Mining in Silverton

Silverton’s legacy as a mining community is both storied and rich, and has been mythologized by those who lived through the industry’s booms and felt the sting as it busted. The narrative, though, is hardly of the happily-ever-after variety and much as some in the town would like to think otherwise, requires some revisions of past mistakes and restructuring for future success. Put simply, mining in the Silverton area created a big, expensive mess that requires prompt and costly mitigation. That is the first bitter pill Silvertonians must swallow.

At issue is a dangerous cocktail of zinc, cadmium, iron, lead, copper, manganese and aluminum seeping into Cement Creek – an Animas River tributary – from a complex of now defunct mines north of Silverton. The concentration of metal pollution is increasing, dealing a corresponding blow to fish and aquatic life downstream of the mines. The problem must be addressed and soon.

It is easier said than done, though, given the politics and passions involved. The bottom line is that the town might have to accept the help an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation might bring, despite worries about the stigma some Silvertonians associate with the label. Concerns about what the Superfund designation could mean for tourism – the town’s primary industry – could be valid, but they should be secondary to setting right the negative impacts of previous mining activity. It is the right short- and long-term priority, and is a prerequisite for a sustainable economy in Silverton – to say nothing of environmental health there and far downstream.

While past Superfund activities in other locations have given Silvertonians legitimate reason for skepticism about the program, the EPA has learned from its full-scale, no-holds-barred approach and now tailors clean-up efforts more appropriately to each site.

That is not to say that a Superfund project would not negatively affect tourism, but it is unreasonable to base opposition to the notion wholly on past, perhaps overblown, examples while ignoring more recent circumstances where the designation successfully addressed a problem.

Further complicating the quagmire is a Silverton contingent committed to mining’s return to the region, despite the problems it has previously caused.

That legacy, and the now-tightened regulatory framework that aims to prevent such circumstances going forward, will make mining’s full-scale return challenging at the very least. And in order for it to happen responsibly, righting past wrongs is a prerequisite.

This is not simple, though, given the cost and the reluctance of past mining operators to accept responsibility for the ongoing damage. Everyone acknowledges there is a problem, but no party wants to pay for it fully or acknowledge its culpability. In the meantime, the problem worsens.

Longing for the return of the glory days is an all-too-common pastime for individuals and communities alike. It rarely manifests as we dream it should, though.

Towns where formerly robust industries have dried up all struggle with the same harsh reality: adapting the strengths that made them successful yesterday to fit tomorrow’s circumstances. That requires an honest accounting – and remedying – of any injuries or weaknesses, and no small amount of courage and creativity to shape a healthy and vigorous future.

As a town that has celebrated bold booms and endured devastating busts, Silverton has the mettle to succeed – but it must dispense with the fantasies and distractions and get to work.

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