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EPA appoints Gold King Mine Superfund manager

First priorities are water sampling, public outreach

Water sampling and community coordination will be the first items of business for Rebecca Thomas, the Environmental Protection Agency’s newly appointed remedial project manager for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

Thomas has done remedial work on Superfund sites in Libby, Montana, which endured asbestos contamination, and the California Gulch and Kennecott Copper Mine projects, which were both affected by mine pollution similar to the Bonita Peak site.

With a team that includes ecological risk assessors and a community involvement coordinator, Thomas said she will be working not only with the communities of Silverton and San Juan County, but also Durango, La Plata County and the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes.

“We’ll be explaining what Superfund is all about and getting consensus on paths forward,” Thomas said. “We want to take full advantage of sampling season to continue our investigation and answer some of the questions we have.”

The Bonita Peak Mining District, which encompasses about 48 properties around Cement Creek, Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas, will be listed on the federal register and likely receive official Superfund designation next month.

The EPA spends an average six years on research before remedial action is taken at Superfund sites. But some smaller, less-complex mining properties may be eligible for early action, Thomas said.

Sampling will start as early as next month, and the EPA will coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Most existing data addresses risks associated with Cement Creek; Thomas said her team will be digging deeper into human health and ecological risk assessment for Mineral Creek and the Upper Animas.

“We’ll also be working with the BLM to conduct cultural resource surveys for historic sites and wetland inventory,” she said.

On Aug. 5, 2015, EPA contractors triggered a spill at the inactive Gold King Mine, about 10 miles north of Silverton, which sent a 3-million gallon deluge of contaminated mine water into the Animas River. The incident, which drew a national spotlight, accelerated a decades-old conversation about Superfund and long-term cleanup plans.

Thomas made rounds in Silverton earlier this week, introducing herself to the community, and plans to be a regular presence – in Silverton at least one week out of the month, she said. There are tentative plans for public meetings in both Silverton and Durango in late April.

“At this point, I’m not sure,” said Animas River Stakeholders Group co-coordinator Peter Butler, when asked how the organization will be working with the EPA throughout the process. The group has invested decades on regional mine cleanup projects and supplied the federal agency with data sets after the spill.

But the role of environmental organizations remains uncertain at this point. Butler said the ARSG is planning to hold its next monthly meeting the same week the EPA will be in town.

The EPA’s presence has raised locals’ concerns about impact to roads, housing and quality of life, but Thomas said the early impacts will be “fairly minimal,” and the EPA will be working with the public.

Upstream officials did not immediately return calls, but San Juan County Administrator Willy Tookey told the Silverton Standard he was pleased Thomas aims to tackle the “low-hanging fruit,” or early action projects.

jpace@durangoherald.com

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