Nel's New Day

August 13, 2015

Toxic Spill a Lesson for Protecting the Environment

The Tang-colored Animas River in Colorado has recently been the subject of media mutterings with conservatives blaming the EPA for all the problems. Conservative officials, including New Mexico Gov. Susanna Martinez, are demanding that the EPA pay for all the cleanup and accusing the agency of incompetence.

yellow river

For those who haven’t kept up with the disaster that started in Colorado and moved downstream, the EPA was investigating an idled mine, the Gold King Mine near Silverton (CO), and trying to drain the heavy-metal-laden sludge that had been slowing leaking out into the Animas River. Instead, workers breached an unstable dam eight days ago, releasing three million gallons of the waste. The agency made no announcement for almost 24 hours and then underestimated the amount by two-thirds.

The Gold King, out of operation since 1923, is one of approximately 22,000 abandoned hard rock mines leaking toxic substances into the state’s waterways. (There may be 500,000 of these in the United States.) Mining exposes acidic minerals, and heavy metals and groundwater can wash them into rivers. This particular spill includes aluminum, lead, arsenic, and cadmium with tests downstream at Durango showing arsenic and lead levels peaking at 300 and 3,500 times historic levels. Despite the current fear, however, the levels of metal dissipated rapidly and only one fish of 108 in cages died during the first 24 hours. Prior to the spill, the Animas and San Juan Rivers had alarmingly high levels of human fecal bacteria. About 40 percent of Western headwaters have already been contaminated by these mines.

Within four days, the 500 gallons per minute emitted from the dam was diverted into two nearby settling ponds. The EPA plans to treat the waste so that it can be released into the river. By that time, however, the materials already in the river had gotten to Farmington (NM), more than 80 miles downriver where the Animas feeds into the San Juan River, on its way to Lake Powell and into the Colorado River. Towns shut off intake valves before the water arrived, but residents with wells within the floodplains of the Animas and San Juan have been directed to have their water tested before using it. The rivers will also be closed to drinking, irrigation supply, fishing, and recreation until at least August 17.

The water color has gone back to normal, but toxic metals settling in the river bottom can cause problems when disturbed by storm runoffs. Contamination in the area is not new: the Cement Creek where the problem originated was declared undrinkable in 1876. During most of the history of the West, miners were not regulated in their burrowing for gold, silver, and other valuable minerals. As they dug, they hit water that reacted with air and pyrite (iron sulfide) to create sulfuric acid and dissolved iron before it dissolved other metals such as copper and lead. The result is water with heavy metals.

Miners just dumped the water in creeks or put it in ponds with their tailings, making the water more acidic. The mines near Silverton are the worst, causing the largest untreated mine drainage in the state. Ronald Cohen, an environmental engineer at the Colorado School of Mines, said, “Problematic concentrations of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron, lead, manganese and aluminum are choking off the Upper Animas River’s ecosystem.” For several years, the EPA wanted to declare the area as a Superfund site to bring funding for cleaning up the mess. The people in the area resisted, worried that the label would be toxic to tourism. Recently, the town agreed that the EPA could call the site “the National Priority List” and let the EPA work to improve water quality near the mines.

The conspiracy crowd decided that, based on a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, the EPA deliberately caused the spillage “to secure Superfund money. If the Gold King mine was declared a Superfund site it would essentially kill future development for the mining industry. The Obama EPA is vehemently opposed to mining and development.” The EPA takes full responsibility for the debacle, but Gina McCarthy, the head of the agency, is almost sure to be appearing before a Congressional hearing.

The accident started when the EPA tried to plug the Red and Bonita Mine just below the Gold King mine. To keep water from flowing out of that interconnected mine, the EPA tried to reconstruct the portal at the Gold King to check changes in discharge caused by the Red and Bonita Mine bulkhead. Workers started in July, and the toxic water flowed on August 4.

Todd Hennis, Gold King’s owner, said that he predicted for the past 14 years that the situation was getting worse and tried to do something about the discharge. He blames Kinross Gold, a deep-pocketed Canada-based multinational mining giant, for using influence to reduce its liability for treating polluted water and passing the risks to nearby mines. The Kinross-owned Sunnyside Mine is at fault for the accumulation of wastewater, according to Hennis. In the mid-1990s, Kinross received permission to plug a part of the Sunnyside Mine called the American Tunnel after Hennis complained about the discharge of 165 gallons a minute from Sunnyside when he tried to reopen the Mogul gold mine. Before that time, Gold King discharged seven gallons a minute, but the Kinross project increased that to 250 gallons of water a minute. Hennis claims that the wastewater came from Sunnyside Mine through drill holes and natural fractures in the ground.

