The water treatment plant built to reduce contamination from the Gold King Mine into the headwaters of the Animas River has stopped operations because of the extreme winter weather in the San Juan Mountains.
Cynthia Peterson, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an email to The Durango Herald on Friday that the treatment facility was closed around 6 p.m. Thursday.
“Despite the best efforts of the operator to keep the plant running remotely, intermittent power fluctuations prevented the system from responding,” she said.
A temporary water treatment plant was built in September 2015, just a month after an EPA contracted crew triggered a blowout at the Gold King Mine, releasing 3 million gallons of heavy-metal laden sludge into the Animas, and eventually the San Juan, rivers.
The facility was built to resist the cold, and even to operate remotely, EPA officials said. But this winter’s unprecedented snowfall and avalanche danger in the area have been too much to keep the plant going.
The temporary treatment plant is on County Road 110, a dirt road, about 7 miles north of Silverton in the Gladstone area. The EPA didn’t have estimates for how much snow is on the ground at the plant, but the ski resort Silverton Mountain, which is adjacent to the facility, is reporting more than 11 feet of snow at its mid-mountain base at an elevation of 11,800 feet.
Jim Donovan, San Juan County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management, said County Road 110 has been overrun with a series of avalanches in the past few weeks. A significant slide came down Saturday, however, which closed the road.
Silverton Mountain, which has had to helicopter people to its ski area as a result of the road closure, also reported nearly 4 new feet of snow in the last 72 hours.
In winter, the EPA stations one employee in Silverton to oversee the plant. Peterson said that staffer hiked 3 miles to the plant Monday to ensure there were no weather-related issues impacting operations.
The treatment plant wasn’t damaged and was working, Peterson said. But now it has lost power.
“Once the road to the plant is reopened, the operator will have access to the plant and will resume operations,” she said.
Donovan said the county’s plow crews are working to clear County Road 110 of the snow buried from the avalanche, but it probably won’t be until at least next week when the road will reopen.
“It’s just day-by-day on how much progress they can make,” Donovan said. “With the clear weather, they may be able to get through it quicker.”
Typically, winter and fall are the most important time to treat mine waste because there is less water in the Animas River and its tributaries, which means there is less dilution of potentially toxic heavy metals that leach from inactive or abandoned mines.
But given the circumstances, the shutting down of the treatment plant probably will not have too much of an impact on water quality, said Peter Butler, with the Animas River Stakeholders Group.
The Gold King Mine is currently discharging 264 gallons a minute, a really low flow, relatively, for the mine. It appears snow is starting to melt off, which likely dilutes any metals seeping into the waterway.
“You might see some (metal) concentrations go up in Cement Creek,” Butler said of the tributary that flows alongside County Road 110 and meets with the Animas River in Silverton. “But I wouldn’t expect it to have a big impact.”
Peterson said the EPA does not plan to fly personnel to the facility at this time.
Mike Mestas, director of the San Juan County (New Mexico) Office of Emergency Management, said the cities of Aztec and Farmington have closed its water intake on the Animas River as a precautionary measure.
firstname.lastname@example.orgAn earlier version of this story incorrectly said Silverton Mountain was closed.