It was 2008 when Robert Ludwig first noticed that his daughter began getting horrible sinus infections after whitewater kayaking in the Animas River.
“Why is this happening at Smelter (Rapids)?” Ludwig wondered.
Ludwig is the facilities manager for a Durango subdivision, a steering committee member of the Animas Watershed Partnership and the owner of RL Water Consulting.
He followed this question upstream, to the Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park. The park made headlines in 2016 after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ordered Darlene Mann, its owner, to shut down the wastewater lagoon. However, the problems predate the 2016 enforcement action or Ludwig’s inquiry. And the lagoon continues to discharge 10,000 gallons of sewage into Lightner Creek with each passing day.
The Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park first received a discharge permit from CDPHE on Oct. 10, 1984. Discharge permits became mandatory after the 1972 Clean Water Act, a piece of federal legislation aimed at restoring the nation’s waterways. It included a system to regulate point-source pollution, meaning any “discernible, confined and discrete conveyance ... from which pollutants are or may be discharged.” The park’s discharge falls under this definition.
The 1984 permit issued by CDPHE allowed the park to collect its sewage in an unlined wastewater lagoon, which today is about 100 feet in diameter. The wastewater treatment system is composed of pipes that run from the park’s approximately 40 units to the unlined lagoon. From there, naturally occurring bacteria break down some of the solids while some of the liquids evaporate. The wastewater then discharges into the groundwater.
“That groundwater is hydrologically connected to Lightner Creek,” said Kelly Morgan, CDPHE’s manager of compliance and enforcement section of the water quality control division. The wastewater lagoon sits just 100 feet from the creek.
In 1984, estimates on the volume of the discharge ranged from 7,400 gallons per day during the dry season to 15,111 gallons per day during the wet season. Recent documents have listed an average daily discharge of 10,000 gallons.
The CWA also outlined a system to lower pollution levels from point-sources that were out of compliance with their permits. It gave agencies such as CDPHE the power to work with polluters to develop a scheduled series of steps through which they could meet their permit requirements. If permit holders do not comply with those schedules, they can be fined.
Permit applications indicate that Mann has owned the park since 1989. A copy of the 2004 discharge permit issued by CDPHE summarizes the history of the wastewater lagoon and, in the same document that approved the system for another five years, notes that previous permits dating back to 1989 had included compliance schedules for several sampling procedures that had not been completed. This indicates that not only has the system been out of compliance since Mann took ownership of the park, but also that she has failed to meet the state’s demands to come into compliance since 1989. Data available on the EPA’s website also shows that Mann failed to comply with schedule requirements from 2004 to 2007.
Mann’s troubles grew after the permit issued in 2004 expired on Nov. 30, 2009. On Aug. 2, 2010, Mann applied for another groundwater discharge permit. Still, she listed the system in place only as an “aerated unlined single cell lagoon,” with an estimated maximum discharge of 1,375 gallons per hour.
CDPHE officials had visited the park just days before to examine the system. They concluded that “there is a clear and distinct hydrologic connection between the unlined lagoon and Lightner Creek.” As a result, officials suggested that Mann rescind her application for a groundwater discharge permit and apply for a surface water discharge permit. If she did not, CDPHE said the application would be formally denied, triggering a public notice.
The surface water permit required that Mann meet preliminary effluent limits, meaning the lagoon’s discharge could only contain very low concentrations of certain pollutants. Because Lightner Creek sometimes runs dry, the CDPHE set those PELs at very low levels to protect the watershed.
Multiple engineers separately confirmed that those PELs are unattainable. Because the park’s system cannot meet the required levels, CDPHE has been unable to approve its permit.
However, not wanting to displace the park’s residents, CDPHE has taken minimal enforcement actions against Mann despite her ongoing operation of the lagoon without a permit since the end of 2009. CDPHE took enforcement action when it sent cease and desist letters in 2016 and 2018 ordering that Mann shut down the lagoon. And although Mann has tried to work with engineers and CDPHE to reach a solution, the outlook appears as murky as the water seeping into Lightner Creek.
As early as 1979, Cap Allen, an engineer working with La Plata County, listed the system as “needing replacement or abandonment.” That situation has only worsened since then.
When Ludwig started to look into the creek’s pollution, he quickly realized that not only was the system unpermitted, but Mann had not hired anyone to conduct testing of the lagoon’s effluent discharge.
“(CDPHE) has given her a cease and desist, but they’ve never really stepped in and fined her,” Ludwig said. “I can’t believe she’s not in jail.”
Morgan said that CDPHE considers 2016 and 2018 enforcement actions as “active,” and expects the park to comply with them. However, she confirmed that Mann has not had her own engineer since the end of 2020. Mann has put the park up for sale, and said that the interested party is working with the state.
“We’re trying to get something passed with the state,” Mann said.
Mann hired Ludwig’s consulting firm, RL Water Consulting, to begin testing the discharge at three locations – Wells A, B and C, each located at progressively lower elevations in relation to the lagoon. Publicly available copies of the discharge monitoring reports indicate that Mann began submitting testing results to CDPHE regularly in January 2015.
The results of those monthly tests show that the lagoon’s effluent discharge is consistently out of compliance with the limits established in the expired 2009 groundwater discharge permit.