Although no actual mining is being done at the Gold King, Hennis completed $10 million in exploration during the 1990s, including 400,000 ounces of gold and four million ounces of silver. The mine also has large deposits of tellurium, used in high-tech alloys. Hennis just wants to find a buyer.

Locals aren’t the only people to blame the EPA and the president, and the message has gone viral in right-wing Internet blogging. Even the less conservative media fails to point out that the mining industry had no regulation until 1970. Since then, conservative members of Congress have fought for no regulations, claiming that it’s just “big government.” With a large majority in Congress and many states, lawmakers are constantly attacking the EPA and its mandate to “protect” the environment. While the Koch brothers pay for legislators to deregulate, the mainstream media reports nothing. For example, Republicans pushed deregulation in West Virginia responsible for the chemical spill because they want businesses to make more money.

Jonathan Thompson pointed out that pollution in the Animas is not new. Miners didn’t stop pouring their tailings into the creeks and rivers until the 1930s, and portals and shafts blasted into the mountainsides pull water flowing through fractures into mine tunnels and cause the contaminated water. When a huge tailings pile northeast of Silverton was breached in 1975, the 50,000 tons of heavy-metal-loaded tailings turned the Animas into aluminum color. Three years later, the American Tunnel was bored at Sunnyside Mine, and Lake Emma burst through, sending 500 million gallons of water throughout the mines, picking up tailings and sludge before blasting it out of the tunnel and sending it downstream. By 1991, many of the 400 mines released unmitigated discharges into streams. No fish could be found downstream from Silverton.

There is no doubt that the EPA made a mistake. If they had done nothing, however, the same thing would likely have happened with water and sludge breaking through the faulty dam. Many people believe that the disaster alerted people in Durango to the current problems; they may pressure those up in Silverton to accept Superfund and get some of the mess cleaned up. Durango cleaned up in the early 1990s with no problems to tourism and property values, and the tourism mecca of Moab (UT) is also being cleaned up.

The disaster could also save the Grand Canyon, one of the “Most Endangered Places” in the United States. Last April, U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell ruled against a request by the Havasupai tribe and a coalition of conservation groups to halt new uranium mining next to Grand Canyon National Park, just six miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The U.S. Forest Service is allowing the Canadian mining firm Energy Fuels Inc. to reopen a uranium mine without formally consulting with tribal authorities or updating a 30-year-old federal environmental review. Wildlife, including the endangered California condor, will be threatened, and toxic uranium mining waste, a toxic heavy metal and source of radiation, will contaminate aquifers and streams that maintain the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Geologists say that cleaning up such contamination will be “next to impossible.”

Uranium mining also spreads radioactive dust through air and leaks radioactivity and toxic chemicals into the environment. Every uranium mine ever operated in the United States has required some degree of toxic waste cleanup, and the worst have sickened dozens of people, contaminated miles of rivers and streams, and required the cleanup of hundreds of acres of land.

grand canyon

President Obama could protect the Grand Canyon by proclaiming its watershed a national monument. But Boehner would issue another press release complaining about the president’s “overreach.” Take a good look at this photograph of our national treasure because it, like many other important parts of our legacy, will disappear if conservatives get their way.

October 14, 2013

Day Fourteen of the GOP Government Shutdown: GOP Value System

Since the beginning of the shutdown, the GOP conservatives have been obsessed with national parks and monuments.

It began with Rep. Randy  Neugebauer (R-TX) publicly scolding a park ranger at the World War II Memorial because she was following the law. “The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves,” Neugenbauer said to the ranger. She replied it was a difficult task, but “I’m not ashamed.” He retorted, “You should be.” Since then, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) have filed an ethics charge against Neugebauer for attempting to “coerce” the ranger to allow access to the memorial, that he violated a House rule requiring members to behave in “a manner that reflects the creditably on the House.”

Even yesterday, protesters are illegally forcing their way into areas that the shutdown has closed. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) led a crowd that removed barricades at the World War II memorial and chanted “tear down these walls.” Cruz said that President Obama is using military veterans as “pawns” in the shutdown argument.

These protesters, including the one carrying the Confederate flag, are most likely the same people who write letters to the editor and contact their legislators to keep the undocumented immigrants from “breaking the laws” by entering the country.

Senior House Natural Resources Committee Republicans sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis ordering him to “not destroy documents related to the decision this week to restrict public access” to open-air memorials and monuments in the Washington area. Those documents are actually the House votes that closed the government. As Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) pointed out:

“These same veterans that they’re pretending to help today at the WWII memorial, you know, they’re going to have access to their disability pensions is going to be limited after Oct. 15. There’s going to be cuts in prosthetic research for veterans. The National Cemetery Administration is not going to be able to lay our heroes to rest at the same rate that they were. And Michele Bachmann who was there today at the World War II Memorial actually said, ‘The shutdown is exactly what we wanted. We got what we wanted.’ A good day for the tea party is when government is having a bad day.”

