Land of Mines: Threats Like the Las Animas Spill Lurk Across the U.S.
Oil spills and fracking waste have taken the lion’s share of attention when it comes to technological threats to the nation’s water, but another hazard has recently come to the fore—pollution stemming from hard-rock mining.
The risk isn’t at all new, but early this month an especially colorful example of the hazard emerged when three million gallons of toxic wastewater from an abandoned mine gushed into the Animas River in Colorado. The August 5 spill turned the vital waterway an orangeish-yellow and impacted drinking water supplies, tourism, and agriculture as far south as New Mexico.
As of August 12, the river’s water quality had returned to levels noted before the incident and it was reopened for recreational and other uses, according to Reuters. While the spill was significant, there was a sense that the situation wasn’t as bad as it might have been.
“We don't anticipate that we're going to have an environmental tail on this that's going to have significant repercussions for a long period of time,” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said on Colorado Public Radio. “We were very fearful at the beginning, but as close as we can measure and observe, I think we dodged a bullet.”
While that may be so, the state and the nation are still facing down the barrel of a gun loaded with potential incidents. The Colorado Bureau of Land Management counted 2,751 abandoned hard-rock mines on the state’s public lands and there could be as many as 550,000 nationwide. These unmaintained and sometimes forgotten properties fill up with water from various sources, which then mixes with the minerals and heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, and lead. The result is great reservoirs of toxic, acidic fluid known as acid-rock or acid mine drainage.
Often, this contaminated concoction leaks slowly into surrounding water supplies, while larger discharges are held at bay by concrete bulkheads installed by mine owners. But in heavily-mined areas such as Colorado, those bulkheads can push the tainted water into a web of connected underground channels, creating unpredictable conditions experts have long feared would end in a disaster like the Animas spill.
“Most of us in the industry have been predicting this for 30 years,” Mark Gibson of Denver-based Kyklos Engineering told The Guardian. “It’s basic physics. Where is the water going to go?”
The situation points to a pressing need to remediate the toxic water held in mines (although, ironically, the August spill was caused when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency breached a bulkhead in just such a cleanup attempt). While the technology is available, it’s costly and the Gold Rush-era laws that regulate mine owners don’t provide much incentive for taking on the expense.
There's some criteria in the old law, existing law, that really makes it so no one's going to do anything,” Hickenlooper told CPR. “We should change that. This has been going on for 50-100 years. Enough is enough.”
Currently, much of the cleanup falls to the overburdened EPA, although a bill in Congress might change that. The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 would establish royalties on new and existing hard-rock mines to create a fund to address abandoned mine cleanup.
The bill is one of many in a long line of attempts to reform the hard-rock mining industry, which sees such efforts as financially burdensome and economically shortsighted. Still, officials such as Colorado’s La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, hope that the attention from the Animas spill might help the issue gain a foothold.
“A similar system is already in place for abandoned coal mines, so there’s no practical reason it can’t work for hard-rock mining too,” Lachelt wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “I’m not alone in wanting to stop this reckless pollution from endangering the rest of our communities and our environment.”
Across the globe, nations are announcing major triumphs in the fight against AIDS, most notably in the area of mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) of HIV.
The chain of positive reports began this summer in Cuba when the World Health Organization formally validated the country as the first to have eliminated MTCT of HIV, according to a WHO statement. The WHO defines elimination as an infection rate of 2 percent or less.
To achieve the validation, countries must participate in a monitoring program that includes transmission data for at least two years and on-site visits by WHO members who examine health care throughout the country—especially in impoverished, underserved, and isolated areas. Cuba has worked with the WHO on MTCT of HIV since 2010.
“This is a celebration for Cuba and a celebration for children and families everywhere,” Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, said in the statement. “It shows that ending the AIDS epidemic is possible and we expect Cuba to be the first of many countries coming forward to seek validation that they have ended their epidemics among children.”
That could be very likely if the success stories that followed the announcement of Cuba’s achievement are any indicator. Around the world, reports of similar results underscore progress in the fight to eradicate the virus, which has killed 39 million people worldwide.
A July UNAIDS report stated that the world has exceeded the AIDS targets of Millennium Development Goal 6—halting and reversing the spread of HIV. New infections have fallen by 35 percent and AIDS-related deaths by 41 percent. Along with those results, stopping new HIV infections in children has been one of the most remarkable successes in the AIDS response, according to the report. Between 2000 and 2014, access to antiretroviral therapy for pregnant women living with HIV rose to 73 percent and—as a result—new HIV infections among children dropped by 58 percent.
Thailand could be the next country to follow in Cuba’s footsteps. There, the Ministry of Public Health stated on August 5 that the MTCT of HIV infection rates had dropped from the previous range of 20-45 percent to only 2.1 percent. The government is now in the process of applying for official validation by the WHO. Thailand is one of 30 countries that might be very close or may have already achieved the elimination targets, according to WHO estimates.
In North America, Canada has also reached a successful elimination of MTCT, which was announced the International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention on July 17. In 2014, the country registered only one case of a mother who passed HIV to her infant.
