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EPA won’t release public comments about Superfund cleanup until after decision on plan

Project to clean nearly 30 mines in 5 years has drawn criticism
Public comments on a proposed multimillion-dollar plan to clean up mine sites in the Superfund-designated area in Silverton won’t be released until after final plan approval, Environmental Protection Agency officials say.

The Environmental Protection Agency will not release public comments before it makes a final decision on a proposed plan to clean up 26 mine sites over the next five years in the Superfund area near Silverton.

In June, the EPA released the proposed plan, which identified quick action projects the agency wants to take while it comes up with a long-term plan for improving water quality in the upper Animas River. The proposed plan is expected to cost about $10 million.

“We’ve got years’ worth of investigations to do,” Rebecca Thomas, the EPA’s project manager, said in a previous interview. “These early actions are not intended to be a final remedy. They’re no-brainer activities to help get the water clean and reduce the amount of loading.”

The release of the plan kicked off a 30-day public comment period, which was extended another month in response to requests by the public. The comment period ended Wednesday.

When The Durango Herald asked EPA officials to review public comments, spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson said the public comments and the EPA’s response won’t be made available for review until the EPA makes a final decision.

“All significant comments, and EPA’s responses to those comments, will be compiled in a responsiveness summary. The responsiveness summary will be included in the final decision document – the Interim Record of Decision. The Interim Record of Decision will be published once the agency has had a chance to review and consider all comments received.”

Withholding of public feedback and the agency’s replies until after a final decision is made is in contrast with other comment periods the EPA has held. In 2015, for example, comments were posted in real time for the listing of the Superfund site.

“In some instances, such as federal rule-makings, comments can be made available in real time,” Peterson wrote. “However, significant comments on a site-specific Record of Decision are released in a responsiveness summary with the decision document.”

On June 21, the EPA held a public hearing about the proposed plan in Silverton, where it received a fair amount of criticism.

Notably, those in attendance said the plan does not lay out the actual benefits or quantify reduction of mine pollution the plan would ultimately accomplish.

“You ought to at least have some sense of what kind of benefits you’re going to get,” said Peter Butler with the Animas River Stakeholders Group in a previous interview. “Especially if you could spend that money and get a lot better reductions doing something else.”

Bill Simon, one of the founders of the stakeholders group, agreed.

“The cost should be weighted against the benefits that it provides in real figures,” he said in June. “I don’t see that has even been brought up in the plan. It’s just nebulous. We need more information on that.”

Others commented that it would be better use of the estimated $10 million to address the real culprit of degrading water quality in the Animas River: a network of mines up the Cement Creek drainage.

Christina Progress, an interim project manager for the Superfund site at the time, said the mining pollution occurring up Cement Creek is much more complex, and it will take years to investigate and come up with a long-term solution.

This plan, however, deals with “immediate steps that are relatively straightforward and simple” that span across the entire headwaters of the Animas River, Progress said. Peterson said until the EPA has reviewed and considered all the comments submitted, the agency won’t be able to estimate a date that the Interim Record of Decision will be released.

jromeo@ durangoherald.com

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