EPA prevented toxic brew from moly mine

EPA prevented toxic brew from moly mine

QUESTA, N.M. – The Rio Grande flows past Taos. Could it have become as polluted from mining as the Animas River was through Durango?

The Taos News asks that provocative question. Taos has a molybdenum mine near Questa and one mine reclamation expert said that the potential was there for much worse pollution than what came from the Gold King Mine above Silverton.

There were differences. The molybdenum mine operated at Questa until last year, and its owner, Chevron, has deep pockets. The Gold King Mine hasn’t operated in almost 100 years. It has owners, but not ones with deep pockets. And the inter-related mine workings above Silverton are far more complicated.

But New Mexico was galvanized in the 1990s by a fear that Molycorp, the owner of the molybdenum mine, would go bankrupt or simply abandon its mine. In time, said J.R. Logan, the reporter for the Taos News, the underground molybdenum mine would have produced a toxic brew that would have caused damage far greater than seen this month on the Animas.

To prevent that from happening, the New Mexico Legislature adopted a law in 1993 that got tough with mining companies, said Jim Kuipers, a consultant on mine-related environmental and reclamation issues, with experience at both Questa and Silverton.

“New Mexico really got its act together,” Kuipers said. Colorado, he added, was less aggressive in holding mining companies accountable for messes.

Even so, remediation action would probably have gotten bogged down in an endless legal battle had not New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, invited participation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“When EPA showed up, it’s not like everyone was thrilled,” Kuipers said. “But there was a recognition that, without EPA’s authority, it wouldn’t get done.”

EPA since then has forced the mine owner to the table and has set in motion an $800 million cleanup that will be paid by the company. Kuipers said the Superfund process quantified how much damage the mine caused, and how much it would have to clean up.

Rachel Conn, of the Taos-based environmental group Amigos Bravos, told the Taos News that details of specific remedies remain to be worked out at Questa.

But I think we’re in a lot better position here then they are on the Animas River,” she said.

Animas River water clean enough to chug

DURANGO – Just how toxic was the spill of water from a gold mine into the Animas River?

Not as much as you might think, say government officials. Within a week of the spill, Gov. John Hickenlooper was sipping from a bottle of river water, purified with iodine, just as backpackers do to eliminate giardia from backcountry creeks.

“If that shows that Durango is open for business, I’m happy to help,” Hickenlooper explained. A former geologist and brewpub entrepreneur, Hickenlooper had once nursed fracking fluid to demonstrate its relative safety. He didn’t use iodine in that case.

In Durango, Mayor Dean Brookie also made the case for the safety of water drawn from the Animas River for drinking and irrigation.

“I can assure you that the water coming out of your tap has been more highly tested than any bottle of water on the shelves of City Market,” he said at a public meeting.

EPA toxicologist Kristen Keteles tells the Durango Herald that it’s all about dose.

“I keep telling people … that the dose makes the poison,” she said. “Even water can be toxic if you drink enough. And people are getting more arsenic if they drink apple juice or more mercury if they eat tuna than they’ll get from the Animas River. We can’t eliminate chemicals entirely.”

As for dead fish in the Animas River, yes, they’ve been seen and are being tested. But Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, warned against making too much of them.

“I don’t want to underplay what’s happened, but fish die, just like people die,” he said

But downstream, on the Navajo Nation, tribal officials barred use of the water for fears of contamination. This means a reduction in this year’s yield of corn seeds and pollen.

“The corn is our sacred plant,” Franklin Miller, who is helping organize the tribe’s response to the Gold King Mine spill, told the Herald.

Crested Butte wants state backup on mine

CRESTED BUTTE – The spilled drainage from the mine above Silverton has caused Crested Butte and Gunnison County to consider the vulnerability of their situation. There, contaminated water from the old Standard Mine is cleaned up before it enters Coal Creek, which flows through Crested Butte, providing drinking water as well as water for recreational purposes.

But what if the mining company that operates the treatment plan should go bankrupt?

With that in mind, town and county officials last week sent a joint letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment requesting assurances that the state would step in and ensure water treatment. They say that local governments would be unable to respond adequately to the release of untreated mine drainage.

The Crested Butte News notes that the wobbly financial position of the mining company is a consideration, but so is the fact that the treatment plant uses outdated technology and now operates 20 years beyond its expected life.

A smoky pall cast on the Rocky Mountains

WHISTLER, B.C. – An old axiom of the news business is that it’s news when a man bites a dog, not the reverse.

That said, where was it not smoky over the weekend in the Rocky Mountains? Almost everybody was talking about the shrouded skies that cause a vague sense of unease. “Choking on West Coast smoke up here!” wrote an Aspen resident Saturday.

