Community weighs EPA's Superfund proposal

Brett Berntsen
Victor Ketellapper, a Superfund site assessment manager with EPA's Region 8, speaks during a public meeting to discuss designating the Bonita Peak Mining District outside Silverton, Colo., as a Superfund site on Thursday at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — While a Superfund designation might help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency clean up the abandoned mining district where the Gold King Mine spill occurred, skepticism remains over how the agency will serve affected areas of New Mexico.

That was the attitude on display at San Juan College on Thursday, as EPA officials held a public meeting discussing a proposed Superfund designation for the Bonita Peak Mining District outside of Silverton, Colo. In August, a crew from the agency triggered a blowout at the district's Gold King Mine site, which sent 3 million gallons of toxic waste water flowing into the Animas River.

In response, the EPA has suggested classifying the area as a Superfund site, which would provide funding and resources to prevent future disasters. The proposal is in its introductory stages, but members of the audience on Thursday expressed frustration at how the EPA has involved local communities so far.

“Citizens here feel highly disrespected,” said Susan Palko-Schraa, a member of the San Juan County Gold King Mine Citizens Advisory Committee. “I would like to see New Mexicans involved in every step along the way.”

Rebecca Thomas, a project manager with the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver, said the agency realizes the importance of keeping downstream residents engaged in efforts to clean up the mining district. Starting with Thursday's meeting, she said the EPA plans to hold regular information sessions in the area.

“I knew coming down here, there was going to be mistrust,” Thomas said. "That's why we are trying to get feedback."

Susan Palko-Schraa, left, a member of the San Juan County Gold King Mine Citizens Advisory Committee, speaks during a public meeting Thursday at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College. At right are Diane and Michael Schwebach of Cedar Hill.

Common concerns voiced by audience members involved the extent of contamination released during the Gold King Mine spill. Dennis McQuillan, the New Mexico Environment Department's chief scientist, asked if the EPA had considered including parts of San Juan County in the Superfund study area.

“Toxins may have migrated here,” McQuillan said.

Thomas said that the agency has collected data along the Animas River from its headwaters to Durango, Colo. If hazardous materials are detected farther downstream, Thomas said, the scope of the project could expand.

The preliminary Superfund boundaries contain some 300 abandoned mines, 48 of which the EPA has identified as potential sources of contamination. According to the EPA's proposal, those problems sites currently discharge 5.4 million gallons of wastewater each day — almost twice the amount that was released during the Gold King Mine spill.

Katie Gilbert, a former Navajo Nation water rights commissioner, asked how the EPA expects to handle such an extensive problem.

“How successful has the EPA been at other Superfund sites?” she asked. “What’s your grade?”

Thomas said that the agency has successfully restored numerous mining areas throughout the Rocky Mountains. She specifically worked at a site along the Arkansas River near Leadville, Colo.

"It took 18 years, but we eventually turned the river into a Gold Medal fishery," she said.

Rebecca Thomas, a Superfund project manager with EPA's Region 8, speaks during a public meeting Thursday at the Henderson Fine Arts Center at San Juan College in Farmington.

McQuillan added that the EPA has had success stories in New Mexico, as well. He noted the clean-up of a lead smelter in Socorro as one example.

"They did a magnificent job there," McQuillan said.

One thing that was agreed on at Thursday's meeting was the need for improved communications in the future. Thomas asked audience members how they would prefer to be notified of ongoing work to the mining district. Suggestions included monthly written updates and social media campaigns. Audience members also said they would like advance notice when public meetings are taking place.

“I would have expected triple the amount of people here tonight,” Palko-Schraa said, referring to the less-than-packed conference room. “This a rural county. People have to plan well in advance to come to these things.”

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.