The methods to achieve these results are the same in all of these countries—wide access to HIV testing for pregnant women and their partners, treatment for women who test positive and their babies, caesarean deliveries, and substitutions for breastfeeding.
For those wondering where the United States stands in all this, the outlook is bright here, as well. The rate of transmission of HIV through pregnancy and childbirth is already below the two percent mark, although unlike Cuba, the United States has pockets of underserved populations in both rural areas and inner cities.
“On a national level, the United States has already achieved the elimination target, “ Sonja Caffe, WHO regional adviser on HIV, told NPR. “But a criteria for validation is that it be met in an equal manner, even in subgroups of the lowest performing areas.”
In that sense, Caffe said, the United States and other nations might consider taking a page from Cuba’s book on lowering infection rates uniformly.
“I think the rest of the world can learn from the way the system is designed in Cuba,” she said. “In Cuba, the health services are very close to the people. There is universal coverage, and the services are free. They don't simply invest in hospitals. There is a philosophy of bringing health care to the people in the community.”
Old Rubbish: In Spring of 2012, debris from the March 2011 Japanese Tsunami began washing up on Northwestern coasts of the Unites States. Although the exotic garbage— which included a football, a motorcycle, a 188-ton floating dock—captured the imaginations of many, by the fall of that year it began to take its toll on the budgets of the state and local governments charged with removing it.
While Japan, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and others scrambled to find funding to address the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris expected to wash to shore, groups of enthusiasts organized to collect, categorize, and in some cases, return what was lost.
The Latest Scoop: Recently, a large-scale effort to clean the shores of Alaska has brought the issue of tsunami debris back into the public eye. The project consisted of volunteers and commercial disposal workers who worked to collect debris from the difficult shorelines into giant batches known as super sacks.
The sacks—which can hold up to a 1,000 pounds of trash—were then transferred via helicopter sling to a barge that traveled along the coast from Kodiak to Seattle. The barge had collected nearly 3,500 sacks before it reached the city, according a Washington Post report.
The barge was eventually headed to Oregon where debris that was not sorted and recycled in Seattle will be deposited in a landfill. A collaboration of state agencies, nonprofits, federal grants, and the country of Japan funded the project.
The Real Dirt: While tsunami detritus has taught us important lessons about debris flows and raised public awareness; it’s a drop in the buckets of trash that plague the world’s oceans.
Everyday debris—which includes several mammoth patches in the Pacific—are a much more pressing issue. The floating garbage ruins marine habitats, interferes with navigation, poses health threats, and negatively impacts coastal economies.
For more information about marine debris and updates on coastal cleanup throughout the United States, follow NOAA’s excellent Marine Debris Blog.
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Call for Applications
Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Deadline: August 28, 2015
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is accepting applications for its Flood Mitigation Assistance grant program. Grants are available to state, local, and tribal governments to help implement measures that minimize the risk of flood damage to structures covered under the National Flood Insurance Program. For more information on the program and to obtain an application package, visit the posting on grants.gov.
Call for Nominations
Words Into Action: Implementation Guides for the Sendai Framework
UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction
Deadline: September 3, 2015
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction is inviting nominations for contributors to develop a series of implementation guides related to the Sendai Framework. Contributors are sought for specific focus areas in several working groups that include global targets, priorities for action, crosscutting areas, and stakeholders. For more information on focus areas and to learn how to send a nomination, please visit the call for nominations on the PreventionWeb Web site.
Call for Articles
Canadian Risk and Hazards Network
Deadline: September 30, 2015
The Canadian Risk and Hazards Network is accepting 800-1,000 word articles on community resilience for an upcoming edition of the HazNet Journal. For more information on the journal, submission guidelines, and how to submit, visit the call for articles on the CRHNet Web site.
Nepal Earthquake Briefing Videos
In June, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute sent a reconnaissance team to Nepal to gather initial information about the impacts of its recent earthquake. These 10-35-minute videos feature members of that team speaking on the what they learned while they were there, as well as a summary of the mission’s findings.
Living With Dams: Know Your Risks
The nation’s patchwork of large and small dams can make it hard for residents to know exactly where dams are, let alone what a dam breach could mean for them. This Federal Emergency Management booklet helps communicate risk and what it means for those living in inundation areas.
When the lights go out, many people experience little more than an inconvenience, but for those with electricity-dependent medical equipment, it could be a matter of life or death. That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created the emPOWER Map. The map helps emergency health professionals track where Medicare beneficiaries with such equipment are in their region. And with a weather map overlay, it’s easy to know who might be at risk during a flood, hurricane, or other electricity-threatening event. Take a look at your community today and be ready for the next storm.
National Alliance for Radiation Readiness
With a world of disasters to prepare for, radiological threat can be low on the list for many. The National Alliance for Radiation Readiness recently launched this web site that makes it easy to remedy that. Visit the site to learn about best practices; find tools, guides, and planning templates; or access trainings and webinars.
Association of Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Professionals
This newly minted professional organization promises to provide networking, education, and leadership opportunities to professionals in the healthcare emergency preparedness field. Check out their Web site for resources, job postings, and upcoming events—including the first AHEPP Annual Conference in November.
