Colorado officials vote to pursue Superfund

Steve Garrison
Bill Simon, co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholder’s Group, expressed gratitude to local officials at a meeting in Silverton held to discuss the Gold King Mine spill and a possible Superfund designation for the mining area in the mountains north of the town.

SILVERTON, COLO. – The town of Silverton and San Juan County, Colo., will request that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper support a Superfund designation for 48 polluted mines in the mountains north of Silverton.

The request will come in the form of a letter to Hickenlooper, specifically asking him to work with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials to add the Bonita Peak Mining District — the name selected for the cleanup site — to the Superfund National Priorities List as a federal cleanup site.

Town and county officials have negotiated in the past months with the EPA regarding what mines and mine-related sources would be included for cleanup as part of the Bonita Peak Mining District.

The EPA states in a letter to Hickenlooper dated Feb. 19 that the 48 mines and mine-related sources dump arsenic, cadmium, copper, manganese, zinc, lead and aluminum into the Animas River at a rate of 3,740 gallons per minute or 5.4 million gallons per day.

Hickenlooper must inform the EPA by Feb. 29 whether he supports the designation.

The Superfund designation would allow the EPA to use funds appropriated by Congress to remediate the mining district and sue parties responsible for the contamination. The EPA’s Superfund appropriation in fiscal year 2015 was $1.1 billion, according to the U.S. EPA’s website.

Town and county officials voted unanimously in favor of the decision at a special meeting held here Monday afternoon.

Officials told the approximately 80 residents in attendance that voting in favor of the Superfund designation meant Silverton would continue to be involved in the remediation process.

“We must keep a seat at the table,” said Pete McKay, a San Juan County, Colo., commission member. “That is the only way we are going to be able to influence decisions about our future.”

Commission Chairman Ernie Kuhlman said he was not initially in favor of a Superfund designation and he still does not like it.

“But I will tell you this: If we don’t do it, it will be done for us,” he said.

Most residents attending the meeting supported placing the proposed district on the National Priorities List, but expressed skepticism regarding the EPA's intentions.

(From left) San Juan County, Colo. Commission Chairman Ernie Kuhlman, commissioner Pete McKay, Silverton City Manager William Tookey, Commissioner Scott Fetchenheir and San Juan County, Colo. attorney Paul Sunderland, gathered in Silverton on Monday to listen to residents comments on a plan to place dozens of mines north of Silverton on the Superfund National Priorities List.

Silverton resident Melody Skinner said she wanted Silverton to be recognized as part of the solution after the town was cast into the national spotlight following the Aug. 5 Gold King Mine spill.

“We need to be good citizens and good neighbors,” she said.

More than 3 million gallons of mustard-colored wastewater was discharged from the Gold King Mine after an EPA cleanup crew inadvertently dislodged debris from the mouth of the mine during cleanup operations.

The water, which contained high-levels of lead, mercury and arsenic, drained into the Animas River and its tributaries and caused governors in three states and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye to declare states of emergency.

Karla Pendleton, another Silverton resident, said she was skeptical that the federal government would continue to work with local officials after the town and county officially offers support for the Superfund designation.

“I am not real trusting of the federal government at this point,” she said. “And my question to my elected officials is, are you?”

The EPA states on its website that it takes, on average, six years for remediation to begin after a hard-rock mining and mineral processing site is added to the National Priorities List. On average, it takes 12 years for remediation to be completed at such sites.

“This is not a time to sit back and relax,” said Silverton town board trustee Larry Gallegos. “This is something that is just now starting.”

Heavy metal levels may spike during the upcoming spring runoff season as turbulence kicks up contaminated sediment on the river bottoms, according to environmental officials, and long-term water and soil monitoring continues at sites throughout the region.

Utah, New Mexico and the Navajo Nation have indicated they will sue the federal government due to the spill and its aftermath.

New Mexico's U.S. senators have supported reforming the General Mining Act of 1872, which allows companies to make claims on federal land for little money and operate without bonds that could be used to pay for cleanup.

The letter to be sent to Hickenlooper today states acid mine drainage from century-old legacy mines threatens the water supply and the survival of San Juan County, Colo.

“Silverton and San Juan County want the mines and rivers cleaned up and we want to ensure that our downstream neighbors and our communities are protected,” the letter states.

The town and county insist in the letter that the EPA keep in operation a water treatment plant processing wastewater that continues to trickle from mines.

Local officials further request that the agency study the geology and hydrology in the mining district, pay all expenses accrued by the town and county due to the spill and explore innovative ways to address the polluted mining sites, where cleanup has been difficult.

Silverton town Trustee Karla Safranski said she believed local residents working with the EPA can find solutions to mine pollution that will be useful across the country.

“Mine remediation does not stop here,” she said. “It is a problem all across the United States.”

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.