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EPA’s lead in Superfund around Silverton announces retirement

Rebecca Thomas wraps up more than three decades cleaning up sites around country
Rebecca Thomas, the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead in the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site, has announced she will retire March 21.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s lead manager for the Superfund cleanup of mining sites around Silverton has announced she will retire March 21, wrapping up more than 30 years working for the agency.

“She’s a good representative of EPA,” said San Juan County Commissioner Ernie Kuhlman. “I hate to lose her.”

Rebecca Thomas has been the project lead for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site since the complex network of mines around San Juan County was designated a Superfund in fall 2016. In total, the cleanup project seeks to address 48 mining-related sites contributing to degrading water quality in the headwaters of the Animas River.

The Superfund designation came just a year after the Gold King Mine blowout, in which an EPA-contracted crew triggered a massive release of mine wastewater, reigniting the longstanding issue of metal-loading into the watershed.

Though many residents in Silverton had opposed a Superfund designation for years, after the Gold King Mine spill, a shift occurred in the community that the EPA program was the only feasible route to make improvements in the watershed.

“I’m not thrilled with Superfund sites, but I’ll tell you what, you’re not going to get anything done if you don’t,” Kuhlman said in November 2015.

The appointment of Thomas, who has a history of working with skeptical communities and being transparent, was seen as a step in the right direction.

One of the main sticking points in the community of Silverton agreeing to a Superfund site was having a seat at the table. The EPA has held numerous community meetings, created a Superfund task force to solicit input from residents with local expertise and included the community during key moments of decision-making, all under Thomas’ direction.

“Rebecca has been a big attribute to San Juan County,” Kuhlman said.

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Peterson wrote in an email to The Durango Herald on Wednesday that the EPA will seek a permanent replacement for the team lead position. In the meantime, Thomas’ supervisor, Stan Christensen, will be acting in that role.

“We appreciate all of Rebecca’s hard work and leadership at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site,” Peterson wrote. “The EPA project management team, technical staff and removal program remain unchanged and are committed to ensuring a smooth transition.”

Thomas joined the EPA in 1988 in Kansas City, Kansas. She moved to Region 8 in Denver in 1990.

Not long after, Thomas and colleague Mike Holmes were sent to repair relationships that became hostile between the town of Leadville and the EPA over a Superfund site there.

Thomas also played a pivotal role in the cleanup at Libby, Montana, home to one of the largest and longest-running asbestos cleanup sites in the United States, which health officials believed killed at least 400 residents and sickened thousands of others.

“At times, the (Superfund process) went really well, and at other times, I’ve been very disappointed,” Tony Berget, a former Lincoln County commissioner in Libby said in a previous interview. “But Rebecca, especially, was really willing to listen. She was one of the bright stars of my experience with the EPA.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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