.

Missing from the crowd was strong representation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency responsible for the environmental disaster that affected waterways in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and the Navajo Nation. An EPA-overseen contractor was working to probe the status of waters built up in the Gold King Mine when a backhoe breached a barrier, triggering the spill.

The most heated debate involved the possibility of a “Superfund” listing under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), to address the continuing problem of old mines in the watershed that leak toxic wastes into waterways.

Doug Jamison with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said that although he is a proponent of the Superfund, the EPA and state health department are only proposing the designation as a possibility. Questions from the audience relating to timelines, funding and the approval process were not fully answered.

Some suggested that listing the site on the Superfund’s National Priorities List would lead to prompter remedial action. One audience member said that while ARSG does not officially take a position on the Superfund listing, it appeared that the members were actually anti-Superfund.

Jamison said that the main objective is remediation in any form.

“The ultimate goal is to improve water quality, with or without the Superfund,” Jamison said.

The Superfund, which requires states to actively participate in both funding and establishing responsive action for contaminated sites, was created in December of 1980 under President Carter to clean up hazardous wastes.

In the United States, there are approximately 1,700 Superfund sites. In Colorado, there are currently 25 designated sites, including federal, radiological, landfill, industrial and mining facilities, with mining sites comprising half of Colorado’s total.

The process of getting onto the National Priorities List is complicated and lengthy but the next step can prove even harder.

“It’s not a quick process,” Jamison said. “But I will say we’ve gotten better over the years.”

Steps include a preliminary assessment and site inspection; joining the National Priorities List (on average this step takes six months, but some sites have been listed on the NPL for more than 30 years before reaching the next step); a remedial investigation and feasibility study; a record of decision; then remedial design and action.

In the case of the Silverton-area mines, some of these steps have already been taken because of the data available that has been captured over the last 20 years.

However, Bill Simon, another ARSG co-coordinator, stated that although studies have been done, the EPA would start from scratch in collecting its own data.

Many locals are concerned, if not outright opposed, to a Superfund listing for a variety of reasons, including worries about its impacts on home values and mortgages (mainly for those living in Silverton).

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican representing Colorado’s Third District, voiced those concerns in testimony Oct. 1 in the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

“A listing under Superfund could taint this area for decades to come, without regard to the impact it could have on business,” said Tipton. “I think we can all agree that tourism requires a clean environment, especially river-based tourism where people come to swim, fish or kayak.

“Tourism is also dependent on perception: a belief that an area is contaminated with toxic waste would undeniably affect how many people are willing to spend the night and spend their money there. Superfund status is a billboard announcing to the world that the environment here is not safe for humans.”

Tipton and Colorado senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet favor “Good Samaritan” legislation as a way to encourage mine clean-ups. Such legislation would hold harmless outside parties seeking to remediate old mines even if their efforts cause problems.

But Jamison argued that not all Superfund sites result in a downturn in home values. For example, as one audience member pointed out, a mine near Aspen that is on the Superfund list has generally not triggered a decline in home values or the number of mortgages being issued.

The state’s role following a designation can either be as lead or support. For the first 10 years, the state pays 10 percent of cleanup costs, shared with the EPA, and after a decade takes full financial responsibility.

“There really isn’t a lot of impact on the community and that anxiety dissipates as more certainty comes out,” Jamison said.

Questions regarding who supports the decision of whether there will be a Superfund listing were not answered clearly, although Jamison did say it is the governor’s decision to write a letter based on input from the community.

“Sometimes, it’s been counties that have written letters to the governor,” said Johanna Miller, EPA director for assessment and revitalization. “Sometimes it’s been town boards. Or, sometimes ordinances have been passed. Usually, it’s some action taken at a local government town level that gets in front of the governor. And that is what’s looked at.”

But Simon said the choice is ultimately up to the EPA.

“In the final analysis, it is the EPA’s decision,” he said. “Once you cross that line, you are no longer equal. Once there is a listing, the EPA takes the reins.”

