Tag Archives: water treatment

In an interesting twist of fate, USEPA caused a spill on the Animas River when a staffer accidently breached a dike holding back a solution of heavy metals at the Gold King mine because the misjudged the pressure behind the dike.  Pressure?  The spill flowed at 500 gpm (0.7 MGD), spilling yellow water spilled into the river.  Downstream, the plume has travelled through parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and will ultimately hit Lake Mead.  Officials, residents, and farmers are outraged.  People were told not to drink the water because the yellow water carried at least 200 times more arsenic and 3,500 times more lead than is considered safe for drinking. The conspiracy theorists are out.  The pictures are otherworldly.

colorado-mine-spillRayna Willhite holds a bottle of water she collected form the Animas River north of Durango Colo., on Thursday, August 6th, 2015. About a million gallons of toxic mine waste emptied out of the Gold King Mine north of Silverton that eventually made it into the Animas River. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

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But they are all missing the point, and the problem.  This is one of hundreds of “legacy disasters” waiting to happen.  We are just surprised when they actually do.  A legacy disaster is one that is predicated on events that have happened in the past, that can impact the future.  In some cases the far past.  There are two big ones that linger over communities all over the west and the southeast – mines and coal.  Now don’t get me wrong, we have used coal and needed metals form mines.  That’s ok.  But the problem is no one has dealt with the effects of mining or coal ash for many years.  And then people are upset.  Why?  We can expect these issues to happen.

One major problem is that both are often located adjacent to or uphill from rivers.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen.  The King Gold mine is just the latest.  We had recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee (TVA, 2008) and the Dan River in 2014 (Duke Power). The Dan River spill was 30-40,000 tons.  Kingston cleanup has exceeded a billion dollars.  Coal ash is still stored at both places.  Next to rivers.  We had the federal government build ion exchange facilities in Leadville, CO and Idaho Springs, CO to deal with leaking water from mine tailings from the mountains. Examples are in the hundreds.  The photos are of the two coal spills, mine tailings that have been sitting the ground for 140 years in Leadville and one of the stormwater ponds – water is red in Leadville, not yellow.

kingston_coalash POLLUTE-master675 IMG_4803 IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

When the disaster does occur, the federal government ends up fixing it, as opposed those responsible who are usually long gone or suddenly bankrupt, so it is no surprise that EPA and other regulatory folks are often very skeptical of mining operations, especially when large amounts of water are involved.  We can predict that a problem will happen, so expensive measures are often required to treat the waste and minimize the potential for damage from spills.  That costs money, but creates jobs.

For those long gone or bankrupt problems, Congress passed the Superfund legislation 40 years ago to provide cleanup funds.  But Congress deleted funding for the program in the early 2000s because they did not want to continue taxing the business community (mines, power plants, etc.).  So EPA uses ARRA funds from 2009.  And funding is down from historical levels, which makes some businesses and local communities happy.  The spectre of Superfund often impacts potential developers and buyers who are concerned about impacts to future residents.  We all remember Love Canals and Erin Brockovich.  Lack of development is “bad.”  They ignore the thousands or jobs and $31 billion in annual economic activity that cleanup creates, but it all about perception.

But squabbling about Superfund ignores the problem.  We continue to stockpile coal ash near rivers and have legacy mine problems.  Instead we should be asking different questions:

WHY are these sites permitted to store ash, tailings, and liquids near water bodies in the first place?  EPA would not be inspecting them if the wastes were not there.

WHY aren’t the current operators of these mines and power plants required to treat and remove the wastes immediately like wastewater operators do?  You cannot have millions of gallons of water, or tons of coal ash appear overnight on a site, which means these potential disasters are allowed to fester for long periods of time.  Coal ash is years.  Mine tailings… well, sometimes hundreds of years.

One resident on the news was reported to have said “Something should be done, something should be done to those who are responsible!”  Let’s start with not storing materials on site, next to rivers.  Let’s get the waste off site immediately and disposed of in a safe manner.  Let’s recover the metals.  Let’s start with Gold King mine.  Or Duke Power.  Or TVA.

As storm season arrives, I found an interesting figure which comes from Power magazine and shows all the power stations that are at risk from storms.  That’s a lot of power.  The question is how do we address this?  Water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs.  Pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps.

Water and wastewater power plants tend to have backup power.  Or at least we hope they do.  In Florida we created FLAWarn after the hurricanes in 2005.  The concept was to put utilities together to allow them to share generators and other assets in case of emergency.  Many utilities here have generators at pump stations, tanks and on trailers.  The goal is to insure service can be provided regardless of the damage.  And that did come in handy after Wilma in 2006.  FLAWarn serves as a model for other states.

There are also renewable power which some utilities have invested in.  Renewable power on plant sites is a means to address the potential grid interruptions.  This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction. As the water facility takes on on-site generation, the utility load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure which may greatly reduce the benefit to the utility.  One problem.

Also there are some at work to derail green power solutions, trying to reduce the attractiveness and subsidies on renewable power.  Interesting that many power providers are not in that group because all power in the US is subsidized – oil, gas and renewables.  The oil and gas sector is much larger and while many renewable power solutions are used by large power entities.   In some states, the states have taken action to encourage these investments because of the potential benefits to the population.  Local entities have gotten involved also.  It just makes sense if you are in the right region and the price/risk ratio is right.  A number of water and sewer utilities have pursued this option successfully.  That will help as well during outages.

Now if we can keep the trees from being planted above the pipelines ….power systems

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This could be really serious.  For example, your water system gets contaminated by something.  People  get sick.  We figure out the problem is in the raw water.  Someone is responsible.   But exactly how does one figure out where and who is responsible for impacting the  water systems and downstream users?  How does one comply with Safe Drinking Water Act  provisions for watersheds, or better what does this mean for utilities?  And what could possibly occur on land that cannot be “tested?”

What could possible go wrong?!

I went back to Colorado last week and it’s dry again out there.  Ok, maybe not this past week when it rained a bit, but despite late snow (March to May), the forests are dry.  The bark beetle problem has not made things easier, so lightning from thunderstorms can easily create fires, like the fire down in Colorado Springs or the Big Meadows fire that is ongoing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The latter has been ongoing (although fortunately mostly out) for over a month, and has closed some trails in the park.  I hiked through the Fern Lake fire remnants (although virtually all the fire was around Cub Lake). That fire burned for a couple months last fall, only finally burned out in the winter after snowfall. 


The west is dry and “drier than in the past” is the new normal it seems in Colorado.  So now water managers are faced with three new challenges:  less water, faster runoff and more difficult water to treat.  The fires cause the loss of protective vegetation, which means less water is kept in the forest.  As a result, the tiny, light ash particles easily run off in the rain.  Ash is hard to remove without activated carbon or other advanced processes.  The loss of vegetation increases runoff, which means larger sediment content in otherwise pristine water supplies.  That can make a major impact on downstream water plants that may not have planned for such events.  The cost of fire suppression for the last 60 years confounds the current water supply and quality problems.  There are also ecological effects that may impact local economies. 


All this said, I am unsure what the solution is.  Clearly the climate in Colorado is changing.  It is unlikely we can alter the current course any time soon.  Instead we must adapt to the changes and attempt to mitigate the impacts on water supplies.  Creativity, innovation and likely more infrastructure will be required. Concepts like aquifer storage and recovery are coming back to the fore as a result of the current condition. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. 



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