MAC: Mines and Communities

US river fouled by 1 million gallons of contaminated mine water

Published by MAC on 2015-08-08
Source: Denver Post, Durango Herald, ENS (2015-08-08)

Animas River fouled by 1 million gallons of contaminated mine water

EPA accidently releases water; Durango residents warned to cut back on water use as health officials evaluate river

By Jesse Paul and Bruce Finley

The Denver Post

6 August 2015

DURANGO — A spill that sent 1 million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine into the Animas River, turning the river orange, set off warnings Thursday that contaminants threaten water quality for those downstream.

The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed it triggered the spill while using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton.

Health and environmental officials are evaluating the river as it flows through San Juan and La Plata counties. They said the wastewater contained zinc, iron, copper and other heavy metals, prompting the EPA to warn agricultural users to shut off water intakes along the river and law officials to close the river to recreational users.

"There's nothing that can be done to stop the flow of the river," said Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "We can only wait until the flows slow down. We had a big heavy spring (of rain) here."

Lewandowski said the EPA is testing to determine the river's metal levels and results should be returned by mid-Friday.

Downstream in Durango, hundreds of people gathered along the Animas River to watch as the blue waters turned a thick, radiant orange and yellow just after 8 p.m., nearly 34 hours after the spill started.

"It is a sad day. The fish could be gone," said Daniel Silva, 37, who was fishing near Durango as he does every day after work. "I am safety-orientated. Working in the oil fields, we take measures every day to prevent leakage. Why didn't they? If this kills the fish, what do we do?"

After people told him the contamination was coming, he stopped fishing, and his daughter, who was swimming, got out of the water. And they waited on a bridge.

City officials asked residents to cut back on their water use, and irrigation of city land at Fort Lewis College was stopped.

The La Plata County Sheriff's Office has closed the river from the San Juan County line — including Durango — to New Mexico. Authorities say they will re-evaluate the closure once the EPA tests are confirmed.

The spill was triggered at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the mine on the upper portions of Cement Creek, about 55 miles north of Durango. The fluid was being held behind unconsolidated debris near an abandoned mine portal, the EPA says. The agency called the release "unexpected."

Deputy Stephen Lowrance of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office said authorities are keeping people away from the Animas. In Silverton, signs have been posted warning of the danger, and the sheriff's office sent out a public health advisory to stay away from Cement Creek and the Animas River.

"The river looks pretty nasty," Lowrance said. "It doesn't look like water; it just looks like sludge."

The mine is owned by Golden-based San Juan Corp., Durango attorney Nancy Agro said Thursday afternoon. She said the EPA had been operating at the site for years under an access agreement.

"Upon suspending work last year, the EPA backfilled the portal to the mine," Argo said in a statement. "On (Wednesday), while the EPA was removing the backfill from the portal to the Gold King Mine to continue its investigation this year, the plug blew out, releasing contaminated water behind the backfill."

At the time of the spill, EPA responders were at the scene evaluating the toxic materials already leaking into Cement Creek.

"There were several workers at the site at the time of the breach. All were unharmed," the San Juan Basin Health Department said in a news release. "The EPA recommends that recreational users of the Animas River avoid contact with or use of the river until the pulse of mine water passes."

Pet owners have been told to keep their dogs and livestock out of the Animas River until testing is done.

Steve Salka, utilities manager for the city of Durango, said he pulls water from the Animas in the summer to help replenish the Terminal Reservoir. He said that although the city's main water source is the Florida River, the contamination could cause serious problems.

"I want to know what's in it," he said Thursday. "The most important thing is what's in it. I need to know.

"Back in the 1800s, things were used in mining that aren't allowed anymore."

The Animas is a 126-mile river that flows into the San Juan River in Farmington, N.M. The San Juan eventually spills into the Colorado River in Utah.

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources, says the mine operated more than a century ago. It was permitted again in 1986 but never produced in the modern era, he said.

"Its permit was revoked in 2005," he said.

Bill Simon, one of coordinators for the Animas River Stakeholders Group, a water-quality collaborative, said the Gold King Mine was one of several abandoned sites in the area they have been monitoring for decades.

"I think the EPA may have misinterpreted what was going on," Simon said.

Simon said iron oxide in the spill is his biggest concern, especially since it can clog the gills of fish and large invertebrates.

"This river system is somewhat used to pretty poor water quality anyway, so it remains to be seen what effect it's going to be on aquatic life," he said.

The EPA agrees and says because of long-standing water-quality impairment associated with heavy metals in Cement Creek, there are no fish populations. Further, federal officials say, the Animas River historically has been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton.

It's unknown whether the spill could have any human health impacts, officials say.

"We are monitoring the situation very closely and working with the EPA to get testing results to make sure we minimize any health impacts," said Flannery O'Neil, spokeswoman for the area's health department.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife says it is monitoring wildlife health in the area.

