Good News on Las Animas

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Friday I finished a fantastic Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting as a sportsperson’s representative from Boulder.  There are public Commission records of people observing the terms “sportsperson” and “Boulder” are not normally used in the same sentence. We were in Craig this meeting on the Western slope and the town was humming with sportsmen and women arriving for the season.

About a month ago I wrote about seeing the Las Animas river from the air near Durango as the pollution from the Gold King mine flowed down the green river turning it to orange.

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The contaminated water from the Gold King mine near Silverton was pouring heavy metals into the river. For me the event broke down into two crisis events:

  1. The EPA’s breach of the mine retaining wall spilling pollution downstream; and
  2. The crisis management response of EPA.

The good news is the pollution of the river is trending toward the most optimistic of predictions.

Patt Dorsey, Southwest Region Manager for CPW, briefed us on information that was largely already public, but in a very practical way.  Patt is one of many stars at CPW who managed to demystify most of the conspiracy theories and misconceptions.  Here is my list of important takeaways:

  1. The disturbing color of the water is from iron, which is largely not harmful to humans and wildlife.
  2. The leak at three million gallons is hard to picture, but Patt pointed out it was 9 acre feet of water.  An acre foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre of land in a sheet of water one foot deep.  A lot of water to be sure, but a tiny fraction of the river’s flow. This is the cause of the quick dispersion of the metals.
  3. There may be two or three years of discoloration as sediment is stirred in spring runoff.
  4. To date immediate wildlife harm is not measureable – mortality of fish, birds, beavers, and others appear normal.
  5. EPA is apparently planning to proceed now to overcome its inertia and build a wastewater treatment plant to address at least part of the mine runoff in the Upper Las Animas.

Enormously good news confirming Governor Hickenlooper’s early optimism and leadership (Hick drank out of the river within days).

Now I step out of my role as a Commissioner and speak only as a citizen.

None of this excuses the EPA’s bungling breach of the dam wall in the mine with a backhoe or lessens the downstream Native American experience.  Native Americans took a more cautious view of the spill, particularly agricultural irrigators, and have significant crop damage.  The shunting of such claims to the Federal Torts Claim process, instead of an immediate emergency funding, would never be publicly accepted from a private company.

As Congress moves forwards into hearings I hope they force EPA to:

  1. Develop and implement an improved crisis management plan, train to it, and adopt a continuous improvement culture around safety and crisis;
  2. Some level of emergency funding until the Federal Tort Claims process winds its way to a just outcome; and
  3. Complete the wastewater treatment plant(s).

Really the science on water quality is as good as we could hope.  Now it is time for some matching policy decisions.

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