Preliminary investigations this summer show that pollution in the Silverton area merit a Superfund listing, the Environmental Protection Agency’s project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District said Thursday.
Rebecca Thomas told more than 100 participants at the 2016 San Juan Mining Conference that she expects the Superfund designation to be finalized by this fall.
The sixth annual mining conference, which brings together people involved in mining in the Animas, Rio Grande, San Miguel and Uncompahgre watersheds, was held at the DoubleTree Hotel in Durango
The events of the Aug. 5, 2015, Gold King spill, in which an Environmental Protection Agency-contracted crew caused a release of 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River, dominated the discussions.
“Just 363 days ago we were bracing ourselves for a river disaster with a lot of concern,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt in her opening statements. “The color orange now has a whole new meaning for me. Yes, it was a lesson about our mining legacy, but it was also a lesson about our river’s health.”
Durango Mayor Christina Rinderle, too, acknowledged that the anniversary of the spill was a fitting backdrop to the conference, and a chance to provide insight on how communities affected by the event responded.
“We didn’t freak out as someone said in a newspaper,” said Rinderle, referring to comments by Hays Griswold, the EPA on-scene coordinator whose orders caused the mine blowout, about Durango residents’ reaction to it. “But we did have a high level of concern.”
Speaking around noon, the EPA’s Thomas made the case for Superfund.
Thomas, based in Denver, said she worked in the highly-mineralized mountains around San Juan County about a week each month this summer, with crews sampling on a regular basis.
“Even though the (Superfund) site is just proposed, that hasn’t stopped us from beginning our work,” she said.
Thomas said that although there was resistance to federal intervention for years, she believes the only viable step toward improved water quality in the Animas River is through a Superfund designation.
She argued the federal listing would allow potentially responsible parties, such as mining companies, to be held financially liable for cleanup, and given the scope of the project, only the EPA could provide the funds necessary.
Thomas tried to quell frustrations that it can take more than 20 years for a Superfund to finish.
“This process … is one of the main criticisms of Superfund,” she said. “But we don’t want to wait 20 years to see improved water quality in the Animas, and we’ll take every opportunity we can to fast-track some of this stuff.”
The conference also showed how the spill affected communities around the region, all with a legacy of mining.
Randy Barnes with the San Miguel Watershed Coalition said the EPA recently steered away from remediating a draining mine near Ophir.
“They are not super enthusiastic about going and poking fingers into mines right now,” he said.
Barnes added that the project led by Griswold, which would clean up a mill tailings pile beneath the mine entrance, was canceled for undisclosed reasons.