The agency has placed cages with fish in the river to see how they react to the waters. Officials say they should know Friday whether there were any effects.

"This is a significant spill," said Elizabeth Holley, an assistant professor of mining engineering at the Colorado Schools of Mines.

Staff writer Yesenia Robles contributed to this report.


Catastrophe on the Animas

By Chase Olivarius-Mcallister , Mary Shinn and Shane Benjamin Herald staff writers

The Durango Herald

6 August 2015

Acidic wastewater from an abandoned mine above Silverton coursed its way through La Plata County on Thursday, turning the Animas River orange-brown, forcing the city of Durango to stop pumping raw water from the river and persuading the sheriff to close the river to public use.

Residents lined the banks of the Animas River on Thursday afternoon to watch the toxic wastewater as it flowed through Durango city limits. But the sludge slowed as it snaked its way through the oxbow in the Animas Valley, and the murk didn’t arrive until after 8 p.m.

The accident occurred about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County. A mining and safety team working on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the discharge, according to a news release issued by the EPA.

The EPA’s team was working with heavy equipment to secure and consolidate a safe way to enter the mine and access contaminated water, said Richard Mylott, a spokesman for the EPA in Denver. The project was intended to pump and treat the water and reduce metal pollution flowing out of the mine into Cement Creek, he said.

The disaster released about 1 million gallons of acidic water containing sediment and metals flowing as an orange-colored discharge downstream through Cement Creek and into the Animas River.

River closure

The Animas River was closed to tubers, rafters and kayakers Thursday as the toxic plume made its way through Durango. The closure went into effect at 3 p.m., and it will remain in effect indefinitely until the river is deemed safe, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. Government officials aren’t certain what toxins and at what levels toxins are present in the river, and, therefore, decided it was best to close the river to public use.

The closure, which applies to all flotation devices, is in effect for the entire stretch of the Animas River in La Plata County.

“This decision was made in the interest of public health after consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, San Juan Basin Health Department and representatives of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe,” Smith said. “EPA test results of the Animas River are expected within 24-48 hours, and the order will be re-evaluated at that time.”

City to conserve water

The city of Durango stopped pumping water out of the Animas River on Wednesday to prevent contaminating the city reservoir.

The Animas is an important secondary source of water for the city during the summer, and residents need to conserve as much water as possible over the next few days until the water is safe to use, said Steve Salka, the city’s utilities director.

No formal water restrictions were issued.

At south City Market, Sean Lumen, who was hoisting bottled water onto emptied shelves, said if customers continued to buy water at Thursday’s rate, the store would run out sometime Friday.

At Albertsons, front-end manager Shelley Osborn said she initially thought people were buying up bottled water at an unusually rapid rate because it was on sale. Aaron Memro, grocery manager, estimated Albertsons sold two pallets of water Thursday – far more than usual.

During the emergency, Salka will not send raw water to Hillcrest Golf Club or Fort Lewis College for grounds use. The city also will not water any city-owned parks for the next three days to help conserve, he said.

On hot summer days, the city can use up to 9.2 million gallons a day. But the city can pump only 5.3 million gallons a day out of the Florida River.

The city reservoir was about 4.5 feet below capacity on Wednesday, Salka said.

“This couldn’t happen at a worse time for me, so I have to be really cautious,” he said.

Fish habitat

The EPA downplayed the potential effects on aquatic life, saying there are long-standing water-quality impairment issues associated with heavy metals in Cement Creek and upper portions of the Animas River. As a result, there are no fish populations in the Cement Creek watershed, and fish populations have historically been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton in the Animas River, the release said.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife placed four cages containing fish in the Animas River to monitor what happens to them, said spokesman Joe Lewandowski. The cages were placed at 32nd Street, the fish hatchery, Dallabetta Park and the High Bridge.

“We’ll see if those fish survive,” Lewandowski said. “We’re also monitoring to make sure we don’t get infiltration into the hatchery, because that could be a problem.”

Peter Butler, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and former chairman of the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, said it remains to be seen whether the toxic metal concentrations flowing downriver will impact the few fish species living below Bakers Bridge. But if the plume does have a negative impact on aquatic life, Butler estimated that fish would die within hours of contact with the plume.

The contaminated water made its way to Bakers Bridge in La Plata County by Thursday morning and hit town by Thursday evening. The material was expected to cross the New Mexico state line between 4 and 5 a.m. Friday and arrive in Farmington on Friday evening.

Farmington city officials shut down all water-supply intake pumps to avoid contamination and advised citizens to stay out of the river until the discoloration has passed.

Local officials asked all agricultural water users to shut off water intakes.

What’s in the water?

