An EPA contractor work crew at the Standard Mine near Mt. Emmons. courtesy photo

Gold King catastrophe: Could that happen here?

EPA more confident with Standard Mine

By Adam Broderick

After the “catastrophe” last week near Silverton, Colo., when roughly three million gallons of toxic water ran into the Animas River, the question arose whether something similar could happen here in the Upper East River Valley. According to local environmental leaders, the answer is, possibly.

While Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials working on the old Standard Mine this summer say such an event isn’t likely, Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) says there is no guarantee that Coal Creek is completely safe from acid mine drainage.

“As headwaters communities, this three million gallon spill is a strong reminder that we’re all downstream,” Melton said.

AP Photo
AP Photo

Regional project manager for the EPA on the Standard Mine Project Christina Progess said that the EPA is very concerned about what’s happened at the Gold King Mine and that the management team at the Standard Mine on Mt. Emmons near Crested Butte has plans in place to help reduce the likelihood of a similar event happening there.

The Animas River is a source for Durango’s drinking water and a hub for recreation in the area. Last Wednesday, August 5, a cleanup team for the EPA accidentally released nearly three million gallons of water contaminated with heavy metals including arsenic, lead, iron, zinc, copper and mercury into the Animas River near the town of Silverton.

Last Sunday, Durango County and La Plata County declared a state of emergency. Officials have been warning residents, farmers and outdoor recreationists to avoid contact with the water.

According to EPA mining engineer Jim Hanley, who is working on the Standard Mine project, “On August 5, 2015, EPA was conducting an investigation of the Gold King Mine. The intent of the investigation was to create access to the mine, assess ongoing water releases from the mine to treat mine water, and assess the feasibility of further mine remediation. The plan was to excavate the loose material that had collapsed into the caved mine entry back to the timbering. During the excavation, the loose material gave way, opening the adit [mine tunnel] and spilling the water stored behind the collapsed material into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.”

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As of Monday afternoon, the wastewater had reached the San Juan River in New Mexico. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area had issued a statement saying, “Most river sediments will settle out of the water when the river current slows at Lake Powell.”

As for how long it will take for water closest to the spill site to be safe again, officials say that’s hard to determine because data is always changing as the contaminants make their way through the water. Both Governor Hickenlooper and an EPA administrator visited Durango this week to meet with local officials and survey the cleanup progress, and Hickenlooper issued $500,000 to help businesses and towns directly affected by the spill.

On a local level, Alli Melton of High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) told the Crested Butte News this accident demonstrates how challenging it is to clean
up the legacy of acid mine drainage.

“Importantly, it’s not the EPA’s fault alone. Many are just as responsible,” Melton said of the Animas spill. “What we do or fail to do affects millions of people and animals and hundreds of local communities, not just ourselves.

“Over the years, we’ve seen how complicated these efforts often are when working in headwaters, involving complex hydrology between mine workings, ground water, and surface water, as well as seeps and springs, among other things,” Melton continued. “Most unfortunately, it’s the communities and taxpayers that are stuck with the legacy of contamination long after the mining has died out and still in 2015 with no silver bullet to remedy the contamination.”

Melton said although Crested Butte also has a legacy of acid mine drainage, here much of it is being treated by a water treatment plant operated and owned by U.S. Energy. However, no bond has been imposed on the plant, which would be a problem should U.S. Energy ever put operations on hold.

According to Melton, “Without a bond, we have no guarantee that the plant will continue to run without interruption, even though we rely on its continued operation to prevent Coal Creek from having acid mine drainage discharged directly into it.”

Steve Glazer, president of the Coal Creek Watershed Coalition board of directors, noted that in the Gold King Mine, the bulkhead, or dam, had built up mine drainage pressure and failed, releasing the contaminated water.

Glazer said, ‘“In the Standard Mine, there is only juvenile water [current year’s snowmelt] that is contaminated in Level 2 before being discharged at Level 1. The bulkhead planned for installation in Level 1 will have a valve in it and its purpose is only intended to level out the seasonal hydraulic variations and not to build up storage with only minimal pressure behind it.”

Glazer wrote in an email that the water treatment plant (WTP) has a retention pond that can hold one to two days of draining water storage, plus an emergency retention pond that can hold multiple days of discharge. He said if the WTP were to stop operating, after the emergency storage capacity was exceeded, untreated acid mine drainage would contaminate Coal Creek, the Slate River and the East River below their confluences.

“The dilution from the Taylor might be enough to prevent toxic levels in Gunnison (or not). This would have to occur before EPA would step in and take over the WTP. In an emergency, the Town could extend its intake upstream to avoid receiving any contaminated surface overflow,” Glazer wrote.

At the request of the Red Lady Coalition and HCCA, the Crested Butte Town Council agreed at a meeting in late July to go on record that the town needs protection and state and federal agencies will be asked to impose a bond on the plant. A letter is being drafted and an update could be presented at next week’s council meeting.

Progess addressed several differences between the Gold King Mine and the Standard Mine in an email to the News. She said there is a much better understanding of the water levels inside the Standard Mine than at the Gold King Mine because the management team has been inside the Standard Mine and boreholes from the surface have been drilled into the old mine workings so the presence of contaminated water levels and any buildup in pressure can be measured.

Progess noted that the workings within the Standard Mine are not completely full of water.

“We are driving a new tunnel to intercept existing workings behind collapses within the lowest level of the mine,” Progess wrote, pointing out that work at the Standard Mine is proceeding cautiously to ensure contaminated water is contained.

Progess wrote, “We have precautions in place such as containment ponds to trap sediment and water as it flows from the workings, and will be treating this water as it comes out prior to discharging it to Elk Creek. We also have a communication plan set up with the Crested Butte water treatment plant whereby we will notify them if a major release of contaminated water were to occur as a result of our work at Standard. This will allow them to switch to an alternate drinking water source if necessary.”

Carol Worrall, director of public health in Gunnison County, said after seeing what happened to the Animas she also wondered if something similar could happen here. She believes there is a certain amount of “we have the purest water” mentality here in Crested Butte, but we might not be aware of particular metals. She guessed that nearly 70 percent of people in Gunnison County rely on private wells and most people, when testing their wells, test for bacteria. But for cases like these, water needs to be tested for heavy metals, which aren’t as easily detected.

“The responsibility for the private wells lies on the property owners,” Worrall said. “People tend to have their wells tested when they’re initially getting permits, but then go about their lives and don’t do further testing. Most people, when testing their wells, test for bacteria. But when you’re looking at mining, you’re looking at heavy metals.”

Worrall said when she read about the Animas spill, she thought the visuals were pretty shocking and had hopes that maybe the spill would help influence people here to test their own well water. She thinks it would be best for people to test their well water now and then, and if there were some later disturbance, conduct follow-up testing.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health website, there is no generic water test for everything, so each contaminant must be evaluated individually. However, if you’re buying or building a house and need to have a well tested, a standard test is available and testing supplies are free of charge. Call (303) 692-3048 for more information and to order water tests.

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