Turbulent waters – Eagle Mine cleanup
MINTURN – It’s been nearly 16 years since pollutants from the Eagle Mine turned the Eagle River orange. An extensive and costly cleanup operation of the federally designated “Superfund” site has since helped bring the river back to where it can support fish and insect life. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called the cleanup one of its greatest successes.But not everyone is cheering at the finish line just yet.After several delays, a hearing to review the case is set for Dec. 12, and the different sides are lining up to present their arguments. On the one side is Viacom, the international conglomerate that has been held largely responsible for the cleanup – to the tune of some $80 million. Viacom got on the hook for the cleanup when it acquired companies that formerly had ownership of the mine, which closed in 1984 after a century producing zinc for hardening steel.With all that money and time spent, Viacom is ready to say it’s clean enough and go home, according to Caroline Bradford, executive director of the watchdog group Eagle River Watershed Council. She said the EPA and the Colorado Department of Health & Environment are leaning towards Viacom’s thinking. The primary issue involves the amount of zinc that should be allowed to be released into the river. During the cleanup operation, Viacom has worked under a relaxed temporary standard – a level that allows a higher level of zinc to enter the water than would be acceptable elsewhere. They’d now like to have that level established as the permanent standard.”They’ve reached an agreement on where the (permanent) line should be,” Bradford said of Viacom, the EPA and the health department. “Viacom did everything they were supposed to do, but this is the Watershed Council’s mission: to advocate for the health and conservation of the Eagle River. Why should we settle for less?”
The standardTo understand how the experts are looking at the zinc standard, imagine a ladder with eight rungs. The top rung represents the cleanest water imaginable; the fifth rung is where the levels just meet the normal standard. The lowest rung might represent what the Eagle River had in it during its worst days in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Recognizing that zinc levels would still be high during cleanup, Viacom, the EPA and the state of Colorado agreed to a temporary standard, somewhere around the second or third rung.While the cleanup has moved the amount of zinc off the bottom rung, and fish and bugs have begun to do alright with the level on, say, the fourth rung, the question is whether it’s now time to say “OK, this is as good as it gets” and make the fourth or fifth rung the permanent standard. It’s still below the ideal top rung, but much better than before. But is it good enough?”You don’t win the 100-yard dash at 90 yards; we still have that few yards to go,” said Ken Neubecker, the Western Slope organizer for the fish advocacy group Trout Unlimited. While acknowledging that the cleanup has been a “wonderful” success, Neubecker said the job’s simply not done yet. Many of the trout in the stretch of river in question are not that great looking, he said. Those that do look healthy, he said, are probably recent arrivals, migrants from other parts of the river.”The brown trout we’ve caught and tagged look pretty haggard,” Neubecker said, referring to fish making their home in the zinc-y waters downstream of the mine. “It doesn’t kill them, but is that the standard you want, or something better, where the fish are thriving and reproducing?”
Also of note, say Neubecker and Bradford, is the fact that brown trout, a non-native species, are more resistant to the effects of zinc and may not represent the best indicator of stream health vis-à-vis zinc levels. Sculpin, a smaller fish that’s native to the river, is less resistant to zinc, and has not been seen returning to this section of river.”The furthest upstream to the mine we’ve seen sculpin is Arrowhead,” Neubecker said.Complex pictureGetting a clear picture of the health of a living body of water like the Eagle River is no simple task. Conditions change daily, seasonally and yearly. A sharp runoff in spring or nearby development can have consequences that can be misinterpreted. Like fish, the insects that make their home on and around the river have varying levels of tolerance to zinc and other toxins. And while exhaustive studies of the river’s ecosystem have generally shown an upward trend in bug and fish life, there are curve balls.In 2004, for example, the number of fish in the river decreased markedly. No one was sure exactly why, but one theory held that a strong runoff that spring washed away a lot of baby fish. A study conducted by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, however, appeared to refute that theory: It was still zinc that was hurting fish populations.Another wrinkle, Bradford said, came in the study of insect life that was conducted by the EPA. When the study showed the bug population looked OK, monitoring was stopped.
Later, she said, the math behind the study was found to be faulty, but because monitoring had been halted, there was no way to go back and determine the true, current situation.Hank Ipsen, an attorney with Holme Roberts in Denver that represents Viacom, said the company still believes that the 2004 dip was due to high runoff.”We don’t believe the DOW study tells us anything about what happened in 2004,” Ipsen said, adding that they were disappointed in the Division of Wildlife’s report. “It’s our position – and we don’t know if it’s supported by the EPA and the state – that the studies performed to date support creating final standards.”Others say the disputed findings only provide evidence that now is not the time for a permanent standard to be put in place.”Why would you want to set in stone a numerical value for the river while you’re still studying it,” said Ray Merry, director of the Eagle County Department of Environmental Health. “Let’s leave the temporary standard in place and determine (a permanent standard) at the end of the study period.”Merry said there are no doubt other agendas at work. “The interest of the EPA is probably to get a Superfund site off its list, the same as the state health department,” he said. “They want to check something off their list that says ‘we’re done.’ But we want to make sure Viacom is doing the responsible thing and being part of the solution.Government’s stance
Jeff Deckler, the remedial programs manager for the Colorado Department of Health & Environment, said the definition of a zinc standard for the Eagle River is “still an open question.” Wendy Naugel, the state’s point person for the cleanup, will be in Avon for this week’s WaterWise Wednesday, where the topic will be the main point of discussion. Deckler said Naugel will address the zinc standard question then.”We’re pretty pleased,” Deckler said of the Eagle Mine cleanup. “But we have set these biological metrics for a healthy stream, and we haven’t quite hit them. We’re thinking zinc is still impacting the fishery, so although we’ve come a long way, if we could get a little more out, we could meet those metrics.”Deckler said that, like losing that last five pounds in your diet, getting the last of the zinc out of a river is not easy.”The more you take out, the harder it is to find more,” he said. “It won’t be an easy task, but we continue to discuss it with Viacom.”At the EPA, the lead water quality expert on the cleanup, Bill Wuerthel, was away on vacation and not available for comment. His associate, David Moon, said the matter is still under review.”I don’t think at this point we have zeroed in on what we would recommend,” Moon said. “We’re still crunching numbers, working in collaboration with the state and the stakeholders trying to get everyone on the same page.”In addition to Viacom, the state and federal government and those representing local water interests, Bradford said other players include Vail Resorts – which has a stake in the quality of the water it uses for snowmaking – and Colorado Springs, which uses water from the Eagle River. Vail Resorts and Colorado Springs, Bradford said, are leaning on the side of the temporary standard and an eventual level that’s more stringent. Somewhere in the middle is the Division of Wildlife, which, Bradford said, is working the political ground between what the state and feds seem to want and the Division’s own studies, which seem to point to more study under a temporary standard.
Bradford said she’s aware that pushing for higher standards after so much time and money has been spent improving the river can appear as greedy, even extremist.”But I think the finish line should be very strictly placed at something that’s really defensible from the scientific point of view,” she said. “We should err on the side of a very strictly protective water quality standard and we should make Viacom meet them forever – in perpetuity.”Ipsen said not enough attention is paid to the success Viacom has had cleaning up the site.”What gets lost in the shuffle is the good news,” he said. “That river was dead, and we’ve made tremendous progress. But you’re always going to be fighting the battle about what is the appropriate standards by people with different agendas. You can always find an expert to find a problem.”Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado