Officials defend action on treatment pond spill

James Fenton
Mine water from the EPA-operated Gladstone treatment ponds near the Gold King Mine is pictured flowing into Cement Creek on Tuesday. Heavy rains caused the water to flow over sediment filter bags, sending discolored water containing metals such as iron and aluminum into the creek.

FARMINGTON — Heavy rains caused the release of waters containing metals from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-operated treatment ponds near the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colo., on Tuesday, but EPA officials declined to say whether the treatment water actually entered the Animas River.

Melissa Harrison, an EPA spokeswoman, said today that the overflow water flowed into Cement Creek, which abuts the treatment ponds.

"Water entered Cement Creek, which has a confluence with Animas (River) several miles downstream," Harrison said in an emailed statement.

The treatment water release was stopped in about two hours and deemed to not pose a threat to public health or safety. The water only overflowed from the treatment ponds and did not come from the the mine itself, emergency management officials said. The treatment ponds are approximately 6,000 feet from the mine, according to the EPA.

Nancy Grantham, another EPA spokeswoman, said in an email today that a "high rain event" on Tuesday caused an unknown volume of the discolored water to escape the treatment pond.

"Water entered Cement Creek, which has a confluence with (the) Animas (River) several miles downstream,"  Grantham said in a follow-up email. "To clarify, the water release was the result of high volumes of rainwater that temporarily overwhelmed the re-circulation pumps that normally recirculate treated water that weeps from sediment filter bags. This water is recirculated as it can contain residual treatment solids. The treated water overflowed the sediment filter bag pad for a short period."

Mine water from the EPA-operated Gladstone treatment ponds near the Gold King Mine is pictured flowing down Cement Creek on Tuesday.

Harrison said the treatment water is 6 to 9 percent metal hydroxides — primarily iron, aluminum, manganese and zinc hydroxides — 2 to 4 percent gypsum and calcium carbonate, among other solids, and 1 or 2 percent consisting of "unreacted" lime, which is added to increase the water's acidity levels to help "metals settle out and create the treatment solids," which "may actually have a positive effect on the underlying soils."

Following the agency's Gold King Mine Stakeholders Alert and Notification Plan, EPA officials internally notified federal, state, county and tribal government, and public health officials at around 3 p.m. Tuesday that the event occurred.

"Cement Creek is flowing turbid and discolored due to heavy rains at the Gold King Mine Site," the notification said. "The North Fork of Cement Creek flowing down from the (mine) is running normal and not discolored, but Cement Creek is running highly turbid. Downstream stakeholders were notified ...  to ensure that they are aware of the event and can take appropriate measures."

According to the plan, notifying the media or general public of an incident like Tuesday's was not done to avoid the possibility of the spill being perceived as "a negative event by stakeholders, public or the media."

San Juan County Emergency Manager Mike Maestas said Friday that his office received "three or four" calls about the event by people concerned the mine itself had released another spill. Last year, the mine released 3 million gallons of toxic, heavy-metal laden water after EPA workers underestimated the pressure of trapped mine sludge. When they removed a barrier, the workers inadvertently caused the release.

Maestas said the event Tuesday did not merit any notification since the event did not include water from the mine.

Because of the calls his office received, his office published two posts on OEM's Facebook page to dispel any rumor to the contrary. Maestas said no other notification was necessary, and cautioned that any mention of it might be worse and cause more misinformation or confusion than not reporting the event.

"It was all about nothing," Maestas said. "There was no (mine) release."

A post Wednesday morning on the the county's Office of Emergency Management Facebook page aimed to quell misinformation about the release: "***RUMORED GOLD KING MINE SPILL*** NO NEW SPILL EVENT! ... Due to these flows, San Juan County area ditch and water users MAY HAVE taken the PRECAUTIONARY action of closing off intakes. !!!THIS IS A PRECAUTIONARY ACTION ONLY!!!"

Another post that afternoon read, "Gold King Mine Rumor information — Notice: There is no new spill event! Ditches that lead to drinking water intakes may have closed head gates as a precaution. 'There are no irrigation concerns at this time.'"

County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter agreed with Maestas. He said a county official said a call was received from a person asking if the Gold King Mine had been breached, and another county official told Carpenter some posts on social media had repeated the incorrect information.

"With social media, you never know," Carpenter said of the rumors.

Carpenter said the increased turbidity caused by heavy rains near the mine has occurred before, but this was the only occasion when it led to some rumor-fueled calls.

Bonnie Hopkins, an agriculture agent at the county Extension Office, said she also received three calls. Like other officials, she said there was no reason to alert the media and the public about the event. She said the confusion of callers was exacerbated by the coincidental closure of some head gates along the Animas River that were scheduled for maintenance in one case.

Hopkins said testing at multiple points along the river is routinely conducted, and notifying the public and the media every time a negligible event takes place like the one that occurred Tuesday would be a bit like "crying wolf."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.