March 8, 2016
Honoring the Dine’ (Navajo) grandmothers who opposed forced removal from their homeland by the U.S. Federal Government and built the foundation for the U. N. Declaration of the Right of the Indigenous People.
One of the most revered natural landscapes in America, the Grand Canyon, scored a major victory yesterday when the U.S. Forest Service shot down a company’s proposal to build a sprawling mega resort one mile from the iconic National Park.http://ejus.tc/1oWf6Ho
This sprawling urban development would have included 2,100 housing units, hotels, a spa and conference center, effectively turning the Grand Canyon into a mega resort. As Earthjustice attorney, Ted Zukoski, who worked on the issue put it, “This is a great day for Grand Canyon National Park, and those who love its stunning vistas, abundant wildlife, and rich cultural heritage.”
All 21 youth plaintiffs in the landmark federal climate lawsuit will attend the hearing before Judge Coffin in federal district court in Oregon on Wednesday, March 9, as their attorneys argue against the effort by the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry to dismiss their constitutional case.
On this momentous day, the claims of the youth plaintiffs, as well as Dr. James Hansen representing the interests of future generations, will be challenged. The issues are crucial: When it comes to our climate, do we have fundamental constitutional rights? Does our federal government have public trust responsibilities? As with the Civil Rights Cases, this March 9 hearing presents the best opportunity for the federal judiciary to take the first step to preserve our climate-oriented constitutional rights and to safeguard youth and future generations from the severe harms caused by the government’s role in effecting climate change.
Based on the best available science, there is no question youth and our Posterity will shoulder the severe consequences of continued increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere. Yet the federal government has no effective plan to protect our future, such as no governing scientific standard to determine which projects will be permitted, how much pollution will be allowed, or why fossil fuel development will continue to be tolerated. Rather, our government continues its fossil fuel-dominated strategy to power our nation, even when that strategy inflicts irreversible damage and feasible, economical alternatives exist.
These brave youth simply ask the court to let the factual record speak for itself. They want a court order that is reasonable and realistic, while protecting their fundamental rights. Our young plaintiffs hope the court requires the federal government to promptly develop and implement a national climate recovery plan, rooted in science, to preserve our atmosphere, to stabilize our climate system for present and future generations, and to cease new fossil fuel projects (such as those geared to infrastructure and extraction) that will inflict irreversible damage. These youth ask that their fundamental constitutional rights and their futures not be subordinated to corporate dollars. They ask that our government do what is legally and morally right and scientifically sound.
Please fight with these youth plaintiffs. Tell your friends about this historic day in court, a day that will impact the futures of all of our children and grandchildren. If you haven’t already, please make a donation today to back these young leaders as they use the courts to confront the federal government and the fossil fuel industry and secure a scientifically sustainable future for all.
Begaye’s letter specifically requested a federal disaster recovery coordinator, a FEMA-designated point person that helps coordinate federal and state assistance resources and implement a recovery plan.
“The FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” Begaye’s letter states.
FEMA spokesman John Hamill confirms that sending an FDRC is certainly one of many options the agency will discuss at its meeting this afternoon, but that the overall conversation will be about “the best way [to move] forward.”
There are a few tricky details to work out, too, Hamill explains, because what Begaye has requested is somewhat unprecedented when it comes to FEMA’s typical response procedure.
FEMA derives its authority to respond to a disaster from the Stafford Act, which stipulates that FEMA resources can be deployed after the president declares a national disaster. According to Hamill, since President Obama never declared one, “FEMA usually wouldn’t be involved in a situation like this.”
That’s not to say “an FDRC can’t be deployed without a national disaster declaration,” he adds. “We just want to figure out [the details].”
Polluted Animas River
On August 5, an EPA cleanup effort went awry and accidentally released more than 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas River. The sludge was carried hundreds of miles downstream and ended up in the San Juan River, which flows through the northern section of the Navajo Nation.
Following the spill, Begaye made national headlines by declaring his intention to sue the EPA; it’s a promise he appears to be keeping, as his office announced earlier this week that it chose a law firm to represent the tribe in a lawsuit.
