A truck driver who crashed into Cement Creek while contracted by the Environmental Protection Agency to haul sludge from the Gold King Mine was cited Monday with careless driving.
Colorado State Patrol Capt. Adrian Driscoll was unsure Tuesday morning whether the crash was a result of speeding, distracted driving or some other factor that led to the truck going off County Road 110 and landing in the creek.
The driver was identified as Wesley Smith, 58, of Durango. Smith was working for Bonds Construction, a company in Durango contracted by the EPA to take waste byproduct from a temporary water-treatment plant to a storage site.
Smith was uninjured in the crash, authorities said.
According to State Patrol, Smith was driving a 2005 Mack Truck around 2 p.m. when he went off the shoulder of County Road 110 about a mile north of Silverton and into Cement Creek, spilling about 9 cubic yards of sludge into the waterway.
No fuel was leaked into Cement Creek, but there was a small oil leak, Driscoll said. The EPA has said the sludge from the Gold King Mine has been treated and is considered non-hazardous.
Cleanup of the creek falls under the responsibility of the Bureau of Land Management. Calls to the BLM’s Gunnison field office were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.
Driscoll said the truck was removed from Cement Creek and the scene was cleared by about 6:30 p.m. Monday.
“Safety is paramount,” EPA spokesman Richard Mylott wrote in an email to The Durango Herald on Tuesday. “We will evaluate the circumstances surrounding the accident and make any necessary changes.”
The EPA started hauling sludge June 15 from the water-treatment plant, about 10 miles north of Silverton, to a historic mine waste pile known as the Kittimac tailings.
The trip is about 10 to 15 miles one way but involves windy, mountainous dirt roads.
The need to haul the sludge to a different storage site arose in the past year when the EPA announced it was running out of room to store the waste byproduct at the water-treatment plant site in Gladstone.
The EPA built the water-treatment plant in October 2015, three months after the agency accidentally caused the Gold King Mine blowout, which sent 3 million gallons of mine wastewater down the Animas River, affecting waterways in three states.
In fall 2016, 48 mining sites around Silverton responsible for degrading water quality in the Animas River headwaters were declared a Superfund site, called the Bonita Peak Mining District.
By far the largest polluters in the Superfund site are mines putting out acidic waste in the Cement Creek drainage. As of now, the temporary water-treatment plant treats only discharges out of the Gold King Mine.
The process, however, generates a lot of sludge, about 4,600 cubic yards a year, the EPA has said. That’s enough to cover an acre in about a foot of sludge.
Water laced with heavy metals – such as lead, arsenic, aluminum and iron, among others – spills out of the Gold King Mine and enters the treatment plant. There, lime is added to raise the pH and stabilize the heavy metals.
By the end of the process, the waste byproduct is about 95 percent lime and 5 percent heavy metals. Because the sludge is comprised largely of the lime added to treat the metals, it is considered non-hazardous, the EPA said.
A lime treatment plant is highly effective in treating mine waste, but dealing with the massive amount of sludge the process generates is one of its largest downfalls – and it’s a problem that lasts in perpetuity.
It took almost three years for the EPA to find a place to store the sludge as room at Gladstone was quickly running out, and the announcement came just months before the EPA said it was completely out of room.
The EPA said that had it not found Kittimac, the agency would have been forced to haul the sludge 70 miles, over two mountain passes, through Durango to a landfill in Bondad.
But storing the sludge at Kittimac is only a temporary solution to a long-term problem. The EPA is looking for a longer-term, more preferable place to put waste generated from the treatment plant.
But there’s little suitable land for such a storage site in San Juan County.
Many agree the best place for the sludge is at one of Sunnyside Gold Co.’s massive tailings ponds north of Silverton along County Road 2.
Sunnyside Gold, however, is listed as a potentially responsible party in the EPA’s Superfund cleanup, and the two sides have been unable to come to an agreement for use of the site.