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For enviro groups, Gold King spill intensifies mission

Though the Animas River has returned to its normal shades of blue, not all has returned to normal since last summer’s Gold King Mine spill.

For a handful of local environmental groups, operations have vastly changed since the national spotlight turned on Southwest Colorado on Aug. 5 when the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the release of 3 million gallons of acid mine drainage 10 miles north of Silverton. The spill turned the Animas orange and, ultimately, affected three states.

Today, as the community of Silverton pursues negotiations with the EPA toward a Superfund listing, officials for those organizations agree: roles may change but the work continues.

Animas River Stakeholders Group

Founded in 1994, the Animas River Stakeholders Group was intended to be an alterative to a Superfund designation, with scientists, environmentalists, mining interests and government representatives working together to improve water quality in the Animas.

Over the past two decades, the group has completed a number of remediation projects to clean up damage from inactive or abandoned mines in the upper Animas watershed. But because of liability issues, the ARSG has never been able to take on larger polluting sites, and as a result, the overall health of the river has not improved.

Peter Butler, a coordinator for ARSG, said stakeholders had never worked on any sites around Gold King, yet when the blowout occurred, the group became a focal point for communication and public information.

“We probably, literally, answered several hundred phone calls,” Butler said. “My wife counted and said I had 126 phone calls in four days, and that’s not including my cellphone.”

In the past, the group’s meetings were sparsely attended, and usually dealt with technical details. Butler said the ARSG’s first meeting after the spill, on Aug. 25, garnered unprecedented attendance.

“We probably ended up having at least 100 people show up in August,” he said. “Because we had people who had never attended before, we couldn’t go into a lot of the other aspects we work on. We spent a lot of time just bringing people up to speed.”

The past few months, Butler said, has been dominated by work concerning Gold King. He said now the group regularly receives calls from people who claim they have the latest technology to solve water quality issues in the basin. That’s nothing new, he said, but what is unique is they now present on their own dime.

“Everyone wants to be the entity that can say, ‘We treated the Gold King spill,’” Butler said. “We had one group from Texas that just put their whole machine on a trailer and just showed up. We’ve been working with them for a few months, and they may really have something.”

Butler said the ARSG is eyeing closely how the Superfund designation plays out. The group has never taken a stance either way on the listing, but if the EPA and state health officials take over the mining district, it could affect how ARSG operates.

“We’re not quite sure what our role is going to be,” he said.

Trout Unlimited

Trout Unlimited is the nation’s oldest and largest cold water fisheries conservation organization, and the Durango chapter has had a long investment in improving water quality in the Animas River.

“The simple truth is that TU, more than any organization in town, has long been working on mine remediation problems,” said Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s Animas River coordinator.

In January 2015, Churchwell said Trout Unlimited began a formal campaign to pursue Good Samaritan legislation, which would open the door for more reclamation by offering third parties some legal protection. The legislation has failed at least 10 times in Congress but has gained some traction in the wake of the spill.

Recently, Trout Unlimited added objectives related to the blowout to the initiative-driven San Juan Clean Water Coalition, a group of local business and environmental groups and individuals banding together for the health of the Animas. Those actions include reforming Good Samaritan legislation and the 1872 Mining Law, building a permanent water treatment plant in Upper Cement Creek and instituting a long-term water monitoring program.

“We’ve been in this basin for well over 30 years working on fishery-related issues, and number one is water quality,” Churchwell said. “Very little has changed in that respect, but certainly the spill has galvanized our organization around the work we already do.”

Mountain Studies Institute

Established in Silverton in 2002, Mountain Studies Institute has emerged as the lead researching and monitoring entity in the basin that is not the EPA or a state organization.

MSI earned a contract with the city of Durango to test the Animas River, and its staff members are still analyzing heavy metal concentrations in storm water data collected in September and October, which was actually funded by the EPA. The group is also taking tissue samples and monitoring macroinvertebrate communities.

Executive Director Marcy Bidwell said operations at MSI have definitely changed since Aug. 5, evidenced by more community involvement, even holding public hearings.

Bidwell said MSI hasn’t had to add staff to its eight-person workforce, but that doesn’t mean employees are at a loss for things to do. The organization is also involved in projects on the San Miguel River and is drafting a watershed-based plan for the section of the Animas in New Mexico.

“We have worked very hard, and its got all our staffers excited,” she said. “It’s passion as much as a work of labor. Other work has been delayed in order to make way for the effort on the Animas, but we’re very adaptable.”

San Juan Citizens Alliance

In 2011, the San Juan Citizen Alliance was forced to let go of its full-time employee dedicated to river cleanup because of budget cuts. It left an empty space in the 30-plus-year-old alliance that never felt quite right to Executive Director Dan Olson.

“We have struggled,” Olson said. “This incident highlighted our desire to be involved in the discussion of the Animas headwaters, primarily to ensure that the benefit of the whole watershed is being represented.”

As a result, Olson said the alliance, which has a staff of six, is looking to hire a full-time riverkeeper in 2016, tasked solely with protecting the health of the Animas.

“I don’t feel like (SJCA) has been as vocal as we’d like to be,” Olson said. “And that’s an issue we’re solving by planning for this hire.”

In the meantime, Olson and his staff are using the spill to see what good can come of the event and how to educate the public now that all eyes are focused on cleaning up mine waste.

Olson said it has been a balancing act between the Gold King blowout and the group’s other initiatives protecting Wolf Creek Pass, preventing fracking in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and stopping the expansion of the Navajo Mine at Four Corners Power Plant.

“The spill was an all-consuming, all-hands-on-deck exercise,” he said. “Once we realized the severity, we also quickly realized it was important for us not to just respond to the spill, but also use it as an educational moment to highlight the fact tremendous volumes of contaminated water are entering the Animas River every day.”

None of the groups reported a major uptick in donations since the spill. However, when the Gold King Mine released its torrent of orange wastewater down the Animas and eventually into Lake Powell, a new consciousness awoke in the public mind. And that’s made a difference.


Sep 15, 2017
San Juan Citizens Alliance hires advocate for Animas River

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