The EPA said it would remedy the situation and has led the massive recovery effort, but still some in the Navajo Nation don’t believe the agency is doing enough, or that more help is needed.
Thousands of Navajo farmers have either lost crops or had their yields diminished after the tribal government shut off irrigation water from the San Juan River, and leaders warn of big economic losses.
Despite farmers’ complaints, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency director Donald Benn has determined that the river water is safe for limited irrigation use, and Begaye lifted irrigation restrictions for the Upper Fruitland, San Juan, and Nenahnezad chapters of the Nation. The ban on using the water for livestock still remains in place, and the Shiprock Chapter has voted not to use it on crops.
On the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad overlooking the Animas River less than 24 hours after the spill
“This expansion [of pollutants] into Navajo lands via the San Juan River has critically impacted the River and its dependent ecosystems, including wildlife, fish, [human] populations, and the land base adjacent to the River. The nature of this toxic chemical spill will acutely and chronically impact the River and dependent ecosystem if immediate and effective corrective actions and remedies are not taken,” Begaye writes.
The Navajo Nation EPA and tribal government have worked with the federal EPA to address lingering issues, but according to Begaye, “The appointment of an FDRC by FEMA at this stage of the Nation’s response to this toxic chemical spill would greatly benefit the Nation.”
In Begaye’s estimation, “an FDRC could assist the Nation to effectively assess the short- and long-term impact of the disaster, determine priorities, and activate a recovery support strategy,” coordinate assistance with other federal agencies, and help to get a “team of recovery specialists” involved.
“We haven’t said yes, and we haven’t said no,” says Hamill, adding that FEMA certainly will work with local experts to at least assess the damage.
“But I don’t know if [the agency] will pull the trigger [and] make a decision [about sending assistance] today because it’s kind of new territory.”
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye will uphold restrictions on using water from New Mexico’s San Juan River for farming purposes for at least one year, according to a Monday news release. The Environmental Protection Agency declared that pollutant levels in the river had returned to normal on August 15, ten days after 3 million gallons of hazardous waste leaked from the Gold King mine near Silverton, Colorado, into the Animas and San Juan rivers. But many farmers in the Navajo Nation, who use the river for livestock and irrigation, remain concerned about the water quality in the San Juan River.
“Please understand this is very stressful for them, and this is their livelihood,” Megan Cox, a spokesperson from the Navajo Nation president’s office, told the Guardian. “They are growing organic crops and do not want to harm the land, their crops or any individuals by exposure to these chemicals.”
At a meeting on Saturday, Begaye discussed reopening canals accessed by the farmers in Shiprock, New Mexico. The farmers voted 104-0, with nine abstaining, in favor of maintaining existing closures for another year.
“No testing has been done on the Navajo reservation,” Joe Ben Jr., Shiprock’s farm board representative, told the Guardian. “And the tests were not disclosed; which metals were present? If we knew, we could make a decision.”
Navajo Nation farmers intend to gather water from water hauling companies contracted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
It was almost three years ago that mercury levels in fish in Lake Powell spurred state regulators to issue a fish consumption advisory for striped bass.
Now, new research shows that mercury, as well as selenium, aren’t staying put in Lake Powell, but are slipping past Glen Canyon Dam and ending up in everything from algae to bugs and fish downstream.
The U.S. Geological Survey study found that concentrations of mercury and selenium in Colorado River food webs of the Grand Canyon regularly exceeded risk thresholds for fish, wildlife and even humans.
Despite being one of the most remote ecosystems in the country, the river as it flows through the Grand Canyon isn’t immune to exposure from toxic chemicals like mercury, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a release about a new study. Exposure to high levels of both elements has been linked to decreased reproductive success, growth and survival of aquatic and terrestrial species in the ecosystem, according to the USGS.
Likely sources include naturally occurring selenium deposits as well as air pollution containing mercury generated as much as half-a-globe away.