[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at www.colorado.edu/hazards/resources/conferences.html.]
September 21-24, 2015
2015 OEMA-WSEMA Conference
Oregon and Washington State Emergency Management Agencies
Cost and Registration: $475 before September 1, open until filled
This joint conference will tackle issues of emergency management in the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on community resilience. Topics include funding and regulatory changes, the NIST Community Disaster Resilience Guide, emergency response for rail incidents, coastal resilience, and ways to support grassroots preparedness efforts.
September 26 to October 2, 2015
National Safety Council Congress
National Safety Council
Cost and Registration: $875 before August 28, open until filled
This conference will keep safety, health, and environmental professionals abreast of the latest tools and resources available to build safer workplaces. Topics included transportation safety, risk reduction management, conducting risk assessments, creating a safety culture, and business crisis response and preparedness.
October 22-24, 2014
Backyards and Beyond
National Fire Protection Association
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Cost and Registration: $595 before September 18, open until filled
This conference will examine fire hazards in the wildland-urban interface and lessons learned from the Firewise Program. Topics include recent wildfires in California, Arizona, and Colorado; community resilience, Firewise data for the private sector, and case studies from Myrtle Beach.
October 31 to November 4, 2015
APHA Annual Meeting
American Public Health Association
Cost and Registration: $930 before September 17, open until filled
This conference will focus on ways public health officials can partner with policymakers to promote healthy, resilient communities and environments. Topics include aging and public health, food security issues, health and the built environment, infectious disease law, public health for vulnerable populations, and international public health policies.
2015 Rising Seas Summit
Association of Climate Change Officers
Cost and Registration: $775 before October 15, open until filled
This conference will examine the relationships sea level rise, climate change and extreme events. Topics include legal challenges to adaptation, public health implications of sea level rise, natural systems resilience, unsustainable policies that lead to risk, relocation issues, adaptive infrastructure, and quantifying climate risk.
U.S. Geological Survey
Salary: $52,668 to $82,840
Deadline: August 26, 2015
This position will serve as a cartographic librarian in the Reston Library. Duties include cataloging cartographic material, classifying materials, online cataloging, and assisting and reviewing the work of library technicians. One year of experience at the GS-9 level and specialized experience in library science are required.
National Fire Academy Superintendent, GS-17
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Salary: $121,956 to $183,300
Deadline: September 18, 2015
This position will provide leadership for Academy staff and advance the development of fire service personnel through curriculum development and evaluation. Duties include developing onsite and online educational programs, strategic and operational planning, directing a strong outreach program, and coordinating with state and local official regarding fire training needs. One year of experience at the GS-16 level and specialized experience demonstrating leadership in training and adult education and executive level management of emergency medical, fire, or emergency management staff are required.
Professor of Energy and the Environment
University of Delaware
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: Open until filled
This position is a named professorship designed to expand the university’s collaborative potential and solve real world problems at the intersection of energy, environment, and policy. Candidates should be interdisciplinary thinkers able to incorporate a broad range of methodological and theoretical perspectives into their work. A PhD in a related discipline and strong portfolio of impactful scholarship are required.
Gulf Research Program Officer
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
Salary: Not Listed
Deadline: Open until filled
This position will support the Gulf Research Program in conducting activities to enhance oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other regions that support oil and gas production. Duties include identifying and implementing opportunities to carry out program goals, working with online grants management systems, participating in strategic and operation planning, and managing advisory board meetings and workshops. A master’s degree in a related field, advanced knowledge of environmental monitoring, and the ability to share scientific results with diverse audiences are required.
University of Washington
Salary: Not listed
Deadline: Open until filled
This position will develop the Seismic Resilience Program from the ground up, including drafting an institution wide system for enhancing the university’s seismic planning and resilience. Duties include planning and strategic program management, integrating new and existing seismic resiliency efforts, implementing an internal grant program to support program efforts, conducting training, and liaising with campus representatives. A bachelor’s degree in seismology, business continuity, public administration, or a related discipline and Incident Command System training are required. Please reference Requisition Number 123385 when searching for position.
Integrating Pediatric Needs into Hospital Disaster Preparedness
August 25, 2015, 1 p.m. EDT
National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health
Cost and Registration: Free, registration not required
This webinar will feature Elizabeth Edgerton and Anthony Gilchrest speaking on ways hospitals can integrate then needs of children into their disaster preparedness plans. The presentation is based on the speaker’s award-winning poster from Learning in Disaster Health 2014.
Developing and Implementing Dam Removal Projects
September 24, 2015, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. CDT
Association of State Floodplain Managers
Cost and Registration: $80 for nonmembers, register online before the event
This webinar is designed to assist floodplain managers, state officials, and nonprofit members in navigating the process of dam removal. Steps in the dam removal process, project scoping, and tools for determining project complexity will be covered. Continuing Education Credits for Certified Floodplain Managers are available.
Contributions of jobs, conferences, and other content to this newsletter can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “for Disaster Research” in the subject line.To subscribe, visit http://www.colorado.edu/hazards/dr/.