Federal Water Tap, August 10: EPA Inspectors Trigger Toxic Release from Colorado Mine

The Rundown

EPA triggers a mining waste accident. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is larger than expected. Oil and gas waste, even treated, raises concerns for an endangered mussel in Pennsylvania. Water infrastructure funds need better management. The Senate joins the House in passing an algae bill. EPA finds fault with environmental review for nation’s largest oil terminal. And 2015 continues to set climate records.

“We are very sorry for what happened. This is a huge tragedy. It’s hard being on the other side of this. Typically we respond to emergencies; we don’t cause them … It’s something we sincerely regret.” — Dave Ostrander, EPA regional director of emergency preparedness assessment and response, speaking about the waste spill from Gold King Mine, in southwestern Colorado.

By the Numbers

46,000: Water infrastructure loans made by the state revolving funds for drinking water and sewer systems since they were established, in 1996 and 1987 respectively. Zero loans have defaulted. (Government Accountability Office)
$US 3.6 million: Average spent per year by the U.S. Justice Department to defend U.S. Environmental Protection Agency statutes in court between 1998 and 2010. (Government Accountability Office)
$US 2 million: Fine to be paid by Arch Coal for violating pollution permits under the Clean Water Act. The company, one of the nation’s largest coal firms, will also undergo more strenuous audits and inspections of its operations. (EPA)

Reports and Studies

Oil and Gas Wastewater in Pennsylvania Threatens Endangered Mussel
Treated wastewater from oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania still contains enough salts, such as chloride, to kill a federally protected mussel species, according to a study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The study, which assessed water in the Alleghany River downstream of treatment facilities, found that a recent state proposal for a chloride standard, which was not adopted, was not strong enough to protect the northern riffleshell mussel, an endangered species.

“The protective limits are considerably lower than what is being proposed as a water quality standard,” Kathleen Patnode, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and the study’s lead author, told Circle of Blue.

Even though oil and gas operators have a voluntary agreement to send wastewater to treatment facilities, those facilities are often not equipped to remove salts, Patnode said.

2015: Still Hot
The first seven months of 2015 are the hottest on record for the western United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast and Southern Plains region marked its wettest January-to-July since records began in 1895. The full national climate summary for the year through July is available here.

State Water Funds Need Better Guidance
Two loan funds for drinking water and sewer systems that are managed by the states and seeded by federal dollars need better financial oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency. The state revolving funds are the largest sources of federal investment in drinking water and sewer infrastructure.

By interviewing officials in 21 states as well as federal authorities and finance experts, the GAO found that not all states are earning enough revenue to sustain the funds. The funds can be depleted by subsidized loans and the cost of administering the funds.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone
The annual low-oxygen dead zone is larger than normal this summer, thanks to June rains that washed nutrients from farm fields into the gulf, according to NOAA.

News Briefs

Colorado Mine Spill
An Environmental Protection Agency team assessing the acidic drainage from a mine in the mountains of southwestern Colorado caused a spill on Wednesday into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River, in the Colorado River Basin.

The river turned fluorescent orange from the high concentrations of heavy metals, which caused levels to spike by thousands of times above baseline conditions. However, effects on fish appear minimal so far. Of 108 fish that the EPA lowered into the river ahead of the waste plume — to be, in effect, canaries in a potentially toxic river — only one died by Sunday.

The acidic water is still flowing from the mine, but it is now being captured in a series of ponds and treated before being released into Cement Creek.

Initial estimates of a roughly 3.8 million liters (1 million gallons) were revised upward to 11.4 million liters (3 million gallons).

Many questions are unanswered.

  • Did the plume affect groundwater wells located near the river? EPA officials told reporters that several homeowners have complained of discolored water.
  • What is the EPA’s liability? Will the agency pay damages and compensate businesses for lost income?
  • Where did the heavy metals settle out? Will contaminated sediment need to be monitored if it is stirred during high river flows?

The EPA is posting data and daily updates here.

Algae Bill Passes
A year after Toledo’s water system was shut down for days by toxic algae, a bill that requires the EPA to prepare a plan for assessing and managing the risks to drinking water from the harmful blooms passed the Senate. Sponsored by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH), the Drinking Water Protection Act cleared the House in February.

“It is time to ensure that we are doing everything we possibly can at the local, state, and federal level to ensure that we can deal with this issue and that it can be resolved,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) just before the Senate vote.

Clean Water Act Concerns for Washington Oil Terminal
The EPA recommends that the Army Corps of Engineers not issue a construction permit for an oil terminal in Vancouver, Washington, until a more thorough environmental review occurs, The Columbian newspaper reports. The EPA is concerned because effects on water quality, wetlands, and aquatic habitat have not been assessed. The facility, to be located on the Columbia River, would be the nation’s largest oil terminal accepting shipments of crude by rail.

Mekong Meeting
Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the eighth meeting of the ministers of the Lower Mekong River Initiative, a forum for discussing sustainable development in Southeast Asia.

Ministers from the initiative’s five member countries — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam — signed, along with the United States, a statement that stressed the need for “sound environmental management.”

On the Radar

Estuaries Bill
The Senate passed a bill to reauthorize the National Estuary Program, at a cost of $US 26 million per year over five years. Projects to improve water quality in 28 estuaries are funded through the program.

Volcanic Aquifers Study
The U.S. Geological Survey is beginning a study of the groundwater and geothermal resources of volcanic aquifers in the region bordered by California, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. First results are expected by the end of 2016.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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