Arizona’s obsession with national parks was evident when one of the state “lawmakers” referred the president as “De Fuhrer” [sic] on a Facebook post, in the mistaken belief that it was he, and not her U.S. representatives, who closed down the national parks. Arizona State Rep. Brenda Barton (R) called on rogue “Constitutional Sheriffs” to arrest park service rangers for doing their jobs and urged people to ask their local sheriffs to revoke arrest powers to federal agents within their counties. When questioned about her terminology, she said she was keeping to her Adolf Hitler analogy:

 “It’s not just the death camps. [Hitler] started in the communities, with national health care and gun control. You better read your history. Germany started with national health care and gun control before any of that other stuff happened. And Hitler was elected by a majority of people.”

Arizona has now sunk even lower, if possible.  Gov. Jan Brewer is using state funds to open the Grand Canyon, yet Arizona was the only state in the nation that stopped issuing welfare checks after the federal shutdown. The $651,000 from state taxpayers will keep the park running for only a week, and there’s no guarantee that the state will be reimbursed. The federal government will reimburse the state for welfare checks if the shutdown ends.

In Arizona, 5,200 families receive an average of $207 a week from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, less money than keeping the Grand Canyon open. After protests regarding the withholding of welfare checks, Brewer reversed the halt, claiming that “just” 3,200 families failed to receive checks for October.

In its decision to use money from the rainy-day fund of $450,000,000, state senate Minority Leader Leah Landrum Taylor (D-Phoenix) explained why the state needs to re-open the Grand Canyon: “The rainy-day fund is for emergencies, and this is an emergency. This is beyond hurting the families. … Families are relying upon this.” Arizona government has determined that families relying on Grand Canyon businesses are of more value than those forced to live below poverty level, often because of rapacious corporate wages.

Brewer has been clear that the state will continue to pay for the Grand Canyon if the shutdown has not ended in five days. TANF and other critical federal programs may not be as fortunate.

During the shutdown, conservatives find national parks important, but several of them have wanted to sell them. Rep. Cliff Steans (R-FL) told a town hall meeting that the country needs to “actually sell off some of our national parks.” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of public lands last fall, and former Rep. Richard Pombo suggested selling national parks to mining companies in 2005. U.S. parks created $31 billion and 258,000 jobs in 2010 while providing recreation for everyone, not just the wealthy elite—or the mining companies. Mitt Romney said that he doesn’t know “what the purpose is” of public lands, Rick Santorum said that public lands should go “back to the hands” of the private sector, and Ron Paul advocated for public lands to be turned over to the states.

People in the United States are going jobless because of the government shutdown, and some GOP Congressional members suffered a backlash from their defiant attitude toward continuing to receive salaries. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said, “The thing of it is, I need my paycheck. That is the bottom line.”

Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) joined Ellmers in her sentiment. “Whatever gets them good press,” Terry said of members giving up their salary. “That’s all that it’s going to be. God bless them. But you know what? I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

In acts of embarrassment, both Ellmers and Terry joined over 100 over members of Congress who refused to take their salaries until the end of the shutdown. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM) did offer financial advice for furloughed workers:

“If you are a furloughed government employee, we encourage you to reach out to your financial institution as soon as you worry you may miss a paycheck. Financial Institutions [sic] often offer short-term loans and other resources. Don’t wait until you are behind on a bill; call now and explore your options.”

This from a man who has helped shut down the government.

Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said this afternoon that they made progress toward opening the government and stopping the U.S. from defaulting on its debts. The House, however, will have to accept any Senate decision to stop the disasters, and that cannot happen unless Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) permits a vote in the House. Yet House members may still be as confused as Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN):

“We’re not going to be disrespected… We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) said today that the House should be prepared to reject any agreement from the Senate. The classic House position comes from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX): “We don’t have to fund laws we didn’t pass.” There goes just about every law in the history of the United States because this House has done almost nothing except rename post offices.

While Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) may oppose a debt limit deal, he says that defaulting on the nation’s debt would be “an impeachable offense by the president.” GOP logic: we won’t let you pay the bills and then we’ll impeach you if you don’t.”

Paul Krugman’s description of the Tea Party:

“So you have this neighbor who has been making your life hell. First he tied you up with a spurious lawsuit; you’re both suffering from huge legal bills. Then he threatened bodily harm to your family. Now, however, he says he’s willing to compromise: He’ll call off the lawsuit, which is to his advantage as well as yours. But in return you must give him your car. Oh, and he’ll stop threatening your family — but only for a week, after which the threats will resume.