BIG TROUT NOT AS AFFECTED
Based on data collected at six sites along nearly 250 miles of river downstream from Glen Canyon Dam, the researchers found that the mercury and selenium concentrations in minnows, invertebrates and fish exceeded dietary toxicity thresholds set for fish and fish-eating wildlife. It also found that the mean mercury concentrations in many of the fish studied exceeded the risk threshold for humans.
The one piece of good news is that the mercury levels found in rainbow trout, most commonly eaten by anglers, were still below the threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency that would trigger advisories for human consumption, according to a USGS summary of the study.
“Every fish we looked at from Glen Canyon was way below any risk threshold and the fish we looked at downstream were way below that threshold as well, so it doesn’t appear to be any risk to humans through consumption of trout,” said Ted Kennedy, a USGS researcher at the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center in Flagstaff, who was a co-author on the study.
There are no consumption advisories in place for any of the fish harvested from the study area.
The study was the first of its kind that looked at the extent and magnitude of contaminants in the Grand Canyon, Kennedy said. The study focused on trout, because they are most likely to be consumed by humans, but it also looked at five other species of fish including the threatened speckled dace, common carp and flannelmouth sucker, a species of special concern under the state of Arizona.
The study makes clear that more research needs to be done, especially related to potential risks to humans who consume fish from Grand Canyon or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, according to the paper.
It also produced some surprising findings, Kennedy said.
One was the fact that the tissues of bigger rainbow trout didn’t exhibit greater, or even the same, mercury levels as smaller trout, defying the process of biomagnification, where chemical concentrations increase higher up the food chain, Kennedy said. The explanation lies in the unique dynamic of the Grand Canyon ecosystem, Kennedy said.
Insect food sources for fish are quite limited in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam, most likely due to temperature and flow regimes of the regulated river, Kennedy explained. While smaller fish can satisfy their caloric needs by eating just insects, there aren’t enough of the invertebrates to make up the entire diet of larger fish, forcing them to feed on other less calorie-dense organic matter like algae, Kennedy said.
The catch is that blackflies, a key food source for trout, are also a prime source of mercury contamination because they eat a type of algae that carries high amounts of a bioavailable form of mercury.
“We think (the mercury) is getting picked up by that algae in Lake Powell and exported into Grand Canyon,” Kennedy said.
Another interesting part of the study was that the researchers didn’t observe any developmental side effects like deformities that are normally associated with mercury, which is a neurotoxin.
That finding is evidence of a well-documented relationship between selenium and mercury whereby, in the right concentrations, selenium protects animals from mercury toxicity, Kennedy said.
“If both of these things are at high levels together, it can mitigate effects of having just one of them in a high concentration,” he explained.
Tracing mercury sources
Kennedy also recognized that the U.S. Geological Survey’s food web study opens up the need for additional research into exposure pathways in order to figure out where exactly the mercury and selenium ending up in the Grand Canyon are coming from.
While selenium concentrations come from irrigation of selenium-rich soils in the upper Colorado River basin, most mercury found in the Grand Canyon ecosystem is deposited from the atmosphere, the USGS paper said. That means it is harder to trace to a specific source, though.
Artisanal and small-scale gold mining and then coal combustion are the two largest anthropogenic sources of mercury emissions, according to the EPA. Environmental groups have pointed to the Navajo Generating Station and other coal-fired power plants around Lake Powell as prime culprits for mercury deposition on the lake.
The USGS study does acknowledge the power plant, which emits 420 pounds of mercury per year, according to the National Parks Conservation Association, as one potential source, but it emphasizes that’s certainly not the only likely offender.
“Navajo Generating Station is a potential source, but there’s a lot of atmospheric mercury out there even before you consider Navajo,” Kennedy said.
Linking mercury contamination in Lake Powell, or in the Colorado River Basin, to specific sources is difficult because it remains in the atmosphere for up to six months after it is initially emitted, said David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program. That’s long enough for mercury emitted in one place to waft up into the atmosphere and then get carried hundreds or thousands of miles, Gay said.
University of Nevada-Reno researcher Mae Gustin has studied the sources of mercury that ended up in California and Nevada and came to findings similar to Gay. Several of Gustin’s research papers found that atmospheric mercury sources were lofted pollution from California’s major cities or air that traveled from as far away as Asia, which is the biggest source of mercury globally.
