Something fishy’s going on at Valmont Reservoir

Why didn’t anyone test for toxins in fish relocated to public waters from polluted Valmont Reservoir?

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Hudson, a 1,500-person pit-stop town about 30 miles east of Boulder, has a small community fishing pond. On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen fishermen picked spots around the lake to drop their lines. The fish were biting. Ted Collins said everyone was catching trout. He said he’s been taking home one more than he should the last few weeks because the stock seemed so ample.

I asked if he was catching any largemouth bass. Why, he asked. I said because the state just relocated a bunch of them to this fishing pond from Valmont Reservoir, which is owned by Xcel Energy and has been used to settle harmful water contaminants from the company’s coal production for decades, and has a longer history of arsenic and lead contamination from the site’s former neighbor, Allied Chemical. Oh, and it was nearly a Superfund site.

You’re kidding, he said.

Neither the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) nor Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) tested the fish for contaminants before the latter group relocated 1,600 of them from Valmont Reservoir to Hudson and catch-and-release waters in Boulder County. Fish raised in similar circumstances — that is, in bodies of water on or near coal-fired plants — have been found to contain levels of selenium, mercury, lead and other contaminants toxic to animals up and down the aquatic food chain, and which would likely be harmful to humans who consume them. One, like Ted Collins, might think fish from these waters would be tested before relocation.

Yet, “Valmont Reservoir was not prioritized for sampling,” ends a statement sent to Boulder Weekly signed by multiple people in the state Water Quality Control Division.

So how did we get here? In early 2017, Xcel ceased burning coal at its Valmont facility. As a result, it decided to remove impoundments, or ponds, on-site that had been used to capture coal ash, which is the byproduct of coal burning and contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. The ponds allow the ash to settle and then be removed, while the water either evaporates or is pumped back into the water system.

Joel Dyer

Michelle Aguayo, Xcel spokesperson, says the removal of ash ponds on site will be complete in September, but that all the water has already been pumped into Leggett Reservoir, part of one large body of water that Xcel uses for a variety of operational reasons. Leggett is connected to Hillcrest and Valmont reservoirs in a circuit that allows for cold water to be pumped into the facility to cool equipment. The warm water is released and circulated through the reservoirs, cooling it for future use.

As a result of this circuitry, Valmont Reservoir provided warm enough waters for largemouth bass and other, smaller fish to thrive despite the likely presence of toxic chemicals and heavy metals from various sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 40 commonly found contaminants in coal ash, with the most harmful to humans being mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic and selenium.

Although the method of removing ash from water is widely used in the industry, Jennifer Peters, national water programs director at Clean Water Action, says it’s not necessarily the most effective.

“The impacts of heavy metals commonly found in coal ash are long-term, because these types of contaminants can persist in the environment by attaching themselves to suspended particles or settling in soils and particles at [the] bottom of reservoirs or river and stream beds.

“Dilution should not be the primary solution to [keep] our nation’s waters free from harmful pollution,” she adds.

We can get a sense for the contaminants present in the Valmont Reservoir system by looking at the contaminants present in water released from the system into South Boulder Creek. Coal-fired plants, like Xcel’s, are allowed to discharge contaminants into waterways via the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). An NPDES permit outlines how much pollution facilities are able to release into waterways, and requires reports to be filed at regular intervals with water samples.

The most recent report found that levels of arsenic, chloride, magnesium and mercury were released from Xcel’s Valmont station. Despite the presence of these contaminants, Aguayo points out that Xcel “has not reported any recent exceedance of any parameter that is required to be monitored.”

Recently, no, Xcel hasn’t violated the limits of contaminants they’re allowed to dump into public waterways. But the New York Times reported in 2009 that Xcel had committed 11 Clean Water Act violations at its Valmont facility. That’s important because the historical contamination of a site matters for the wildlife that lives in it.

Contaminants have a cumulative effect on wildlife. Mercury is well-known to bioaccumulate in fish (and humans), and is a common byproduct of coal production. Peters explains that “fish living in water that contains heavy metals like mercury and selenium can become contaminated because these types of toxic metals concentrate up aquatic food chains, and fish are typically the species at the top of that food chain.”

Selenium, in particular, is common in coal ash and can be devastating for fish populations, according to a recent USDA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study. The contaminant can be passed onto offspring.

In short, fish living in polluted waters may have more contaminants in their bodies than the water itself. And given the history of contamination at the site from sources other than Xcel, it’s reasonable to think wildlife has been subjected to toxins and metals for years.

Boulder Weekly published a 10-part series in 2012 on the contamination at Valmont Butte. Valmont Butte was the site of several milling operations, with Allied Chemical eventually taking over in 1941. Allied ran a fluorspar flotation mill on the site, producing and shipping away calcium fluoride, but creating 50 to 70 tons every day of radioactive tailings tainted with heavy metals like arsenic, lead and copper. The company was required to become a licensed holding facility for radioactive waste. The site, due to political origami, narrowly missed being named a Superfund site in the Reagan era (when, by the way, the EPA was run by Neil Gorsuch’s mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, who resigned over bungling the Superfund program).

