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County wants real-time water-monitoring system

Commissioners mull remedial options in aftermath of mine spill
La Plata County commissioners are considering what systems should be in place to help the county respond to the lingering effects of the Gold King Mine wastewater spill and to react to the ongoing threat of river contamination.

La Plata County commissioners are sorting through an intricate web of Gold King Mine responses and recovery options in the hopes of establishing a real-time water-monitoring system and other long-term fixes.

Commissioners are chewing on a list of almost 75 short-term, mid-term and long-term projects sorted by stakeholders that could foot the bill.

Those entities include the county, Environmental Protection Agency, San Juan Basin Health Department, Durango and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

On Aug. 5, an EPA blunder released 3 million gallons of acidic wastewater from the Gold King Mine near Silverton into the Animas River, affecting La Plata County to the south.

Commissioners on Tuesday weighed options to address expenses, mine remediation and notification systems going forward. Some of those tasks will fall to the EPA, but in order to collect on response and remediation, the county must strike a cooperative agreement with the federal agency.

The cooperative agreement can bind the EPA for up to 15 years, and the county intends to request the maximum. It is still unclear how much the agency can compensate through the agreement.

“The novelty is there are no examples,” county attorney Sheryl Rogers said.

Based on the commission’s conversation, some action items might not make the cut, like establishing showers at river put-ins to counter recreational exposure. Higher priorities include establishing a watershed plan and possibly a real-time gauge system for the river.

Separate from the EPA’s monitoring measures, the proposed gauge system would track changes to the water chemistry in real time and trigger a notification plan.

“If it gets to the point where there’s a lot of turbidity, we’d want to shut down the intake,” County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom McNamara said.

“If electro-conductivity goes up, that’s a bigger deal to irrigators in the valley. If it’s turbidity and pH, we can expect something out of mining country.”

There are eight proposed gauge units that would be established at six locations in La Plata County and two locations in San Juan County, either on the Animas River or tributaries of the Animas.

La Plata County officials hope hardware, which could be in the ballpark of $300,000, and annual operational costs will fall under the co-op agreement. Mountain Studies Institute offered to manage the equipment, if implemented.

Long-term items on the commission’s list include systems to keep the public consistently updated with data; monitor human health and economic impacts of the spill; and explore the geographical scope of federal Superfund dollars.

Officials are still uncertain how they would monitor the EPA’s progress on the action items, which are not set in stone.

Because remedial money comes with strings, the county discussed possibly hiring a part-time employee to handle the financial aspect.

The county has thus far billed the EPA for close to $200,000 for initial response expenses.


Nov 26, 2021
Gold King spill is a wake-up call
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