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Superfund: A dirty word to some in Silverton

SILVERTON – Ever since the Environmental Protection Agency proposed making parts of Silverton a federal Superfund site in the early 1990s, many residents have consistently opposed federal intervention in upper Cement Creek. The creek is one of the largest untreated mine drainages in Colorado.

The Superfund program was created to address the country’s most urgent environmental blights.

San Juan County Commissioner Peter McKay said while some of Silverton’s opposition stemmed from the indignity of needing federal help, the majority arose from residents’ fears that being listed as a Superfund site would taint its tourist appeal.

Bev Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society, San Juan County treasurer and lifelong Silverton resident, echoed those concerns.

“We’re a tourist area,” she said. “This is our living now, this beautiful scenery and our very interesting history. You hear the word ‘Superfund’ site and 99 percent think ‘danger.’ So why would you want to go to a Superfund site?”

Rich said Silvertonians were wary of the examples of Superfund sites offered by Leadville and Summitville, where the EPA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on cleanup efforts and interrupted life as usual over several years.

The EPA designated the California Gulch Superfund site, an 18-square-mile area that includes the town of Leadville, in the mid-1980s.

Cleanup of Summitville, a gold mining site east of the Continental Divide near Wolf Creek Pass, began in 1994 and continues today.

Rich said she has visited the nation’s largest Superfund site in Butte, Mont.

“This is just a truism, but every time you lay another layer of government on a project, it seems to get more expensive and bureaucratic,” she said. “Butte, Montana, is a huge Superfund site, and it needs to be – but every person in Butte speaks a language, and it’s called Superfund.”

Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard, also said some local residents believe that being listed as a Superfund site would hurt tourism. But he noted that comparisons to Leadville and Summitville, while somewhat instructive, were imperfect.

He said the EPA repeatedly has provided assurances it would seek a Superfund designation in Silverton on a “very targeted site” – specifically to treat the mines draining into upper Cement Creek. In both Leadville and Summitville, environmental problems were more sweeping, with many large sites requiring a lot of cleanup.

Esper said he personally isn’t convinced a Superfund site designation would cripple tourism, joking that Silverton’s current environmental reality, “Silverton: Home to one of the dirtiest rivers in Colorado,” didn’t have much ring to it, either.

Mike Holmes, Environmental Protection Agency remedial project manager of Region 8, which includes Silverton, said he had worked with several tourism-oriented Colorado cities, including Clear Creek and Creede, that are Superfund sites. He said they continued to thrive while the federal agency worked on mitigating the environmental damage wrought by mining.

Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and a Silverton resident, said while he is worried federal intervention in upper Cement Creek could hurt Silverton’s tourist economy, he is more concerned about the damage it would do to Silverton’s prospects for renewed mining.

Though Sunnyside Gold Corp., the last mining company to shutter its operations in Silverton, said its departure is permanent, Fearn said he was amid talks with other mining interests about setting up shop. He said the Superfund site designation would “scare away investors.”

Similarly, Todd Hennis, Golden-based president of the company that owns Gold King Mine, wrote in an email that any potential Superfund listing would prove “extremely damaging and stigmatizing for the community,” because federal intervention might make it unattractive, if not impractical, to operate a mine in Silverton. He also said that a Superfund listing would cause the value of properties surrounding the mines to plummet.

Bill Simon and Peter Butler, co-coordinators of the stakeholders group, were more circumspect about the potential economic impacts of a Superfund designation.

Simon said he wouldn’t be surprised if mining companies became more interested in Silverton if the parties embroiled in the issue of Cement Creek reached some measure of closure, whether through Superfund or otherwise.

Esper agreed. He said however much metal Silverton’s mines might still hold, he did not think it typical for mining companies to blithely wade into an ongoing argument over a multimillion-dollar bill for environmental damage.

Asked whether Silvertonians’ hope that mining would return to Silverton was reasonable, Butler said he hasn’t heard concretely that any new mining was afoot.

“But then again, mining has come back to Ouray,” he said.

He, too, thought the chances of resuming mining in Silverton were dimmed by the lack of legal resolution on cleaning up Cement Creek.

Fearn said nothing tangible had yet come of his talks with mining interests. But he said mining’s return to Silverton is critical to the town’s survival.

“What Silverton has learned is that the tourist industry cannot support the town,” he said. “We’re starving to death as a community. What we’ve worked on very much is economic development, but based on the other things we’ve seen – a Superfund site would not be helpful.”

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