“Mercury is a global pollutant,” Gay said. “Everybody is in it together.”
Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org
LEUPP, Ariz. – A lifetime of declining snowfall on the Navajo Reservation is making an already unforgiving desert landscape increasingly uninhabitable.
Snow tracked at six northeastern Arizona weather stations has plummeted by more than two-thirds on average since the 1930s, according to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Dozens of streams that flowed year-round on the reservation now dry up seasonally, and the parched springs and wells along their banks send isolated residents on long drives for store-bought water.
Local temperatures rising on average 2 degrees Celsius since the 1960s have sapped moisture. The advancing water crisis here could be a preview of the Greater Southwest’s challenges, as warming winter temperatures morph snow into rain and accelerate evaporation across the highlands.
The Salt and Verde rivers, a crucial supplier to the Phoenix area, originate in the snows that ring the reservation along the Mogollon Rim. And the Colorado River, lifeblood of the entire Southwest, starts with Rocky Mountain snows that also are fading.
“It’s just hitting the Navajo people first,” USGS geomorphologist Margaret Hiza Redsteer said.
And perhaps hardest.
As in Bolivia and other global pockets of poverty, worsening water scarcity comes down hard on those with the fewest means of adapting. The Navajo Nation’s median household income of about $20,000 is less than half Arizona’s average. The tribe’s Economic Development Division lists the unemployment rate at 42 percent and the poverty rate at 43 percent.
The drying has forced major changes on Navajos, making their lives even more difficult.
“We used to go to the river and plant corn,” said Alice McCabe, 70, a Navajo who has lived her adult life in and around Leupp. “But not anymore, because it gets dry.”
That family farming ended 30 years ago, for her and her neighbors who roasted a traditional corn variety and also used it in ceremonies.
“Now we’re just buying sweet corn from the stores (in Winslow),” McCabe said.
Likewise, she and husband, Jimmie McCabe, 73, used to retrieve water from a spring a couple of miles away from his ancestral homestead out a web of dirt roads west of Leupp. The spring dried up 15 years ago, he said. Now, though the tribe provides drinking water in Leupp, they often stock the ranch with bottled water from their 60-mile round trips to a Winslow supermarket.
“For a long time there’s no snow,” he said.
The first hit
DROUGHT CHANGES RESERVATION LIFE
Eighty years of declining snowfall have changed the landcape of the Navajo Nation, with direct implications for the Navajo people. (David Wallace/The Republic)
Effects of drying
RIVERBEDS NOW SOURCE OF BLOWING DUST
The McCabes’ memories match the story that the government researcher, Hiza Redsteer, has compiled with colleagues through interviews with 73 Navajo elders. The interviews are part of a forthcoming study of the Navajos’ vulnerability to climate change.
“Used to be a lot of running water in the wash,” said 70-year-old Levi Biggambler, who was born next to Jeddito Wash on the boundary with the Hopi Reservation and still lives there.
He recalls his family’s plots of corn, watermelon and other crops that he can no longer grow.
Hiza Redsteer’s study includes one resident’s memory that Jeddito Wash flowed consistently in the 1960s and 1970s, and many families planted fields there. Another recalled that in the 1930s the soil was moist to several centimeters in depth, because of deep snows.
Data from weather stations in the reservation’s Tsezhin Tah region north of Winslow indicate that annual snowfall that averaged about 17 inches in the 1930s declined steadily to 5 inches by the 21st century, Hiza Redsteer found.
Both the interviews and historic scientific journals recall widespread planting of corn and other crops along river floodplains, Hiza Redsteer said, where today there’s not enough water. Dry riverbeds are, instead, a major source of blowing dust.
Where snow has switched to winter rain, she said, the moisture is less able to sustain streams and springs through the dry times of year. Much of it runs away or evaporates quickly instead of melting into the soil, and increasing warmth makes shrubs and grasses thirstier.