Butler said the water being discharged from Gold King carried high concentrations of iron, aluminum, cadmium, zinc and copper.

While he didn’t know precisely the metal levels in the water that surged out of Gold King on Wednesday, Butler said: “I’m sure they were really high.”

Though Gold King has no record of emitting mercury, Butler said “when old mines open up like that, mercury sometimes drains out. Possibly, some other metals might have been released, like lead and arsenic. But there’s no evidence of that at this point.”

Butler said Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety scientist Kirstin Brown had tested pH levels – the telltale measure of acidity in water – in the Animas River at Trimble Lane when the toxic plume arrived.

The pH level dropped from 7.8 to 5.8.

“That’s a pretty big drop,” Butler said.

Silverton does not use water from Cement Creek, so its water source remained uncontaminated, said William Tookey, the San Juan County administrator who met Thursday with EPA officials.

The Animas River was looking healthier about 24 hours after the discharge in Silverton, he said.

Gold King problems

This is not the first time there has been a water-related accident at one of the mines, but it did come as a surprise to the town, Tookey said.

He was not sure if the release would change attitudes toward the EPA in town. For years, some town residents and local officials have been opposed to a Superfund listing.

“Since it was the EPA that was responsible for this, it may make people less likely to be open to them,” he said.

Butler said everyone invested in improving the Animas River’s water quality wanted to get into Gold King, because, for years, it has been one of the two biggest contributors of heavy-metal loads in the Animas Basin.

“They had a plan for handling the mine pool, but something went wrong, and it all came blowing out,” Butler said.

EPA teams will be sampling and investigating downstream locations over the next several days to confirm the release has passed and poses no additional concerns for aquatic life or water users.

“This unfortunate incident underscores the very reason EPA and the state of Colorado are focused on addressing the environmental risks at abandoned mine sites,” said David Ostrander, director of EPA’s emergency-response program in Denver. “We are thankful that the personnel working on this mine cleanup project were unharmed. EPA will be assessing downstream conditions to ensure any impacts and concerns are addressed, as necessary.”


EPA Workers Spill 1M Gallons of Colorado Mine Waste

Environmental News Service (ENS)

8 August 2015

DENVER, Colorado – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed that its workers caused the spill of one million gallons of wastewater from an abandoned mine in the mountains of Colorado.

The EPA workers were using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at the Gold King Mine, north of Silverton, when they breached a strip of raised land, and the toxic water flowed into the Animas River.

The spill turned the river a mustardy-orange color, and officials warned Thursday that contaminants threaten water quality downstream.

The EPA said late Wednesday that at 10:30 am, an EPA and State Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety team working to investigate and address contamination at the Gold King Mine in San Juan County, “unexpectedly triggered a large release of mine waste water into the upper portions of Cement Creek.”

The creek eventually drains into the San Juan River.

“Initial estimates are that the release contained approximately one million gallons of water that was held behind unconsolidated debris near an abandoned mine portal,” the EPA said.

There were several workers at the site at the time of the breach, all were unharmed.

“This unfortunate incident underscores the very reason EPA and the State of Colorado are focused on addressing the environmental risks at abandoned mine sites,” said David Ostrander, director of EPA’s emergency response program in Denver.

“We are thankful that the personnel working on this mine cleanup project were unharmed,” said Ostrander. “EPA will be assessing downstream conditions to ensure any impacts and concerns are addressed, as necessary.”

The primary environmental concern is the pulse of contaminated water containing sediment and metals flowing as an orange-colored discharge downstream through Cement Creek and into the Animas River.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment has notified water users downstream of the release so they can take appropriate steps to turn off intakes until the contaminated water passes.

The Town of Silverton does not take water out of the affected portions of Cement Creek.

Due to current and longstanding water quality impairment associated with heavy metals there are no fish in the Cement Creek watershed and populations in the Animas River have historically been impaired for several miles downstream of Silverton, the EPA said in a statement.

Over the next several days, EPA teams will be sampling and investigating downstream locations to confirm that the release has passed and poses no additional concerns for aquatic life or water users.

In a statement Saturday, the federal agency said it is providing technical and laboratory assistance.

Tests have found an elevated concentration of acid and higher levels of copper, zinc and manganese in areas affected by the spill, the EPA said.

The five drinking water systems that might be impacted downstream in New Mexico have closed off intakes from the river and will not draw water again until the quality of water samples improves, the EPA said. The water systems can store water or use alternative sources, the agency said.

The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity blasted the EPA for downplaying the possibility of impacts to fish and wildlife from the spill.

The San Juan River in New Mexico and Utah contains habitat for several species of federally endangered fish and birds. Many of these, including razorback suckers and Colorado pikeminnow, are already afflicted by exposure to toxic compounds, such as selenium and mercury, associated with mine waste.

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