The Denver Post
Lead pollution spreading
EPA finds metal, other contaminants moving beyond rock, into plants, then possibly carried by bugs to birds to mammals
SILVERTON» A little toxic-lead pollution in Colorado’s mountains lasts long after jobs go away.
Environmental Protection Agency crews conducting Superfund cleanup-prep investigations along Animas River headwaters revealed this week that they’ve found contamination at centuryold mine sites at levels 100 times higher than danger thresholds for wildlife.
This lead and dozens of other contaminants are spreading beyond waste-rock piles into surrounding “halos” where they are absorbed by plants and then can be ingested by bugs and transferred from the insects to birds to, ultimately, mammals. EPA officials said tissue samples from deer will be tested to assess ecological harm.
“You start to understand the scope of the environmental problem and how long this is going to take,” EPA Superfund project chief Rebecca Thomas said after a town hall meeting this week in
Silverton. “It is pretty overwhelming.
“We don’t really have an active mining industry in this state anymore. Yet we still see so many impacts. And we’re just looking at the Bonita Peak Mining District in the San Juan Mountains. Think how much more widespread it is across the Rocky Mountain West. It’s a big problem. It’s going to take many years to solve it — and a lot of money.”
The lead, measured at concentrations up to 5,000 parts per million, surfaced in the latest round of sampling and study that were spurred by a federal declaration last year of a Superfund environmental disaster linked to the 2015 Gold King Mine spill that turned the Animas River mustardyellow through three states.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said Superfund cleanups will be the EPA’s priority, even as he and other Republicans push to trim the agency’s $8 billion budget, because Americans deserve to have environmental harm fixed as required by law.
Mining that began in the late 19th century, churning out minerals that propelled the rise of the U.S., left tens of thousands of abandoned tunnels leaking acidic metals-laced water into Western watersheds — continuing now when clean water increasingly is coveted.
The equivalent of the Gold King spill still happens again and again, every couple of weeks, as thousands of gallons of the acidmetals mine water flows into creeks where few fish or even aquatic bugs can survive.
But Silverton residents and their elected leaders worry not just about environmental degradation but also about EPA targeting of “potentially responsible parties” liable for footing some of the Superfund cleanup bill.
Those costs will depend on whether the EPA decides on risky concrete “bulkhead” plugs to stop leaks from underground mine tunnels and geological fractures, or water-treatment plants that would have to run forever. Under Superfund law, Colorado taxpayers could be left paying $2 million a year to run a water-treatment plant just below the Gold King Mine, just as Colorado has been left paying perpetually at other now-toxic mines.
“The lead thing surprises me,” San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier said, saying he doubts deer tissue tests will show wide impact because wildlife exposures may be brief.
The EPA teams probably are measuring lead levels in part to produce legally defensible data for legal battles over who will pay, Fetchenhier said. “There are some mine owners who are definitely worried about being a potentially responsible party.”
The EPA must take account of naturally occurring minerals in streams above Silverton, he said. “How far do you go with your cleanup if 50 percent to 70 percent of your metals loading is natural?”
The EPA experts say their data on contamination will help focus cleanup at the worst of 46 targeted sites, among 180 or so old mines above Silverton. Much of the data builds on information gathered over 30 years by the local Animas River Stakeholders Group.
“I would like to see the EPA focus on actually removing metals out of streams, … removing the sources from the streams and improving water quality,” said ARSG co-coordinator Peter Butler, who also has served on Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission and leads an advisory cleanup working group.
Thomas acknowledged concerns about drawn-out EPA processes.
“It is a valid criticism of the EPA — taking far too long in the studies before we start to take response actions,” she said, adding that heavy work will begin after snow melts in 2018, when a draft “record of decision” should be complete.
Until 2002, a water-treatment plant run by Sunnyside Gold along Cement Creek filtered contaminants from leaking old mines in the area. But when Sunnyside fulfilled its legal obligations after the 1991 closure of the Sunnyside Mine, state regulators let the company stop running the treatment plant. Sunnyside had installed bulkhead plugs in their mine workings to back up hundreds of millions of water inside the mountain.
Subsequent owners of mines in the area were unable to run the treatment plant. Toxic contamination worsened, and on Aug. 5, 2015, an EPA team investigating the Gold King’s main portal set off a 3 million gallon spill into Animas River headwaters.
After the spill, the EPA restarted and improved the plant to treat up to 1,100 gallons of water a minute. The agency is spending about $1.2 million a year to run the plant. However, it’s only treating the 620 gallonsper-minute leaking from Gold King. EPA officials have yet to find a place to permanently dispose of tons of waste sludge.
Butler suggested the EPA could run the plant permanently, sharing costs with the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and other agencies responsible for land where old mines are leaking.
“I worry that the EPA will spend tens of millions of dollars studying the groundwater and come up with a solution that may or may not work and might be just as costly as a watertreatment plant,” Butler said.
EPA is required to conduct lengthy “remedial investigations,” as part of the Superfund process for dealing with the worst environmental disasters. EPA so far has spent less than $5 million, not including Gold King emergency expenditures, Thomas said.
EPA information gatekeepers and officials responsible for the budget could not provide a more detailed accounting that The Denver Post requested last week. Pruitt visited the Gold King site in August. Doug Benevento, who this week started work as the EPA’s regional chief, has said he will make water quality and responsiveness a priority.
The cleanup is complicated not only by toxic contaminants spreading through waste piles and streams but by the hundreds of miles of interconnected mine tunnels that, combined with natural fissures and faults, create the geologic equivalent of Swiss cheese. Leaks stopped in one place can spurt from another.
A local Mountain Studies Institute backed by the EPA has begun work to try to sort out this underground maze so that bulkheads possibly could be used effectively. MSI hydrologist Rory Cowie has been measuring water quantities and contaminant levels on the mountains above Silverton.
“We would like to drill more holes,” Cowie said. “There are so many interconnections in these mountains from fractures and mine workings. If you turn a valve on one, what will happen somewhere else?
“By investing up front, we may come up with more innovative, targeted solutions. A little extra effort upfront could end up giving you more options that cost less and have less continual maintenance – cheaper.”
EPA officials this week revealed that they conducted a test of a bulkhead in the Red and Bonita Mine, which is near Gold King. EPA contractors closed it off and let water fill 5 feet of a 7-foot-high tunnel. “It held,” Thomas said, although leaks were detected, indicating a need to shore up seals before a bigger test planned for summer.
At a briefing this week, EPA officials shared their data on lead and water quality with locals, who listened intently and impressed EPA experts with knowledge that rivals their own.
Southwestern Colorado communities, including Silverton, count on tourism now that mining jobs have moved overseas. Silverton high school graduates still aim for careers in mining, arguing that if modern society needs minerals, they should be produced responsibly at home, rather than in countries where environmental protections are weaker.
Silverton’s interim town manager Michelle Hamilton said evidence of lead that could threaten wildlife and potentially people “is certainly a concern.”
But as she receives more and more calls from environmental researchers, she is also seeing new potential. She has asked the EPA to collaborate in developing a mining cleanup innovation research center.
“We want to be able to invite people in,” Hamilton said. “We have to diversify our economy. We cannot just rely on tourism. You don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket.”