The changes on Navajo land reflect a broader trend. Scientists say a warming climate threatens snowpack and moisture throughout the Colorado River basin, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Though the snowpack decline that Hiza Redsteer tracked at six sites is stark, it’s impossible to put a number on the total century-long decline across the reservation. Numbers from a larger government network of snow stations are only available going back to the 1980s.
Data from those sites mostly demonstrate the effects of the past 15 years of drought, broken by a couple of wet winters brought on by ocean temperature shifts known as El Niño.
Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a geomorphologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, walks through sand dunes on the Navajo Nation outside of Teesto, Ariz. She says the crisis created by the drought in the Southwest “is … hitting the Navajo people first.” (Photo: David Wallace/The Republic)
Several University of Arizona researchers who authored a 2012 paper on snowpack changes in the interior West found that as temperatures crept up in recent decades, snow and its moisture content declined. This was especially true in watersheds in the vicinity of the Navajo Reservation, including the San Juan River, which joins the Colorado at Lake Powell.
That drainage’s snowpack, on its highest day of winter, has lost about 2 inches of water per decade since the study data’s starting point in 1984. It shrank while temperatures warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade. Though rain replaced some snow, overall winter precipitation also declined.
The San Juan monitoring sites experienced the Southwest’s worst declines in the study, though the Lower Colorado — including the Salt and Verde rivers that help supply metro Phoenix — also lost snow and water.
Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist who helped write the Southwest chapter for a 2014 National Climate Assessment, noted that his colleagues also determined the snow is melting earlier and covering the ground fewer days.
“All snow-related parameters are going in the direction of less snow,” he said in an e-mail.
The National Climate Assessment that Garfin co-authored projected a dramatic decrease in the Arizona high country’s already skimpy snowpack if greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing. Measured against the late 20th-century average, Garfin’s team predicted 12 percent of normal moisture in the snowpack by 2100.
Upstream states that contribute the bulk of the Colorado River are not expected to suffer such losses, percentage-wise, though their losses will hurt the regional water balance more. Colorado, for instance, is the river’s biggest source and is projected to lose 26 percent of its snow moisture.
“We need every drop of water that we can get from the Colorado,” Garfin said.
A new source?
ENGINEERS TURN TO DESALINATION
Robert Seaman, left, a University of Arizona chemical and environmental engineering research technician, and Seth Lawrence, a Northern Arizona University mechanical engineering undergraduate, repair a desalinization plant outside of Leupp, Ariz. (David Wallace/The Republic)
This summer the McCabes trekked from their Navajo homestead to a nearby community well, to hoist sticks atop a shade structure for their cattle milling around a trough there. The well is deep enough to draw water, but it’s tapping ancient seawater that is too salty for people — not the percolated snowmelt that once sustained people here.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with help from University of Arizona engineering students, is working on that. They’ve assembled a solar-powered desalination plant next to the well to test a system that one day could be replicated across the reservation.
The well is clear of uranium contamination, a threat for many wells around a reservation that once hosted hundreds of unregulated uranium mines.
An array of photovoltaic panels and mirrors both pumps the water and heats it in a distilling process that recovers 95 percent of the water and dumps the rest with the salt. It’s working, but the researchers aren’t yet sure of the cost per gallon.
How the purification system works
The technology that University of Arizona engineers are testing at a Navajo Reservation well uses solar energy to heat a nontoxic glycol solution, which in turn heats water for purification.
The heat vaporizes the water and increases pressure in a pipe containing thousands filter membranes arrayed like bunched-up straws. Pure water passes to the outside of the straw, but dissolved solids including salt can’t. This is the same process that orange juice suppliers use to remove water and make juice concentrate.
The resulting distilled water is mixed back with some of the source water to provide a suitable level of minerals and ions. The remaining unpurified water containing the concentrated brine is dumped into an evaporation pond.
The Bureau of Reclamation has given the university $75,000 in each of the past two years to work on the project, and will seek $150,000 next year for a parallel test of a reverse-osmosis system with the same power source, testing which is more efficient and reliable.