Butler addressed the importance of shifting attention to treating smaller, ongoing flows to prevent future disasters.

“People are focused on a blowout, but when you start talking about what physically you can do about it, it becomes a hard issue,” he said. “I’m trying to put that a little bit to the side so we can focus on continuous flow.”

An important first step in preventing mine blowouts is identifying the mines at risk, Butler said, which has not proven to be an easy task.

Kirsten Brown, a project manager for the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, and members of the state health department are currently putting together a list of mines of concern.

Simon said there are mines as dangerous as or even more dangerous than the Gold King Mine, including the Bandora Mine on South Mineral Creek, which sits above a popular camping area near Silverton.

Once a mine and current or possible blockages are identified, the next clear question is: What next?

Steve Fearn, another co-coordinator, said various ideas have been presented.

“Each mine is unique and while we’re trying to find common characteristics to evaluate potential, there are so many unknowns,” Fearn said. “Some might work with bulkheads; others will not because of the conditions they’re in. Each has to be looked at individually.”

A bulkhead is a 10-to-20-foot concrete wall placed in the mine opening. There are currently 12 bulkheads in the Sunnyside Mine area, and soon there will be a 13th at the Red and Bonita Mine site.

“Bulkheads are singular solutions,” said Brown, who delivered a presentation about the subject. “You can put one in and get rid of the entire problem to control acid-mine drainage.”

She said a bulkhead at Gold King Mine could have prevented the disaster.

“If there had been a bulkhead there, there would not have been a blow-out,” she said. “They all have the capacity to prevent a blow-out if they’re designed properly.”

A day after the ARSG meeting, the federal government announced that it will open a temporary water-treatment system at the Gold King Mine by Oct. 14 to deal with the continuing drainage of contaminated waters. This will replace temporary settling ponds constructed by the EPA in August and will treat water still discharging from the mine, according to an EPA news release.

The last water-treatment facility was closed in 2004 after state and federal agencies, along with owners of the mine, decided to plug the mine, although it had been effective in improving the targeted water and rebounding fish populations.

“We do have good measurements of the Animas during that time frame,” Butler said. “Without the treatment plant today, there have been biological impacts on fish species and micro-invertebrates.”

Costs for the treatment facility could reach $12 million to $15 million to build it, and operating costs would be up to $2 million a year.

There is currently a lot of data from the last 20 years addressing long-term impacts of continuous mine drainage, with the majority coming from River Watch volunteers, who take samples for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife to analyze. There are eight testing locations downstream from Bakers Bridge in Durango, and four in Silverton.

“People think the government is handling this, but that’s not really the case,” Butler said. “It’s really important for people to care about testing water-quality samples, and without the volunteers and state giving lab time, we wouldn’t have this information.”

Studies show that fish populations in the Animas have dropped off in the last 10 years, although research has not conclusively shown why. There once were four species of trout in the Animas; that has been reduced to one, and in much smaller population numbers.

“Maybe it’s because of higher temperatures or low water flow,” Butler said.

“But we can’t really say one way or the other.”

Toxic chemicals in the sediment along the Animas remain an issue in evaluating the long-term effects of the Gold King disaster, although not much data has been gathered for the short term.

“Now that we’re back to pre-spill water conditions, sediment is the concern,” Butler said.

“We don’t currently know a lot,” he said. “We don’t think there is [an impact from] short-term exposure but it’s hard to tell without more data.”

The state health department has stated that it doesn’t think the spill is problematic for short-term exposure but that it is hard to address the effects in the long-term.

Gold King Mine continues to release about 550 gallons per minute, which is much higher than the discharge in the past, Butler said.

“We are unclear why the discharge continues to be so high or where the water is coming from,” he said. “Historically, the discharge has been 50 to 100 gallons. Over a year, 300 million gallons will be released, which is 100 times more than a single release.”

From October 2015. Read similar stories about , .