The contaminated Valmont Butte site — the EPA called it the eighth-most contaminated site in Colorado — was for decades connected by a pipe that poured its contamination into Xcel’s Valmont lakes. As part of the flotation process, “Allied Chemical [pumped] … as much as 200,000 gallons per day of radioactive, lead- and arsenic-tainted water directly into the Public Service Co. lakes [the reservoirs at Xcel’s current site] for some 30 years, from the early 1940s until the 1970s. They didn’t even stop the dumping once it was discovered,” BW reported.

There was also another contaminated milling operation site on the shores of those lakes on Xcel property that created its own contaminated runoff into the lakes.

There is no indication that any government agency or current or former private operator of the Valmont Station property has ever attempted to remediate the toxic pollution within the reservoirs.

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Valmont Reservoir is part of a connected, three-reservoir system that has been contaminated by various industrial sources for most of a century.

As a final note, Xcel is required to issue a Toxic Release Inventory every year that details how much of certain toxic chemicals were released and treated from its facility.  Xcel reported producing lead and mercury, treating it in several ways including on-site landfills, well injections and shipping it offsite.

But Clean Water Action says this is inadequate because none of Colorado’s ash landfills are lined, and so are susceptible to leaching into groundwater. Xcel has actually piled ash along the shores of the reservoirs for years, creating the potential for contamination. In 2016, environmental testing company TestAmerica found toxin levels at or above reportable limits for arsenic, lead, calcium, selenium and more in groundwater at the Valmont facility.

Now, all of that is not to say that the fish relocated from Valmont Reservoir are definitely contaminated with toxins. But it only takes a little contamination to have major ramifications in humans. The FDA indicates sensitive populations like pregnant women and young children should avoid eating swordfish and shark because the mercury content in their meat can cause nervous system issues. PETA claims consuming fish with traces of lead can lead to mental and physical disabilities.

In Colorado, the CDPHE recommends people only consume a small amount of fish culled from state waters per month, and largemouth bass — the primary species removed from Valmont Reservoir — are given the recommendation of one fillet the size of your hand per month.

But the CDPHE also notes that, “The amount of mercury in a fish depends on its age and what it eats. Bigger, older fish may have more mercury, especially if they eat other fish with mercury. Some fish may be safe to eat when they are small, but unhealthy when they are large.”

Would that matter for fish from Valmont Reservoir, where they were allowed to grow relatively unimpeded with no fishing allowed and few natural predators? As the Daily Camera reported earlier this year, “the fish averaged 16 inches in length, forcing the crew to make repeated trips because their transfer tanks were so full.”

When Boulder Weekly first asked CPW if they had thought to test the oversized Reservoir fish, Ben Swigle, the aquatic biologist in charge of the transfer, was out of the country, and spokesperson Lauren Truitt said no one else on the CPW staff had the necessary background to answer the question. Then, after notifying Truitt of our deadline, she said, “Any fish we move undergoes a panel disease testing out of our Fish Health Lab.” We stalled our story, luckily, because two weeks later Truitt reached out with a clarification that no, in fact, warm water fish are not tested for disease prior to movement. When we asked to speak with Swigle, or any field biologist, about this, we were notified they were all on assignment for three weeks.

That seemed fishy, so we reached out to the Aquatic Animal Health Lab (AAHL), where CPW sends fish for testing, to see if they could clarify why the Valmont fish weren’t tested. Vicki Milano, a senior fish pathologist, explained why they weren’t tested for disease (the most common fish disease has not been found in state populations after two years of testing) but couldn’t say a word about testing for contaminants.

That’s likely because even though CPW oversaw the fish transfer, CDPHE runs the water quality division and “monitor[s] fish from more than 100 lakes and rivers in Colorado for the presence of contaminants,” according to its website.

When asked if CDPHE tested the Valmont fish, department spokesperson Mark Salley wrote in an email, “What time period are you talking about? And why would CDPHE have tested the fish?”

Joel Dyer
Lead and selenium contamination along with other heavy metals and radioactive materials have long impacted Valmont Butte and Reservoir.

Look, this is not to hijack this story of potentially contaminated fish being relocated into public fishing areas and make it about how difficult it was to get the story. However, in this case, the bureaucratic volleyball is a large part of the story itself.

Eventually, a CDPHE staff person sent BW a statement from multiple authors in the Water Quality Control Division as to why they didn’t think to test the fish, reading:

“CDPHE works closely with Colorado Parks & Wildlife on where fish are collected each year. Sampling locations are determined based on available resources, likelihood of fish consumption (which is influenced by factors such as fishing pressure, public access, boat ramps, etc.), bioaccumulation potential for contaminants of concern (e.g., mercury) based on environmental factors, and alignment with other agency (CPW or WQCD) research efforts. Valmont Reservoir was not prioritized for sampling.”

There are no more transfers scheduled for fish from Valmont Reservoir for now, Truitt says. But how the already-transferred fish populations in St. Vrain State Park, KOA Lake in Boulder and the Hudson’s town fishing pond will affect those ecosystems remains to be seen… or tested. Or not.

If the answer from CDPHE and CPW (and the City of Boulder and EPA, who deferred to those agencies) is that Valmont fish, which lived in a pool of water subject to a century of contamination, were not prioritized for testing, then what does a fish have to do to get prioritized in this state?

Ted Collins is not the real name of the fisherman in this story.