After more than 20 years leading the cleanup of mine waste in the Animas River basin, the future is a bit of a mystery for the Animas River Stakeholders Group now that a Superfund listing is officially in the works.
“I think it’s really just up in the air,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator with the group. “We don’t know at this point. It’ll make it more challenging to do any more remediation projects for sure.”
On Monday, Silverton town trustees and San Juan County commissioners voted unanimously to direct Gov. John Hickenlooper to request a Superfund designation – a move the community has resisted for more than two decades.
The reason Durango’s neighbor to the north historically opposed federal intervention was a twofold concern: The designation could rid any chance of mining’s return and bring with it a perceived stigma that could negatively impact the town’s fragile tourism-dependent economy.
In Superfund’s stead, a coalition of local, state and federal agencies, as well as mining companies and interested individuals, banded together in 1994 as the Animas River Stakeholders Group to improve the river’s degrading water quality.
The group embarked on an extensive project characterizing the entire Animas basin and the inactive or abandoned mine sites contributing heavy-metal laden water, also known as acid mine drainage. A total of 34 mine waste piles and 33 discharging portals were identified as accounting for 90 percent of the metal loading in the basin, and the stakeholders group drafted a 20-year plan of action.
Strangely, Butler said, stakeholders were just about done with their list when the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the Gold King Mine blowout in August.
“We were at the end of what we could address,” Butler said. “Not what we wanted to address.”
What has limited the stakeholder group is the lack of adequate protection against potential liability when undertaking a remediation project. Though some advocates push a good Samaritan Law year after year in Congress, the legislation ultimately fails.
As a result, despite the group’s successes in the basin, water quality in recent years has diminished in the Animas River, mainly from the mines discharging into one of the river’s tributaries, Cement Creek. In 2014, the EPA stepped in to the area 10 miles north of Silverton known as Gladstone to do remediation work. In August, EPA contract workers triggered the Gold King Mine spill.
Initial plans for a Superfund site released last week show inclusion of nearly 50 mine waste sites in the basin, which would severely limit, if not completely eliminate, where the stakeholders group could perform cleanups.
“We were puzzled as to how it’s constructed,” said Steve Fearn, a coordinator with the group.
Bill Gardner, Silverton’s town administrator, said EPA officials proposed even more sites in the basin, but through negotiations local representatives were able to talk the federal agency down about 15 sites.
“I think we were mildly surprised (on the size of the Superfund site),” Gardner said. “On the other hand, the last thing we want to do is have a Superfund listing and not address the problem completely. That would be foolish.”
EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have vowed community involvement throughout the Superfund process, but some local officials remain skeptical.
Doug Jamison, of the health department, said it’s likely some sites will drop out during the Superfund review process, and that could open some opportunities for the stakeholders group to do additional work.
“Nothing changes with their operating parameters,” said Jamison, adding ARSG could also function as a community advisory group.
“The fact it serves as a useful forum to share information and expertise, I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t continue.”
Still, with no good Samaritan law, the EPA’s authority over most of the basin and a potential cease in funding due to the arrival of Superfund dollars, the group’s days might be numbered.
“I don’t know what our role will be,” said Bill Simon in January. Simon was a founder of the group, and retired in October after 21 years as the group’s lead coordinator.
“I’m not against Superfund, I just don’t want to lose that sense of stewardship that only a close community collaboration can develop.”
Butler said the group had no plans to undertake remediation projects this summer. He said there are sites not included in the Superfund listing that the group wishes to address, but it will wait until local, state and federal agencies have had more time to review the plan.