Town to pursue Superfund help after mine spill

Associated Press
Pete McKay, a commissioner in San Juan County, Colo., looks on Aug. 10 at the site where the Gold King Mine breach occurred north of Silverton, Colo.

DURANGO, COLO. — Southwestern Colorado officials will negotiate with state and federal agencies to set up a federally financed Superfund cleanup of inactive mines, including one that spewed millions of gallons of wastewater into rivers in three states in August.

Silverton and San Juan County leaders voted unanimously Monday to direct city staff members to pursue a Superfund designation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The tourism-dependent community has been wary of seeking a Superfund designation for nearly two decades, fearing stigma and red tape. Officials say a tour of four Superfund sites this month changed their minds, showing them that the process could be difficult but successful.

Silverton Mayor Chris Tookey told The Durango Herald that it appears that route would provide the most comprehensive cleanup in the shortest amount of time.

“We need to do what’s best for the town, the county, the environment and our downstream neighbors,” Tookey said after the vote.

The EPA and the state have said they would not initiate a Superfund cleanup unless residents agreed.

Hundreds of idle mines have been pouring acidic wastewater into the Animas River north of Silverton for years. No laws required mine operators to mitigate environmental damage, and in many cases, the owners simply walked away when mining ceased.

In August, an EPA-led crew inadvertently triggered a spill at the Gold King Mine. The crew was trying to insert a pipe into debris covering the mine entrance to gradually drain water backed up inside, but the debris gave way, unleashing a torrent.

The spill polluted rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, including the Navajo Nation and the Southern Ute Reservation, and forced towns and farmers to temporarily stop using the waterways.