Just in the nick of time, the Environmental Protection Agency has found a place to store waste from the Gold King Mine at a site near Silverton, removing the need to haul it more than 70 miles to a landfill south of Durango.
EPA officials announced last week that the agency has entered an agreement with a property owner who owns the Kittimac tailings pile, a historic mine waste pile about 6 miles northeast of Silverton along County Road 2.
The EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water-treatment plant north of Silverton in October 2015, three months after the agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent a torrent of mine waste down the Animas and San Juan rivers.
Since, the water-treatment plant has been treating and removing potentially toxic metals out of water that continues to discharge from the Gold King Mine. In April, the EPA said the mine was still leaking 450 gallons a minute.
The water-treatment plant adds lime to the mine wastewater to raise the pH of the water so that dissolved metals become solid and can settle in settling ponds – a highly effective process.
The process, however, generates a lot of sludge. The EPA has said an estimated 4,600 cubic yards of sludge is generated a year.
The agency had been storing this sludge waste product – which is considered non-hazardous – at the site of the water-treatment plant in an area known as Gladstone, about 6 miles north of Silverton along County Road 110.
The EPA announced this spring, however, room was running out at Gladstone for the sludge. Then a statement sent May 31 said that space had run out. The agency had tried for months to find another place near Silverton, to no avail.
As a result, EPA officials said in April the agency would have to haul the sludge over two mountain passes and through the town of Durango to a dump at the Bondad landfill, about 18 miles south of Durango off U.S. Highway 550.
An estimated 700 trips a year would be taken, Cynthia Peterson, an EPA spokeswoman, said at the time.
“Our preference would be to identify options that don’t involve transporting sludge off-site,” Peterson said.
Silverton and San Juan County officials opposed the idea of taking the sludge to the Bondad landfill, arguing the plan would not be financially or environmentally practical.
Scott Fetchenheir, a San Juan County commissioner and former miner, said Wednesday local residents are pleased to learn the EPA found a better solution to the sludge waste issue.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “But it’s almost like this big experiment.”
The EPA has said it will mix the Gold King Mine sludge with mine tailings located at Kittimac.
The EPA believes this will reduce high water content of the sludge, and will allow more efficient management, while at the same time immobilize heavy metals found in the tailings pile.
“It could clean up that site and give them a place to store the sludge,” said San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookey. “It’s potentially a win-win situation.”
The EPA said it is testing the sludge and tailings mixture to ensure the maximum reduction of metals leaching from the tailings. The agency plans to conduct a pilot test of this transfer process for one week in mid-June.
For years, the Kittimac tailings pile has been used illegally by dirt bikers and ATV’ers who have disregarded “no trespassing” signs to ride on the mine waste that looks like a pile of sand. Now that the EPA is using the site, access will be more guarded, Tookey said.
“I know it’s been tested, but I’m not sure how bad it is,” Tookey said of the potential health implications for people riding on the mine waste. “My guess is it’s not something you want to spend a whole lot of time breathing.”
While the short-term problem of where to put the sludge is temporarily solved, Fetchenheir said there remains the larger, more complicated matter at hand: what to do for long-term treatment of the mines draining into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River considered the worst polluter in the headwaters.
While lime treatment plants are effective, they are also expensive to operate ($1 million a year) and have to be run in perpetuity. The EPA has yet to release its plan for long-term treatment options.
“It’s hugely open-ended,” Fetchenheir said. “The true hope is some new technology arrives that removes metals without generating a huge amount of sludge. But I haven’t seen anything like it.”
For now, the EPA said it will transfer the sludge via truck using the County Road 110 bypass. The agency said it hopes to reduce negative impacts, such as noise and dust.
After the pilot test in June, the EPA will resume transferring the sludge to the Kittimac tailings pile after the tourist season, around early fall, for a duration of about five weeks.