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EPA looks to develop road map for mine cleanup around Silverton

What’s the best way to approach improving water quality in the Animas River?
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to hear from the public on the best way to tackle mines leaching heavy metals around Silverton.

How should the Environmental Protection Agency start the massive cleanup of mines leaching heavy metals into the headwaters of the Animas River around Silverton?

That’s what the agency wants to hear from people in the public who have an opinion.

The Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site was declared in fall 2016, about a year after the Gold King Mine spill, which released 3 million gallons of tainted mine waters into the Animas River. Since, the agency has identified 48 mining-related sites pegged as the top polluters in the basin.

For the past few years, the EPA has carried out small-scale cleanup projects while the agency collects data and evaluates more long-term solutions to heavy metal loading into the upper reaches of the Animas River, which in part has contributed to the degraded water quality in the basin.

Now, the EPA is at the stage where it’s evaluating “site strategy options” that would lay out the larger plan for making serious headway in cleaning up the mines around Silverton.

“We know everyone has opinions,” said Christina Progess, the EPA’s Superfund site manager. “With community input, we’re hoping to have a good understanding of what the best options are so we can move forward.”

The EPA is taking all suggestions but has drafted a few options for the public to consider:

Tackling the problem “reach by reach,” with a focus on the remediation of the Upper Animas stretch first, followed by cleanup actions at remaining priority reaches. A secondary plan would add two areas around Mineral Creek to the list.A “worst first approach,” which would focus cleanup actions on the highest loading sources throughout the watershed first. Essentially, the EPA would create a list of what sites are leaching the most metals into waterways, then tackle them top to bottom.Pursuing a long-term water-treatment plant on Cement Creek. After the Gold King Mine spill, a temporary plant was built, but part of the EPA’s proposed long-term solution would be to treat and discharge the mine pool groundwater up Cement Creek and secure a permanent plant. The EPA would put other cleanup projects in the basin on hold until the results of the treatment plant could be evaluated.Pursuing an EPA proposal to place bulkheads, essentially plugs, on the vast Sunnyside Mine pool and associated discharges up Cement Creek. In this scenario, too, other projects would be postponed pending the results of this action.The EPA earlier this year announced its goals for the Superfund site around Silverton: improve water quality, stabilize source areas and minimize the potential of future blowouts.

“We don’t have enough funding and resources to do the entire site all at once, so how do we prioritize,” Progess said. “We need to plan the course of the cleanup over the years to determine where to focus our resources. It’s a high-level road map of where we’re trying to go with the cleanup.”

The EPA held a public meeting in Silverton earlier this month to review the proposals. Willy Tookey, San Juan County administrator, said very few members of the public attended the meeting.

A planning group comprised of San Juan County residents, as well as the Community Advisory Group did discuss the suggested options with the agency at length, Tookey said. He said the two groups planned to meet among themselves and come up with a recommendation to the EPA in December.

Anyone who wants to comment can email EPA spokeswoman Katherine Jenkins at jenkins.katherine@epa.gov.


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