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EPA removes mine waste it used to improve road near Silverton

Agency faulted for using potentially toxic material, not seeking approval
Environmental Protection Agency officials say mine waste used for a road improvement project north of Silverton has been cleaned up.

Mine waste that was used by an Environmental Protect Agency contracted crew to resurface a road north of Silverton has been cleaned up and removed, according to agency officials.

Andrew Mutter, a spokesman for the EPA, said the mine waste was removed sometime last week. The remote County Road 53 has been returned to its original condition, he said.

Last month, it came to light that the EPA contracted crew – St. Louis based Environmental Restoration, LCC – used potentially toxic material from a waste rock pile outside the Mogul Mine for road improvements. A half-mile to three-quarters of a mile of road was graded with the mine waste.

EPA officials said the agency needed to make improvements to the road so it could transport heavy equipment up to the Mogul Mine to install a water-pressure gauge behind the mine’s bulkhead and install a gate at its entrance.

According to Mutter, EPA’s on-scene coordinator Paul Peronard directed Environmental Restoration to use the mine waste to resurface and widen the high-altitude road.

Peronard is still an employee of the EPA, Mutter said.

The decision to use material from the mine waste pile drew fierce criticism, not only because the pile is a significant contributor of degrading water quality in the Animas River watershed, but also because San Juan County was not notified of the project.

“They used waste rock that was not treated or processed or modified, and that’s a concern for us,” San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay said last month. “We have some wetlands and fens down there.”

San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier, a geologist and former miner, said he inspected the area twice and found a significant amount of pyrite in the rock, which is the main ingredient to acid mine drainage.

“We were definitely unhappy with what we saw,” Fetchenhier said. “Just wasn’t a good move.”

Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager for the Superfund site near Silverton, called the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, said she was unaware at the time of the decision to use the mine waste.

“We asked them to do the work, but we don’t necessarily tell them how to do it,” she said last month.

EPA works in two crews at the Superfund site: a remedial crew and a removal action crew. Thomas mostly manages the remedial side.

“Sometimes the line of communication isn’t as clear as it should be,” Mutter said.

It also just so happened that Albert Kelly, one of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s senior advisers, was touring the Superfund site when the group discovered that mine waste was used to grade the road.

“He promised us last night (Sept. 20) it will be taken care of,” Silverton Town Trustee Pete Maisel said last month. “I believe he was pissed off at his own people.”

According to EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson, the cost of the temporary road repair is estimated to be $18,000. That total includes the cost of labor to place the rock on the road, which took two days, and the cost to remove the waste rock, which took four days.

Peterson said EPA estimated that the cost of permanently repairing the road using material from outside the Superfund site would have been about $80,000, which includes purchasing the road base, personnel costs and obtaining necessary equipment.

“The time to have procured and then received the road base on-site would have been approximately two weeks,” she wrote in an email.

The contracted crew, Environmental Restoration, is the same company that was doing work at the Gold King Mine in August 2015 when it breached the portal of the mine, causing a 3 million gallon spill of mine waste in the Animas and San Juan rivers.

That event eventually led to the declaration of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site last year, which includes the cleanup of 48-mining sites around Silverton that affect water quality in the basin.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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