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EPA faces criticism, praise at Silverton meeting

Residents gather to hear latest about Gold King Mine blowout

SILVERTON – On Monday night at a packed meeting of the Silverton Town Trustee Board, more than 40 Silverton residents gathered to talk with the EPA’s Martin Hestmark and toxicologist Deborah McKean.

EPA officials responded to questions in the aftermath of the Gold King Mine blowout on Wednesday that sent millions of gallons of metal pollution down to Durango, into New Mexico and on to Lake Powell.

There was good news. Hestmark told the crowd that the Animas River was returning to “pre-event conditions,” and the EPA was considering how and when to reopen parts of the river. The most urgent safety questions now related to sediment in the river, he said. He said Silverton would be the first community to reopen its river, and the EPA had moved its command center to Durango, stationing 30 employees there as well as a few dozen contractors.

McKean said Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that no one who had contact with the plume was at risk of illness, though, she said, at the time of the event, the water in Cement Creek was so acidic, anyone who had contact with it might have felt stung.

Though at no point in the subdued meeting did Silverton residents bring up the word “superfund,” there was some recrimination toward the EPA.

San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said after an EPA research team triggered the blowout, “this town was not informed whatsoever that there was a wall of water coming our way,” he said, demanding a fuller emergency response plan. “You guys are moving materials around, poking new holes. I want to see how you’re going to ensure that our community is safe,” he said.

Hestmark said one reason for the two-hour delay in notification was that engineers working in Gold King had no cellphone service. He said the EPA had asked Verizon to install a cell tower there, and Verizon had agreed so that communications can be immediate and safe going forward. McKean said another reason was that the Gold King Mine spillage had washed out part of the road.

Deanne Gallegos, director of Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said she was fielding questions from tourists considering canceling trips though Silverton’s drinking water is safe.

Mostly residents, elected officials and EPA representatives affirmed that their relationship would have to be even stronger going forward.

Hestmark said the EPA was still committed to working with Silverton on all projects relating to its historic mining district.

Town Manager Bill Gardner began the meeting saying they were lucky that worse hadn’t happened, and Silverton should be grateful that there was no loss of life when Gold King blew out. Melody Skinner said she was grateful to the EPA for all the work the agency has done in Silverton over the years. Steve Fearn, a co-coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group, praised the EPA as a partner over the years.

For decades, Silverton has been a bastion of anti-Superfund sentiment, spurning the Environmental Protection Agency’s repeated attempts to list its draining mines under the federal cleanup program.

Even in the last five years, as scientists warned the metal pollution gushing out of Gold King and Red & Bonita mines was doing increasing violence to the river’s ecosystem, the town rejected EPA intervention for fear that a Superfund listing would besmirch its reputation and deter mining companies from setting up shop.

After the meeting, Gardner said he didn’t think antipathy to Superfund in Silverton was necessarily softening, though, he said, with the governor visiting the region on Tuesday, the Superfund question may already be out of Silverton’s hands.

But, he said, the town understands that the contaminants draining out of mines near Silverton and into the Animas River could no longer be treated like a family problem.

“I think everyone heard that loud and clear. This is a multicounty, multistate problem affecting two Indian nations. Clearly, the problem is larger than Silverton and San Juan County. This is a great example of a strong community response to it,” he said.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story misspelled Bill Gardner’s name.

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