The major pollutants for which Ludwig tests are total general coliform, E. coli (a type of coliform that indicates the presence of more dangerous bacteria), and dissolved iron. Iron presents few health risks to humans, although its presence can affect the color and taste of drinking water and stain pipes and sinks. Coliform, however, can indicate more serious contamination.
General coliform refers to a broad category of bacteria that, in high concentrations, can pose a threat to human health. E. coli falls into that broad category of bacteria. Fecal coliform is a subcategory of E. coli that indicates water contamination by human or animal feces.
The samples that Ludwig’s firm has taken from testing Well C, which is located the furthest downslope of the three testing wells and nearest to the creek, show that total coliform counts surpass the CDPHE’s limits, most recently to the tune of 109,882% according to samples taken during the last quarter.
Data from a sample taken from Well C in August showed that the number of coliform colonies per 100 milliliters of water was 2419.6. The number allowed under Mann’s expired permit is 2.2 colonies per 100 milliliters. The safe limit for drinking water is 0 colonies.
“That’s valid data that did exceed the permit limits,” said Morgan, the manager of compliance and enforcement at CDPHE.
Many of the boxes on the data table simply say “limit violation.” Morgan said this indicates levels of contamination so high that they were beyond the lab’s testing ability. In all but four cases, the test results show that the park’s wastewater system has exceeded the allowed pollution levels for every contaminant at every testing location for which there is data available for the last 13 consecutive quarters.
Ludwig said the numbers are not always as devastating as they might seem. The demand for oxygen of the lagoon’s influent and effluent indicates that bacteria in the lagoon are doing some work to break down pollutants during the summer, when temperatures are warm.
“Right now we're getting some treatment in that lagoon,” Ludwig said, referencing the testing results from September. “But as soon as winter hits, we’re not going to get much treatment.”
To Mann’s credit, Ludwig pointed out that she has continued to pay for monitoring testing of the system.
“The upkeep on the water and the upkeep of what exists out there is being done and she is paying for all of that and being reliable with that,” Ludwig said. “But it doesn’t meet environmental standards.”
A 2020 study conducted by students at Fort Lewis College found high levels of E. coli in the near the confluence of Lightner Creek with the Animas River, including levels that occasionally surpassed the EPA’s recommended limit for water that is safe for recreational use. The study also found that the Animas contained certain genealogical strains of E. coli known to be harmful to humans. A 2018 study also found a correlation between the presence of E. coli bacteria in the sinuses and patients who experienced chronic sinus infections.
“People recreating along the Animas River should be aware that total coliform bacteria (including strains of fecal E. coli) is present at multiple locations,” said the San Juan Citizens Alliance Animas River Keeper Sara Burch in an email in The Durango Herald. “The best way to mitigate elevated levels of total coliform bacteria on a watershed scale is to address the sources of pollution.”
However, given CDPHE’s demand for a surface water discharge permit, addressing the park’s pollution still presents a sizable challenge.
Little has changed with the situation at the park in the last several decades.
“She has not been proactive,” Ludwig said of Mann. He also noted that Mann had engaged with several engineers who had likely carried out business with her in bad faith by offering low bids on potential solutions but backing out after conducting initial assessments.
However, local attorney Chris Hamilton entered into a contract with Mann to buy the park over a year ago. He hopes to save the park from a state-ordered shutdown and turn it into a profitable investment.
“We need the affordable housing around here,” he said.
Hamilton’s brother, Eric Hamilton, is an engineer and is currently working with CDPHE to gain approval for some sort of new wastewater system. However, the preliminary effluent limits mandated by CDPHE remain a significant obstacle.
“From a technical standpoint, (with respect to) those antidegradation limits, we approached several engineers and all of them said ‘forget it, there’s no way you’re going to meet it,’” Eric Hamilton said.
He is proposing a system called a moving media bed, which comprises a series of warm, high-surface area tanks containing different types of bacteria to digest the pollutants. After the effluent undergoes a final UV treatment, it would be discharged to the creek. The system would likely cost between $700,000 and $1 million and could be used to process the current contents of the lagoon as well.
While Eric Hamilton says it won’t necessarily come into compliance with the state’s preliminary effluent limits, the system would produce effluent that was significantly cleaner than the current discharge.
“They have to release basically drinking water out of that effluent of the wastewater plant,” Ludwig said. “If you’re releasing to a dry creek, there is no dilution.”
Ludwig concurred that a moving media bed could work to get the system as close to compliance as possible.
Eric Hamilton said CDPHE has been helpful in trying to reach a solution, but state regulations have hindered the process.
“There are these large bureaucratic gears that have to turn and they’re not set up to be flexible at all,” he said.
Morgan called the Hamilton brothers’ interest in buying the park “the most significant event that’s taken place.”
“Our ultimate goal is to get the Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park into compliance,” Morgan said. “That’s really where we’re going in the direction we’re trying to take, no matter what the outcome might be. If that means that the current owner is no longer the owner and we start working with somebody new, then that could potentially happen later on down the road.”
Although CDPHE has not issued any new enforcement actions or fines, Morgan said the 2016 and 2018 actions are still considered active cases.
“The park is still under enforcement, it means that we still have the expectation that they comply with the water quality control act, we still have an expectation that Lightner Creek presents information to us on how they’re going to comply,” Morgan said.