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EPA’s plan to truck toxic mine waste through Telluride isn’t sitting well with locals

Federal agency says there will be short-term pain for long-term gain
A sign warns the public to stay out of a mine tailings area along the banks of the San Miguel River near the junction of Cornet Creek west of Telluride. (William Woody/Special to the Colorado Sun)

The last remnant of Telluride’s messy mining legacy is causing headaches.

Last fall, the U.S. Forest Service called the Environmental Protection Agency to consult about moving 34 acres of mine tailings on public land on the town’s beloved Valley Floor.

Soil tested near a popular hiking trail along the San Miguel River detected lead at 2,000 to 100,000 parts per million. The feds were willing to accept 400 parts per million.

“So 10% of the dirt was lead. We became immediately aware that this was a dangerous situation,” said Megan Eno, the district ranger for the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest.

Once the EPA saw that high level of lead, in addition to arsenic, the agency called up its emergency response division to dig up the tailings and truck them to a repository for mine waste at the Idarado mill on the east end of the valley.

The crosstown traffic plan is not sitting well with locals.

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to haul about 30,000 cubic yards of toxic tailings through downtown Telluride to deposit in a massive repository. (Courtesy of EPA)

The EPA this week will begin digging up about 30,000 cubic yards of toxic tailings and driving them through Telluride’s main street to the grass-covered repository. EPA contractors will be driving six to eight trucks an hour from one side of Telluride to the other for the next three or four months.

“They are taking it from downstream and moving it upstream. They are driving trucks with toxic tailings next to all our restaurants and pocket parks on main street. Through a neighborhood of homes. I feel like they haven’t gone through the level of study they need on this – that we need on this,” said Telluride town councilman Tom Watkinson, who attended three meetings in late July where the EPA outlined its plan. “They just are not instilling confidence that they have this dialed. I realize this stuff needs to be gone, but have they done all the due diligence to move this safely and store it safely?”

The EPA delayed the start of the project so officials could meet with Telluride leaders and locals. The agency did not have to do that, according to its emergency response guidelines. For mountain residents accustomed to long, slow federal processes on public land, the sudden action by the EPA may have been startling, said agency spokesman Chris Wardell.

Wardell said the tailings on the San Miguel River on the west end of Telluride are “an imminent and substantial threat to human health and the environment.”

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act – known as CERCLA or Superfund – the EPA is required to move quickly once this type of threat is identified.

“This is short-term pain for a very, very long-term gain,” Wardell said.

The EPA this week will begin digging up about 30,000 cubic yards of toxic tailings and driving them through Telluride’s main street to a grass-covered repository. (William Woody/Special to the Colorado Sun)

Wardell said the agency will meet with Telluride residents in August to provide updates about the progress and the agency “is very willing to adjust our work as necessary while making sure it gets done.”

There are many homes in the East End neighborhood of Telluride. Above those homes, Newmont Mining has spent more than 25 years remediating tailings from the Idarado mines that closed in 1978. The work includes planting vegetation that prevents wind and water erosion and directing rainfall and snowpack runoff around the contaminated piles.

Those homes weren’t there when Newmont and Colorado environmental officials settled a lawsuit and agreed on a cleanup plan in the early 1990s. Now, there are 30 children younger than 12 in the East End neighborhood.

“This process seems very rushed,” said Matt Skinner, a longtime local who lives in the East End with his young family, “and we want a pause. We want everyone to step back and explore other alternatives to running trucks with tailings through town and by our houses every 10 minutes, for eight hours a day for the next three to four months.”

The EPA removal process includes covering loads, driving no faster than 7 mph through town and washing the trucks after they have emptied the tailings at the repository and before they drive back through town. EPA officials said they would try to move the trucks during off-peak hours.

Watkinson said he initially supported the plan to remove the tailings. He changed his mind after hearing the EPA explain the process in July.

“The presentation was just terrible. I was on their side but the more they talked, the more concern I had over this whole project,” said Watkinson, who grew up in Telluride and remembers when wind blasting across the tailings piles would coat the town in a yellow dust. “I mean, their track record is not awesome, right? See what happened to the Animas in Durango. My real concern is them doing this safely. I’m not sure they can.”

Locals hardly noticed when the EPA removed about 3,000 cubic yards of toxic tailings from the federal parcel in November. Last fall, the town of Telluride spent $3.3 million capping about 23 acres of mine waste on town land on the valley floor and re-routing the San Miguel River around the tailings. Most of the tailings on the valley floor were deposited by the river during flood events many decades ago, when Telluride was a lonely mining outpost.

District Ranger Eno said locals have been surprised by the speed of the EPA’s removal project.

“This is a much tighter timeline than most public agencies have,” she said.

Telluride native Tom Watkinson points to gravel rifts seen in a massive human-made earthen mine tailings pile left over from operations from the Idarado Mining operation south of Telluride. (William Woody/Special to the Colorado Sun)

The Forest Service looked at other locations for depositing the toxic tailings. Eno said there is little public appetite for creating a new repository on public land, which Newmont would have to safeguard. Newmont wanted these tailings in the repository where they have full-time staff members who monitors and maintain the impoundment of mine waste, Eno said. The tough part is there is only one road through the valley to access that repository and it goes through the middle of downtown Telluride.

“I understand why people are upset,” Eno said. “This piece of Forest Service land, this is the last parcel that has tailings that need to be removed. Once we are done, remediation on the Valley Floor, for all intents and purposes, is complete, which is really exciting for a town that is built on mines.”

Telluride locals wonder why the EPA wants to drive the tailings through town during the busy summer and fall when last year, the agency waited until November to move tailings. Wardell said the cleanup is much bigger and the start date has been pushed back “as far as possible” to make sure the agency is done by winter.

Wardell said the agency’s on-scene coordinators have worked on many similar removals and this plan “represents the safest, most efficient and most effective way to complete removal activities before winter.”

What about the alternatives for dumping the tailings the Forest Service studied, wondered Skinner, the East End resident. Why were other locations ruled out?

“We appreciate the fact they have to remove the tailings,” Skinner said. “The EPA seems very focused on the Valley Floor, but we want them to look at this end of the valley and this end of the removal process and the town and neighborhood that will be impacted.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.