Silverton Superfund

Above the town of Silverton sits a now-defunct mining complex that has for decades been leaking metal-laden water into the Animas River, by way of its tributaries. This toxic soup has severe environmental ramifications for all that lies downstream of the mines, and locals have long known it. Nevertheless, the politics – let alone the logistics – of cleaning up the mess have been complicated, and the problem remains. There is one sure way of solving that problem, and Silverton and San Juan County should move to support it: a federal Superfund designation.

That label, though, has historically triggered squeamishness from local residents and decision-makers who fear that it would brand the town and its environs a toxic mess where no tourist would set foot, and any potential for mining’s return to the area would be dashed. While those fears are, in theory, somewhat warranted, particularly given the treatment Superfund’s early sites were given – hazmat suits, 55-gallon drums, foreboding fences – things have changed significantly, and the Environmental Protection Agency treats the sites much more delicately and collaboratively. Given that and the fact that Superfund might be the only vehicle through which the significant pollution – past, present and as things stand, future – can be mitigated, it is time to get over the stigma worries and get down to business.

To the great credit of those who care deeply about the Animas River in general, and the mining pollution in particular that has yielded high levels of manganese, aluminum, zinc, copper, cadmium iron and lead in the river’s ecosystem, there has been a long-running attempt at finding a local solution. Embodied in the Animas River Stakeholders Group, this effort has brought a wide-ranging group of concerned citizens together to forge a protocol for addressing the problem. But the problem is bigger than this group can effectively handle. First, identifying who is responsible for the cleanup is no easy task – ownership of the various mines has changed various times, and no one is particularly eager to claim liability. That is no wonder – the cleanup is a large undertaking and paying the $12 million to $17 million annual operation cost will take significant dollars. Superfund can provide those. Finding them locally has not been feasible thus far.

The environmental implications of so many heavy metals making their way into local waterways and their resident flora and fauna are not small, nor are they contained. La Plata County commissioners are right to be paying close attention to the problem – and advocating for meaningful solutions. Whatever tourism or mining might hang in the balance will do so until a solution is reached. The thought of opening a new mining operation amid so much mining pollution-related controversy cannot be attractive. This problem needs to be solved and Superfund designation provides a realistic means of doing so.

It will still be a long and involved process wherein concerned residents and stakeholders can and should participate. That is the best way to yield a workable result.

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