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SpiroFlo reviews the recent pollution of the Animas River and why the Environmental Protection Agency is unable to respond quickly.

The big environmental story this week is the Gold King Mine wastewater spill in the Animas River. If you aren’t familiar with the story:

  • The Animas River—named by a Spanish explorer as the “River of Souls”—is part of the Colorado River System. At 126 miles long, the river begins in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows into New Mexico.
  • Silverton, Colorado was a gold mine town (until the last mine closed in 1991). On August 5th, while working on the Gold King Mine near Silverton, an EPA-contracted company accidentally broke the dam holding back a tailing pond (a somewhat neutral term for a pond full of metals and waste from mining). Their intended task was to pump out and treat the contaminated mine water.
  • Over 3,000,000 gallons of this wastewater and tailings (the non-revenue materials/minerals from mining) flooded the Animas River. As of August 11th—six days after the initial breach—acidic water drainage from the metal mine continued to flow out at a rate of 500-700 gallons per minute. The pollution rates were updated (for the worse) and will likely continue to be so as the story progresses.
  • The wastewater spill affected waterways in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of the Navajo Nation (in those areas).

As a result of the spill, the Animus River, which usually looks like this…

AnimasNormal

…turned orange within 24 hours…

AnimasOrange

…and later turned green:

AnimasGreen

Although the EPA has taken responsibility for the environmental disaster, they have been criticized for waiting a day before telling anyone. Other criticisms include giving inaccurate information (it’s usually the EPA who releases the numbers on spills like this—they’re just usually not also responsible, thereby creating a conflict of interest).

At first, there was no testing of the river contents. Some say this came about due to the changing water conditions; others noted that problems such as lead poisoning can be hard to detect. What we do know is that lead poisoning is linked to slowing child development and increasing learning disabilities (there are good reasons why lead paint got banned from homes). Given what’s in a gold mine, heavy metals are a guarantee—the kind of minerals that the EPA rightfully regulates away from air, earth, and water.

The Denver Post reported that, when river water was tested 15 miles downstream from Durango, Colorado, iron levels were 326 times the domestic water limit allowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Iron levels were recorded at 100 times above the limit. CNN noted these iron levels as being 12,000 times higher than normal. CNN also noted the Animas River had “extremely high levels of arsenic, cadmium, beryllium and mercury. It also contained zinc, iron and copper.”

As a result of this, several people are deciding whether to sue the EPA. However, many believe this course of legal action won’t even be possible. Some have labeled the EPA the Environmental Pollution Agency and believe that if a private corporation had done that they’ve done, they’d have the CEO’s picture posted everywhere as a villain, and the EPA would be pushing for punitive justice. Now that the EPA is responsible, that pursuit of justice is a lot more leisurely.

Farmington, New Mexico has 90 days’ worth of drinking water before they have to pump in from elsewhere. However, some claim that, even within a week, water toxicity levels around the Durango area were back to pre-catastrophe levels. Brings to mind that old slogan “Dilution is the solution.” Regardless, many believe the impact of this polluted water won’t be fully seen for months, and that the EPA is moving too slow in the clean-up process.

So why does this clean up seem to be taking so long? There are two main reasons:

  • Bureaucracy: I know it’s a term that’s thrown around often, but when you’re dealing with a government agency that usually has to wait to go through public hearings and approval processes (all while some believe they wind up promoting their greased palm connections anyway), it makes it hard to respond to emergencies. You would think there would be an emergency protocol, and even if there is, that’s subject to abuse, too. Suddenly every project is an emergency…
  • Any private company that helps with the clean up becomes liable for its success. That’s right: While the EPA will likely not be held liable for the mess they made, if your company helps clean it up, you could be held responsible for the mess you didn’t make. While I understand there must be some standards for any company that’s signing up for a lot of important work, you can understand why plenty of viable technology companies would say no thanks. The EPA might as well put up a sign that reads “Now hiring scapegoats.”

The really scary thing is, thanks to several industries, there are hundreds of thousands of retaining ponds just like this (which the EPA were trying to fix), usually in pristine areas. The SpiroFlo series of companies has solutions for spinning these toxic minerals out of water, but we’re not looking to break into the scapegoat business. Sorry.

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As always, sources are in the comments.

Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home), industrial water purification (biofilm removal), and reduced water pumping costs.

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for coal, biosolids, sugar beets, dairy waste, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Ecotechnology, Ltd. (Ecotech Systems) analyzes the terms that make up the world—the cliché, the misunderstood, and the “don’t tell your mama” variety—and how they play in today’s society. Today’s word is the product of an image makeover, but when you find out the truth, you may wish you’d not eaten already.

