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EPA orders access to water treatment plant north of Silverton

Plant has been treating discharges out of Gold King Mine since 2015
A water treatment plant north of Silverton has been treating discharges out of the Gold King Mine since 2015.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued the owner of the Gold King Mine an order for access to the property where the water treatment plant is located, north of Silverton, after a long-term lease agreement could not be worked out.

In 2015, an EPA contract crew accidentally dug too far into a pile of rock and dirt that had collapsed over the entrance of the Gold King Mine, releasing about 3 million gallons of water laced with heavy metals into the Animas River.

Immediately after the spill, the EPA built a $1.5 million temporary water treatment plant to take in discharges from the Gold King Mine to remove metals, which costs about $2.4 million to $3.3 million a year to operate.

The water treatment plant, however, is located on a site known as Gladstone, about 8 miles north of Silverton up County Road 110, owned by the same person who owns the Gold King Mine, Todd Hennis.

Hennis, an entrepreneur based in Golden, has long had an interest in the mines that dot the San Juan Mountains around Silverton, and over the years, has been buying up old mine sites with the hopes of revamping the industry.

Hennis has also for years objected to the EPA’s cleanup work in the region.

In 2014, for instance, the EPA decided pollution had become so bad in the Animas River watershed, it began its own remediation projects, which ultimately led to the Gold King Mine spill.

A Superfund site was declared in fall 2016, consisting of 48 mining-related sites around the Animas River basin.

After the spill, Hennis agreed to let the EPA use the Gladstone property for a temporary water treatment plant, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.

“When the Gold King event happened, I gave the keys to (the EPA) for Gladstone, and said, ‘Go ahead, use anything, just return it after you’re done,’” Hennis said in October 2015. “That rapidly changed into having the hell torn out of my land.”

The water treatment plant continues to operate to this day, and is seen by some invested in the cleanup of mines around Silverton as a possible long-term solution to improving water quality in the Animas River.

Since 2015, the EPA has operated on the Gladstone property through a “general access order,” though the agency has not paid Hennis for use of the land, said EPA spokeswoman Katherine Jenkins.

The EPA has, however, worked for years to come to a long-term lease agreement with Hennis that would include payments for use of the land based on fair market value, but those efforts have not been successful.

“Mr. Hennis has declined EPA’s multiple requests for long-term access and has rejected a long-term lease agreement for EPA’s use of the Gladstone property,” Jenkins said.

Because, in part, of the resources and staff time required to send Hennis monthly general access orders, the EPA on Jan. 6 sent him an “administrative order” that requires him to give the EPA full access to the Gladstone property.

An administrative order, according to the EPA website, is an enforcement tool under the Superfund program.

“We want to have consistent access to the water treatment plant so we can maintain and provide water treatment, that’s the reasoning,” Jenkins said.

When contacted, Hennis said, “I cannot comment on this development, other than to say the EPA currently has access to the site.”

Indeed, Jenkins said that while Hennis has refused to come to a long-term lease agreement, he has not blocked access to the site.

The long-term future of the water treatment plant is an issue high atop the list of priorities in the Superfund around Silverton, known as the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

Some local officials and members of the public have called to expand the operating capacity of the plant to take in discharges from other mines around Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River.

But questions have loomed about this prospect, namely who would be financially on the hook to operate the plant in perpetuity.

But for Hennis, all this is a moot point. He’s still adamant that there are plenty of metals, like gold and tellurium, to be mined in the mountains around Silverton.

“Some of you have government pensions to rely on when you retire,” Hennis said at a public meeting in October 2015. “My retirement is Gladstone. Sitting here, listening to people say Gladstone would make a perfect site for a remediation laboratory, having my land cavalierly dealt with, is not a happy feeling.

“I know you wouldn’t want your backyard or your retirement stolen from you,” he continued. “This is not going to happen. I’ve tried to be very reasonable.”

The EPA’s Jenkins said the administrative order would terminate if a lease agreement is signed or if access to the property is no longer needed by the EPA to conduct response activities at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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