“Not much of an offer, is it? But here’s the kicker: Your neighbor’s relatives, who have been egging him on, are furious that he didn’t also demand that you kill your dog.”

That’s the U.S. House of Representatives.

Meanwhile four of the five new Nobel-prize winners working for the government are furloughed while members of Congress are still being paid. Taxpayers are still paying for the lawmakers’ gym. Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said, “This job is very stressful and if you don’t have a place to vent, you are going to go crazy.” (It may not have provided that assistance to all members of the Congress.) A week ago, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that the Senate’s gym was becoming “rank.” Yesterday he said that he wouldn’t vote for any agreement that compromises John Boehner’s (R-OH) leadership. That gym is going to get a lot more rank.

GOP values: I’ve got mine; too bad for you.

July 10, 2013

Stop Mining at the Grand Canyon

grand canyon_2The Grand Canyon has been an icon of our national park system even before Woodrow Wilson declared is a national park in 1919. Almost 5 million people visit it each year to see its two-billion-year history. With the creation of Lake Powell, designed to gradually release water into the Colorado River after the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963, the Grand Canyon has been at risk. The beaches are disappearing along with native fish species that existed there for millions of years. Millennium-old American Indian burial sites are washing away. With no regular flooding, river banks are overrun by tamarisk bushes, and boulders washed out of side canyons are making the rapids more difficult to navigate.

“The Grand Canyon river corridor is getting nuked,” said David Haskell, a retired National Park Service officer who directed the Grand Canyon science center from 1994 to 1999. “It’s in the final stages of having the natural ecosystem completely destroyed and replaced with a man-made one because of the presence of the dam.”

Before the Glen Canyon was built, the sand washed down the river provided food for insects, food for fish and birds. Spawning beds for fish and sand bars where plants can grow and river rafters can sleep require this sediment. A 1996 experiment to open Glen Canyon’s floodgates raised the Colorado by 13 feet, but the new beaches disappeared in two years.

Now the government has found another way to destroy the Grand Canyon. The U.S. Forest Service has decided to allow the Canadian company Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. to begin operating a uranium mine near the park. The Canyon Mine, located on the Kaibab National Forest six miles south of the park, was originally approved in 1986. It became the subject of protests and lawsuits by the Havasupai Tribe and others because of impacts on groundwater, springs, creeks, ecosystems, and cultural values connected to Red Butte, a Traditional Cultural Property.

mineUranium mining rips up huge tracts of land to extract radioactive material for use in nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, sending radioactive pollutants into the air. One of these is radon gas, which had no safeguards when the approval was made in 1986. With almost no environmental standards, the process falls under the Mining Law of 1872 that has no safeguards for soil, wildlife, people and water resources. This antiquated law actually gives mining a priority over all other uses of public lands.

Mines closed almost three decades ago still pollute streams in the area. The Orphan Mine at the South Rim of Grand Canyon closed in 1969 but still contaminates Horn Creek with radioactive runoff.  Recently, the National Park Service began a clean-up effort for that mine that will cost taxpayers millions.

The Canyon Mine falls within the one-million-acre “mineral withdrawal” approved by the Obama administration in January 2012 to protect Grand Canyon’s watershed from new uranium mining impacts. The withdrawal prohibits new mining claims and mine development on old claims lacking “valid existing rights” to mine. In April 2012, the Forest Service determined that there were “valid existing rights” for the Canyon mine, and in June it issued a report trying to explain its decision to allow the mine to open without updating the 27-year-old environmental review, developed during the Reagan administration. The Havasupai tribe and three conservation groups are challenging this.

mine 2The mine is located on a site sacred to the Havusupai and other tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo. The Navajo are still fighting for a comprehensive cleanup of the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines scattered across their reservation, mines blamed for decades of health problems and deaths among residents unknowingly exposed to radioactivity. [Left: From Common Dreams comes this photo of the Canyon Mine with the Grand Canyon six miles to the north.]

evn-canyon  0327110900smLast year the Interior Department imposed a 20-year federal ban on new uranium mining covering 1 million acres near the Grand Canyon, but Energy Fuels Resources claims that its rights are grandfathered. Those rights were obtained before people could understand the dangers of uranium mining. Applying for a permit in 1984, Energy Fuels Resources did preliminary surface work two years later but stopped before the mine became operational because the price of uranium dropped.

In addition to contributing to the beauty of the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River supplies water to 30 million people in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other Southwestern cities.

You can use your vote to oppose the mine and support the Grand Canyon and its watershed.


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