What comes to mind when you think of biosolids?

If you’re like most people, the answer is nothing, and that blank slate is exactly what proponents of biosolids want you to have in mind, because the last name brought up all kinds of negative connotations. That term? Sewage sludge.

http://www.city-data.com/forum/members/bs13690-83559-albums-animated-gifs-pic43435-green-sick-face.htmlThat’s right, biosolids are human fecal matter mixed with everything else that goes from a household water line to the wastewater treatment plant. Granted, biosolids are treated to varying degrees (and therefore changed), but sometimes you can’t shake the yuck factor. Thus far, it seems biosolids can’t get away from their origin to become the great sustainable energy resource some think they should be.

As long as wastewater plants treat water, biosolids are an inevitable byproduct. After much of the water is separated, you’re still left with a semi-solid material (containing fats, oil and greases [FOG] — matter that is difficult to treat and the number one source of drain/pipe clogs). The main solutions for biosolids disposal are landfill (which is getting less prevalent and more expensive as they get full), heat treatment (which goes up to $250/dry ton for incineration), non-heat treatment (lime, aerobic and anaerobic digesters — $85/dry ton and up, though drying biosolids at a rate much slower than heat) and land application. Regardless of what you do with the biosolids, however, some level of drying (and therefore some level of energy expenditure) is required.

Amusingly enough, although green supporters love recycling, even they often oppose biosolids use. Thing is though, biosolids are readily available, and unless something radically evolves in the human gastrointestinal tract, they’re going to continue to be around (everyone poops indeed). Fear not; biosolids are not allowed for use with food growth applications (wouldn’t that be creepy?* might actually be — see the comments), but huge, multi-year papers have concluded that biosolids are sustainable and can improve soil and crops. That said, for every 20-year pro-biosolids study I find, there are just as many touting the harmful effects.

In 2006, a U.S. E. coli outbreak from spinach spread over 26 states, causing 206 illnesses and three deaths. Though the incident didn’t involve biosolids — the outbreak was attributed to irrigation water contaminated by (untreated) cattle feces — the damaging effects gave critics a close example of what could happen with improper use.

(I’m still waiting for the news story of the angry hippie defecating on a wastewater treatment plant’s lawn, pouring chemicals on the lot and screaming, “Here’s your biosolids!” before getting hauled off in cuffs. Thus far, my Google searches have come up empty… What I did hear of, however, is when my boss visited a local biosolids plant and was warned that if he fell off the narrow plank high above the large, aerobic digester and into the muck, no one would come get him out.

Death by biosolids — not the way you want to go.)

http://designyourclothesnotyourbabies.blogspot.com/2010/06/one-mans-waste-is-another-mans-treasure.html

These bare-hands-holding-biosolids pics are common, but not enough to overcome the yuck factor

Here are the main regulations involving biosolids: In 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Clean Water Act. Part 503 of this regulation authorized the continued use of biosolids on land while addressing the public’s concerns with the reuse of human waste. The greatest potential health risk is pathogens—a disease-producing agent linked to E. coli, hepatitis A, salmonella, Giardia and parasitic worms—carried in untreated sewage. That said, pathogens are also an issue with other organic fertilizers.

Part 503 defined different types of treated biosolids: Class A biosolids contain no detectable levels of pathogens and can be applied to land the same way as fertilizers. Class B biosolids are treated, but still have detectable levels of pathogens. (There are restrictions on their use and availability to the public.) The main reason for these different standards is the efficiency of the treatment process versus the amount of time available. As wastewater volumes increase, there is not enough time to treat to class A standards. Since the Clean Water Act, an even higher standard of biosolids has come about — class A EQ (exceptional quality) — requiring lower metal counts.

Despite what you think of biosolid use, with FOG still an issue that needs to be dealt with at any stage, drying biosolids is an essential part of the process, regardless of where they end up. As a result of that, Ecotechnology Ltd. (Ecotech Systems) launched its patented drying system into the biosolids market. With a low-grade heat (~150 F) and a patented air flow, Ecotech is able to non-thermally dry biosolids for less than $1/ton. Considering the above ranges of $85-$250/ton, this is the value savings the biosolids industry is looking for.

More on that another time. Enjoy your dinner.

*EDIT: Corrections, chatter and linked-up responses (oh my!) in the comments.

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Colin McKay Miller is the Marketing Manager for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with a 3.5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).


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