“This is one small component (of a regional water plan),” said Mitch Haws, the bureau’s project leader. “It this technology works, it will service about 135 households in the area.”
The goal, he said, is to perfect a system that can be replicated and turned over to the tribe’s local governments for routine operation and maintenance. He expects the remote plant to produce about 1,000 gallons of clean water daily for households and their livestock.
For now, there are still kinks. This summer Haws spent a morning trying to wrench the sun-tracking mirrors into proper alignment because blowing sand had locked up bearings in the automated system.
The water rising from this well is full of dissolved solids — essentially salt — at 1,400 parts per million. That’s double the levels in the Colorado River, and 400 parts per million above the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking standard.
But it’s just a fraction of the salt content in the ocean, about 35,000 parts per million. Haws believes solar desalination projects cleaning moderately salty water could be a major part of the Southwest’s future water security.
“We’ve dammed all the rivers that we’re going to dam,” he said. “I think desalination is the next source.”
DRY BRUSH GROWS IN FORMER FARMING CENTERS
Alice McCabe splashes water on her 3-year-old grandson, Jayden. She uses the water for her livestock. (David Wallace/The Republic)
A functioning water treatment plant would save a lot of trips to town for residents like the McCabes and their neighbors near a seasonally parched stretch of the Little Colorado River.
“Tell them to hurry,” Alice McCabe said as they continued their journey to the well.
Her nephew, 53-year-old Raymond Stayne, lives at the dry homestead. He sometimes drives 80 miles to Oak Creek Canyon, south of Flagstaff, for spring water, because he believes it makes the best coffee. Sometimes, though, he just drinks from the salty well, “If I don’t have anything. If I’m dying of thirst.”
Tens of thousands of Navajos lack safe drinking water in or near their homes. They include more than 50,000 who haul from unregulated, potentially contaminated sources, according to tribal water officials.
The tribe may yet be awarded a needed slice of the Colorado River, as other tribes have through federal negotiations. But the river is a shrinking resource with no guarantee that even currently binding allocations will hold up in a future with vastly more Southwesterners.
Federal projections, thought conservative by many scientists, predict a river flowing about a tenth behind its historic pace by midcentury.
At Tolani Lake, northeast of Leupp, a flat that once routinely collected water streaming off a mesa is now a dry playa. It was a corn farming center in the 1970s, Hiza Redsteer said, but now grows only dry brush.
That brush and various invasive plants are sucking up more water as the cold season shrinks, she said. At nearly 5,000 feet elevation, the area experienced high temperatures in the 60s last January.
“When that happens,” researcher Hiza Redsteer said, “plants aren’t dormant in winter anymore.”
She believes the drying land and resulting difficulty raising livestock is forcing young Navajos to seek jobs elsewhere. The overall tribal population grew slightly between 2000 and 2010, but the U.S. Census found that the reservation population declined nearly 4 percent, to 174,000.
Ann-Marie Chischilly grew up on the reservation in Shonto, Ariz., and now is saddened when she returns from Flagstaff to the drought-stricken village. Medicinal plants that her grandparents taught her about no longer grow there.
“That little community used to be an oasis with lush yards and gardens,” she said. Now, “When it’s just a little bit windy, the dust is just unlivable.”
Chischilly directs the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. She fears that continued drought will force more to truck their water as wells dry.
The tribe, she said, must plan for “surviving what could be a difficult time in our history.”
Read Part 1: What can Peru tell us about the future of Arizona’s water supply?
Read Part 2: Already a luxury, water gets more scarce for the poor
Read Part 4: Early snowmelt on the Rockies threatens Arizona’s water supply
According to the EPA report on the Gold King Mine,”The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the entrance blockage seems to be a primary issue at this particular site,” the report stated. “If the pressure information was obtained, other steps could have been considered. However, the team cannot determine whether any such steps would have been effective, or could have been implemented prior to a blowout.”
