Sunday, September 15, 2019

Council insists on review of emergency notification protocol

Lessons learned from Standard Mine incident

by Mark Reaman

The Crested Butte Town Council made it clear Monday it wants to improve communication with residents in any future emergency situations. So at an upcoming work session with town staff, they will review town protocols regarding how to keep citizens informed.

The desire stems from the October 6 incident at the Standard Mine in which some treated water and sediment from a holding pond was released into Elk Creek by a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA is working to install a bulkhead at the Standard Mine to stem contaminated water leaking from the abandoned mine. Elk Creek flows into Coal Creek above the town’s drinking water intake. When the incident happened, residents expressed concern over whether the water was safe to drink and it took days to find a definitive answer for many citizens.

Representatives of the EPA, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and Ashley Bembenek of Alpine Environmental Consultants came before the council Monday with a debriefing of the incident. Tests of the water and sediment conducted by both the EPA and Alpine confirmed there was no danger to human health as a result of the incident.

EPA project manager on the Standard Mine remediation, Christina Progess, showed a PowerPoint presentation to the council detailing the site and the type of equipment being used at the time. A vacuum truck that was “dewatering” the holding pond dipped too low and sucked up grey sediment and released it into Elk Creek. It was determined about 600 gallons of the water and sediment from the pond was accidentally put into Elk Creek.

The accident occurred about 2 p.m. on Tuesday, October 6 and because an EPA manager was on a conference call on the only phone at the staging trailer, a person was dispatched to inform the town of the incident. That occurred about 4 p.m.

Town public works director Rodney Due and Crested Butte water system manager David Jelinek determined there was no danger to the town drinking water supply. Due informed town manager Todd Crossett about the incident on Wednesday and word began to get out Thursday morning.

That is when the story was picked up by congressman Scott Tipton’s office and the Denver Post. What was a small release was characterized as something akin to the tragic Gold King Mine incident that spilled three million gallons of orange water into the Animas River this past summer. Local residents were concerned about the safety of the town drinking water.

The EPA collected water and sediment samples to test at several points along Elk Creek and near the town water intake on Coal Creek. Bembenek also took several water and sediment samples. The results of both came back showing the creeks had lower concentrations of heavy metals than past results collected since 2008.

“Generally the post-incident results of the sediment and water sampling show lower concentrations than past data except at the site closest to the incident,” explained Progess.

She highlighted the concentrations of zinc, copper, arsenic, lead and manganese. “The conclusion is that sediment collected at the drinking water intake for metals were below pre-event concentrations,” Progess reported. “The concentrations at all the test locations fall within the range of pre-event concentrations. This release does not pose any additional risks on human health or ecological receptors over previous site conditions.”

“The concern is what could happen in the future if there was a serious incident,” said councilman Chris Ladoulis. “What were the lessons learned from this? What will be done differently next time?”

“The key point is notification,” said Progess. “Maybe a satellite phone that can be used to directly call the water treatment plant. Having an understanding that the response should fit the release. Getting the proper information out to inform people correctly.”

“What is the appropriate response? If we had closed the intake it would have been an indication of a bigger problem,” said mayor Aaron Huckstep. “What are the triggers that escalate the response? It is a balancing act but our responsibility is to the health, safety and welfare of our citizens.”

Doug Jamison, Voluntary Cleanup and Redevelopment Program unit leader of the CDPHE, said having a strong partnership with the town was important. “It is an issue we are looking at all over the state at such sites. We are having these types of discussions, and details need to be thought out. It’s a partnership issue. How do we communicate with our local stakeholders?”

“There is little risk for us to overreact. The problem would be, in hindsight, under-reacting,” said Huckstep.

“And it is just as important to let people know when there isn’t a problem,” added Ladoulis. “We have to let people know when things have been determined to be safe.”

“We have reviewed how it was handled and learned some lessons,” said town manager Todd Crossett.

“It’s not just a staff issue, it’s a political issue,” said Huckstep.

“The Denver Post reported that the sky was falling and then didn’t report the next day that it wasn’t falling. That scared some people,” said councilman Jim Schmidt.

“We fell short in the communication aspect,” reiterated Ladoulis.

“Three months ago this would have been nothing,” said Jamison. “It would have been a little drilling mud put into the creek. But after Gold King we are very sensitive to things like this.”

“We are all working together to figure out to make things better,” Due assured the council. “But a final answer won’t be given tonight. Sometimes you have to have faith in the water professionals. You don’t want a widespread panic.”

“The point is there are challenges that are more than technical. They are political,” said Huckstep.

Bembenek also gave the council a PowerPoint review of her findings that confirmed the EPA’s. The concentrations were lower than mean concentrations from previous data and drinking water was not in danger. “The concentrations were well below a human health risk,” she said. “The town staff was correct in its initial assessment that any impact on town drinking water was negligible.”

Everyone agreed that a more comprehensive communication plan would be detailed. The town staff will draw up its protocol for council review.

Paul Merck suggested using radios with a repeater that would allow instant communication in an emergency between Standard Mine personnel and town staff. In terms of citizen awareness, Ladoulis suggested using the model used by the Crested Butte Community School to alert parents in any situation which uses both texts and cell phone calls.

The staff will gather more information and outline the town emergency alert system protocol for the council to review.

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