“Smoke from all the fires west of us is the heaviest we’ve ever seen in 17 years,” reported a resident of Red Lodge, Montana, during a weekend trip to Yellowstone Lake. “But the Wall Street Journal tells me we don’t have global warming!”

In Sandpoint, Idaho, a resident along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille reported too much smoke to see more than 2 miles. With that much smoke, people are advised to stay indoors.

It was hazy in Taos, New Mexico, too, and even more so in Santa Fe.

“Most of this haze is associated with the large fires in the Pacific Northwest,” Pat Pacheco, fire management officer at the Bureau of Land Management Taos Field Office, told the Taos News.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported 76 active large fires, mostly in the Pacific Northwest.

With the USA Pro Cycling Challenge?

DENVER – The USA Pro Challenge wheeled through Colorado last week, attracting large crowds and international television coverage.

But after five years, reports Jason Blevins of the Denver Post, the event still lacks a title sponsor that will keep it alive. Losses for the bicycle races have dropped from an estimated $10 million the first year to $2 million this year.

In this quest for financial sustainability, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge is hardly alone, reports Blevins. Bike races across the world often struggle to find and sustain sponsors.

There may be additional problems for this event. It was launched and is owned by Rick Schaden and his father Richard, who launched the Smashburger, Quiznos and Live Basil restaurant chains. Rick Schaden’s business reputation has been marked with contentious lawsuits. One unnamed source, identified as “one of the most influential players in Colorado’s tourism industry,” said: “A lot of people have looked at this race, but they have shied away from any association with the owners.”

Steve Maxwell, a business analyst and cycling advocate, sees a broader problem.

“You can target a very attractive demographic with bike racing, but apparently that demographic is not big enough to bring in the really big sponsors,” Maxwell said. “And unfortunately, the sport keeps shooting itself in the foot with the doping allegations. All that eventually translates into sponsorship troubles.”

Colorado’s last big bicycle race was sponsored by Coors. The race series ran from 1979 to 1988, when it died after Coors pulled its support.

The Schadens have homes in Aspen, and the town has been on the race circuit every year. Similar to other host towns, it also pays for the privilege, this year at a cost of $300,000 in cash and in-kind services, including $50,000 worth of room nights for racers and support staff. About half of the money came from Aspen’s city government, reports the Aspen Daily News, citing a city memo.

What does Aspen get out of this? Not necessarily a bump in receipts at cash registers, at least not directly. But last year’s event gave the Aspen area two-and-a half hours of television exposure. That coverage reached 15 million in Europe. In the United States, cable ratings were comparable to an NHL hockey game or an MLS soccer game, according to Aspen special events director Nancy Lesley.

Leadville has races, but economy still struggles

LEADVILLE – Will Leadville ever be able to carve out a good living as a tourist town? It was a mining town for so long, until the giant molybdenum mine straddling the Continental Divide at Fremont Pass, 12 miles distant, closed in 1981.

With that economic collapse, there was a mass exodus from Leadville — and plenty of cheap rooms for people working in the Vail Valley and Summit County, 30 to 45 minutes away.

Could Leadville gain a new existence by hosting summer running and bicycling events? Writing in the Denver Post, Joey Bunch reports only so-so results. Certainly, Leadville has gotten on the national map for something other than mining. The Leadville 100, starting from an elevation of 10,280 feet, draws some of the world’s best athletes.

But the racers come and leave. It’s partly because there’s not much at Leadville to keep them there other than the magnificent mountains and the brightly painted Victorians. The town has just eight motels, most of them not the sort that are favored by modern travelers.

Further, Leadville isn’t exactly flush. One indicator: 67 percent of the schoolchildren in Lake County qualify for free or reduced lunches, compared with 42 percent statewide.

In his research, Bunch also found a conflict about just what sort of tourism Leadville should seek. Some, said municipal judge Neil Reynolds, indicate that the town should make a consistent pitch for people interested in history, and that the athletic events get in the way of that appeal.

“If the races were as good as they say it is for the economy, we’d be seeing new hotels and restaurants. But anybody with any business sense knows you can’t operate a year-round economy based on four weekends a year,” Reynolds said. “But you can ruin one.”

This discussion is different than those during the 1970s, when the Climax Mine had more than 3,000 employees and the mine provided a huge property tax base, dwarfing the tax rolls of Aspen, Vail and Summit County.

Climax reopened permanently in 2011 but employs only 350 people, a tenth of the former staff — and has a hard time finding people with mining skills.