From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examine conditions on the San Juan River last week. Photo from Navajo Nation President / Facebook
The Environmental Protection Agency released an internal report about the Gold King Mine spill on Wednesday.According to the report, contractors at the site underestimated the water pressure at the mine. As a result, excavation work accidentally caused a “blowout” on August 5, unleashing about 3 millions of gallons of toxic mine waste into the water system.“The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the entrance blockage seems to be a primary issue at this particular site,” the report stated. “If the pressure information was obtained, other steps could have been considered. However, the team cannot determine whether any such steps would have been effective, or could have been implemented prior to a blowout.”The report is the first government-led assessment of the incident, which prompted the Navajo Nation, the Southern Ute Tribe, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to declare emergencies and issue disaster declarations. Water conditions immediately after the spill showed high levels of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins.
The scene of the spill at the Gold King Mine in Colorado. Photo from EPA
EPA’s internal report on the Gold King Mine blowout released details about what exactly went wrong. An independent investigation is also being done.
This highlights the need for extensive resources to address the other 22,000 old mines in Colorado.
Denver West-Denver Post-Agency says, Gold King Mine not checked for water volume. By John Paul The Denver Post
August 13: One of the retention ponds underneath the Gold King Mine on August 13, 2015. The San Juan County and the city of Silverton have a rich mining history with hundreds of mines being in the county including the Gold King Mine which spilled wastewater into the Animas River. Many of these mines were left abandoned or not properly bulkheaded which opens the possibility of wastewater draining into the rivers and creeks below. (Brent Lewis, Denver Post file photo)
Dangerously high levels of water pressure behind the collapsed opening of the Gold King Mine were never checked by the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because of cost and time concerns.
The revelations came Wednesday as the EPA released an internal review of a massive Aug. 5 blowout at the mine above Silverton. The report called an underestimation of the pressure the most significant factor leading to the spill.
According to the report, had crews drilled into the mine’s collapsed opening, as they had done at a nearby site, they “may have been able to discover the pressurized conditions that turned out to cause the blowout.”
The EPA-triggered wastewater release sent yellow-orange sludge cascading through three states and the land of two American Indian tribes. The internal review for the first time reveals what the EPA believes went wrong at Gold King, which 14 months before the spill they knew was at risk for blowout.
“It is not evident that the potential volume of water stored within the (mine’s opening) had been estimated,” the review said. “Given the maps and information known about this mine, a worst-case scenario estimate could have been calculated and used for planning purposes.”
According to the review, drilling into the collapsed opening would have been “quite costly” and taken more time because of soil and rock conditions at the site.The review says crews believed that because water was leaking from the Gold King and based on seep levels above its opening, a buildup of pressure was “less likely.” Because of those signs, officials say, drilling appeared to be unnecessary.
“The mine was draining,” Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator in the office of solid waste and emergency response, said Wednesday during a media conference call.
“Nobody expected (the acid water backed up in the mine) to be that high,” he said.
The report says, however, that decreased wastewater flows from the mine, which had been leaching for years, could have offered a clue to the pressurization. Also, a June 2014 task order about work at the mine said “conditions may exist that could result in a blowout of the blockages.”
The inability to obtain an actual measurement of the mine water pressure behind the mine’s blocked opening “seems to be a primary issue,” according to the review. It went on to say that if the pressure information had been obtained, other steps could have been considered.
It did not elaborate on what those steps could have been.
Stan Meiburg, EPA’s deputy administrator, said during the call that “provisions for a worst-case scenario were not included in the work plan.”
The review, summarized in an 11-page report and led by five EPA workers from multiple EPA regions and headquarters, includes a list of recommendations for further agency mine work throughout the country, including new approaches to mines at risk of blowout and emergency action plans to deal with such disasters.
The investigative team called the mine’s blowout “inevitable” and said actions by those at the scene — who the review said had “extensive experience” — probably prevented fatalities.
The Department of the Interior is conducting an external review of the spill, and it is expected to be released in October. The Congressional Science, Space and Technology Committee also is investigating the blowout.
“A non-federal, independent review is a must,” Coffman said in a statement to The Post. “I don’t trust the EPA or this administration to investigate itself. It would have never allowed BP to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”
Jesse Paul: 303-954-1733, email@example.com or twitter.com/JesseAPaul