Business/Economy, Environment, Exclusives, Featured, Land Use, Legal, Original Report, Scott Weiser

EPA orders $5 million study from company that never owned Gold King mine

Company alleges EPA allowing more than 500 million gallons of untreated water to enter Cement Creek, Las Animas Tributary

Three years ago, on Aug. 5, 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed a 3-million-gallon flood of acidic sludge from the Gold King mine high above the sleepy former mining-turned-tourist town of Silverton, Colo.

The blowout turned the Animas River orange for weeks as the slug of acidic mine waste flowed through Colorado, New Mexico and into Utah before diluting. The sediment, comprised mostly of iron, coated river banks and caused bans on recreation and water use downstream that created as much as $1.2 billion in damage claims against the EPA.

Five months ago, on March 15, after stonewalling many of the damage claims and shirking its own pollution-control responsibilities, and 27 years after the last mine closed, the EPA ordered the last identifiable mine owner in the Bonita Peak Mining District, the Sunnyside Gold Corporation (SGC), to conduct a speculative and potentially useless $5 million research project.

By Riverhugger [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Animas River after the Gold King mine spill.
Photo courtesy of Riverhugger
The EPA says it needs to “determine the hydraulic and hydrologic connectiveness of the Sunnyside Mine workings with other mine workings and drainage tunnels, aquifers, fractured rock, and surface water” in the district.

The EPA claims SGC is responsible for “an imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare or the environment that may be presented by the actual or threatened release of hazardous substances at or from the Site.” The Sunnyside mine was the last active gold mine in what is now an EPA Superfund site.

The mine opened in 1873 and was mined by SGC from 1986 to 1991, when the mine was closed. Since then SGC has spent 27 years and $30 million on reclamation and remediation in the district in cooperation with the State of Colorado to reduce pollution.

A Consent Decree with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division finalized in 2003 absolved SGC of further liability for water coming out of the mines, says Kevin Roach, Reclamation Director for Sunnyside Gold Corporation.

“The EPA had a significant role in the Consent Decree’s development and implementation,” said Roach. “The EPA both encouraged the Consent Decree and applauded its results.” Roach also says that the expiration of the statute of limitations bars further EPA action.

In an email response to questions from Complete Colorado, Rich Mylott, EPA Region 8 spokesman said, “The EPA did not sign or approve the consent decree between SGC and the State of Colorado.”

Making no mention of SGC’s nearly 3 decades of reclamation work in the district or EPA’s own contributions to water pollution, Mylott said, “SGC has been identified as a potentially responsible party (PRP) at the BPMD site as a current owner and past operator of the Sunnyside Mine. Under EPA’s Enforcement First Policy, the agency asks PRPs to conduct the investigation and to perform the cleanup at Superfund sites before using agency funding for those activities. This policy promotes the polluter pays principle in which those that cause contamination at a site are responsible for investigation and cleanup.

“EPA’s order was issued after all offers to enter into a negotiated settlement agreement were rejected,” he continued.

The EPA-mandated investigation requires, among other things, re-opening of the long-closed American Tunnel portal to survey the tunnel, an extremely dangerous project, and a series of drill holes that will try to intersect mine tunnels in mines SGC never worked, does not own and may not be able to find or successfully drill into.

SGC warns that the drilling program will create a lot of surface environmental damage caused by hauling drilling rigs to altitudes exceeding 11,000 feet and cutting roads and drill pads on sensitive high-altitude tundra environments that have yet to recover from mining more than 140 years ago.

While the EPA is demanding what SGC calls pointless and wasteful underground water modeling, it has allowed raw acid mine waste from the government-owned Mogul, Red & Bonita mines and the American Tunnel to bypass the Gladstone water treatment plant the EPA built in 2015 to treat waste from the Gold King mine after the blowout.

“SGC believes that EPA has failed to run their Gladstone water treatment plant to its full capacity since October 2015, allowing more than 500 million gallons of untreated acidic metals-laden water to enter Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River,” said Roach. “We estimate that EPA’s failure to run the treatment plant to its full capacity has caused more than 700,000 pounds of metals to flow into Cement Creek.”

According to a report by Pioneer Technical Services, an engineering consulting firm hired by SGC, the Gladstone treatment plant as built is capable of processing up to 1,800 gallons per minute but is currently running at only about 600 gpm and is treating only water flowing from the Gold King mine. The report says that since it was built more than 380 million gallons of contaminated water that could have been treated was allowed to flow directly into Cement Creek.

Joel L. Gerhart, Vice President of Pioneer, says in the report that with minor modifications and at a small additional cost the plant would have been capable of processing all of the estimated 506 million gallons of mine waste from all of the tunnels generated between Nov. 2015 and April 2018.

Why the EPA refuses to treat waste water from other mines owned by the federal government vexes SGC and long-time Silverton residents like Larry Rabb, who worked underground in the American Tunnel for Standard Metals, which owned the mine before SGC purchased it.

Rabb says everybody with any connection to mining in Silverton knows that the EPA is deliberately not running the plant at full capacity and is dumping federal mine waste into the Animas river without so much as a by-your-leave.

Neither, say Rabb, has the EPA followed through on promises made after the spill to hire local residents to work at the plant. “They bring people in from everywhere but here,” he said. “Just look at the out-of-state plates on the trucks up there.”

SGC is moving forward with planning for what it calls “EPA’s giant speculative science project.”

“Due to EPA’s coercive powers, SGC is going to undertake the costly and pointless investigations EPA has ordered,” said Roach, “We are currently in the process of planning those activities.”

But Roach also warned that SGC will sue the EPA to recover those costs.

 

An explanation of how the Gold King blowout happened and what the EPA is doing to deal with the waste can be found here.

Top view of the mines
Graphic courtesy of David Briggs and Geomineinfo

 

 

 

 

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