Swiping at the EPA was easy enough, but context matters in river spills
by Allen Best
It was the cheap story, and none less than the Economist ran with it this week in recapping the mine spill into the waterways of Southwestern Colorado. “Arsenic and lost face,” was the headline over a short story about the troubles stirred up after a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency breached a dam holding back the Kool-Aid-looking water in the Gold King Mine above Silverton.
Plenty of people piled on the EPA after the Aug. 5 spill. It seems lots of people hate the EPA—and this was before the Clean Power Plan. “To be accused of unconstitutional overreach is unfortunate,” concluded the Economist. “To give proof of incompetence when faced with such an accusation is unforgivable.”
But the Durango Herald may have been much closer to the truth of the situation when, only a day after the fouled waters reached Durango, it described the EPA as the one “left holding the hot potato.”
Indeed, Silverton and San Juan County had resisted a Superfund designation, afraid of the bad publicity for the community. Instead, there had been what the Herald described as a “piecemeal cleanup effort. …It was a compromise and gamble,” the newspaper went on to say. “It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.”
The lesson along the I-70 corridor in Colorado is that the EPA has managed to achieve cleanups where others have bumbled or done nothing. Consider the Eagle Mine, between Minturn and Red Cliff, just around the corner from Vail. Mining ended there in the late 1970s after a century. The mess was designated a Superfund site. But by the winter of 1989-90, the Eagle River looked much like the Animas River of a couple weeks ago. State officials had signed off on a low-cost gamble of their own, sealing the Eagle Mine. This lower-cost solution didn’t work. Water contaminated by heavy metals in the mine escaped into the river. At one point, snow at the Beaver Creek Resort, manufactured with water drawn from the Eagle River, had a faint orange hue. It wasn’t a year the Denver Broncos were going to the Super Bowl. Then the EPA was called in. Things got fixed—more or less.
That even a well-funded cleanup continues to have problems should be sobering. This week, Todd Fessenden, board president of the Eagle Mine Limited, a group charged with disseminating technical information in ways the layman can understand, sent an e-mail to elected officials in Eagle County assessing the river conditions there, in the wake of the Animals spill.
“What you may not know is that we’ve had more than a dozen spills of heavy metal-laden mine water, or partially treated mine water, in the last 6 years,” he wrote. “Those spills have ranged in magnitude from 0.5 gallons per minute to 428,000 gallons over a 23-hour period. I’ve personally seen the Eagle River run green and the same shade of orange the Animas turned in the last 6 years.”
Still, the river is much better now. Vail seems to have survived just fine, despite the presence of the EPA.
In Summit County, the Pennsylvania Mine was a long-time mess. It’s in Peru Gulch, not far from the A-Basin ski area, and upstream from Keystone. The original miners had been gone many decades. A couple had purchased the property for back taxes but, realizing the problems, couldn’t unload it. Nobody else would touch it either, because of the liability if something went wrong.
But progress has been made in recent years. The mine less than a decade ago was running red downstream to Keystone and into Dillon Reservoir. It was, as the Summit Daily News noted in a story last week, long one of the most toxic abandoned mines in the state.
Again, the EPA’s involvement was crucial for making progress. By stepping in, explained Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-site coordinator at the Pennsylvania Mine, the EPA takes on liability. With the EPA involved, the state will step in and do work, too. “When bad things happen, it becomes the EPA’s fault,” he explained.
And things can go wrong. “It’s like working on the bomb squad. You have a set of techniques, but, every now and then, the bomb goes off,” he said.
Jeff Graves, the senior project manager for the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety, said the potential for a “catastrophic release, surge event, whatever you want to call it, will be significantly reduced if not eliminated” by late September.
The Pennsylvania Mine currently puts 12,000 pounds annually of zinc into Peru Creek. No fish can be found in the creek nor in the Snake River downstream as far as Keystone, where the pollution is diluted. But if not as bad as the Pennsylvania Mine, more than 100 abandoned mines remains in the Snake and Blue River watersheds.
Reviewing the Animas pollution, Wyatt laments the “finger-pointing without putting what happened (at Silverton) into context.” The mining history above Silverton was difficult, with the mines interconnected and covering a broad area.
Lynn Padgett, a geologist, has been studying abandoned mines in the San Juan Mountains since 1990. Elected a Ouray County commissioner in 2009, but has kept after her interest, most recently appearing before a committee of Club 20 meeting in Lake City in support of Good Samaritan legislation.
Good Samaritan legislation would allow third parties to step in and clean up a mine site without incurring liability if something goes wrong, such as occurred at the Gold King Mine, as specified by the Clean Water Act. By Padgett’s rough count, there have been 15 different pieces of legislation have been introduced into Congress over the years—and all have foundered.
“The Clean Water Act is ironically a barrier to having clean water,” she says.
Padgett remembers going to the Gold King Mine in 2012 with then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, who had worked to move Good Samaritan legislation. As had several other congressional representatives. The problem always ends up being a concern about potentially responsible individuals being allowed to get duck their responsibilities.
The current proposal is being pushed by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton. The legislation would create pilot projects. Other counties have been asked to lend support, and a letter from Pitkin County Commissioner Rachael Richards asks that the pilot be broadened to include the hard-rock mineral belt of Colorado, specifically including Eagle, Gunnison, Pitkin and Summit counties.
Padgett says the Gold King Mine doesn’t provide a good argument against mining. It and most of the other old mines pre-date modern laws that govern mining. “Our problem is these very old, historic mines,” she says.
Did the EPA truly mess up, as critics say, or was it, as the Durango Herald said, the party left holding the hot potato? Padgett says she’s waiting to get more information.
But like Wyatt and many others, she’s worried that too many will draw the wrong less from Gold King and the Animas, calling for reduced funding of the EPA by Congress. “That would be the wrong answer,” she says.
Crested Butte also asks: could it happen here?
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Could it happen here? That was the question Crested Butte after the spill in the Animas River. In fact, Coal Creek in Crested Butte was one of those orange-looking creeks several decades ago, before a water treatment plant was put into operation.
Could there still be a gush of orange through Crested Butte?
Not likely, local environmental officials and others tell the Crested Butte News, but there’s one big uncertainty. The water treatment plant for the Standard Mine is operated by a Wyoming company called U.S. Energy. The company owns the mining rights on Mt. Emmons, site of the mine but also a major deposit of molybdenum. The company and others have been trying for decades to develop the molybdenum deposit.
Mark Reaman, editor of the News, explains that operating the water treatment plant costs U.S. Energy $1.8 million a year. “If that plant goes down or U.S. Energy is not able to pay for its operation, Coal Creek will look like a haunted Halloween story,” he says.
He calls on local groups and elected officials to press the state and federal government for a plan that will guarantee continued water treatment.
“U.S. Energy isn’t exactly rolling in the green,” he writes. He cites the company’s quarterly report. The company’s stock price plunged from $4.25 a year ago to 60 cents last week. “Can you say shaky?”
Taking swipes at the EPA after the spill