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Gold King owner says EPA forced access agreement renewal

Though his name’s in ink, Todd Hennis said his signature appears not by choice
Todd Hennis stands before the upper levels of the Gold King Mine. Hennis says the Environmental Protection Agency has forced him to sign an agreement giving the federal agency access to several mining claims he owns north of Silverton.

The owner of the Gold King Mine said Monday the Environmental Protection Agency again forced him to sign an access agreement through 2016 for several private mining claims, prolonging a land dispute that began in 2014.

On March 4, Gold King Mine owner Todd Hennis signed a “Consent for Access to Property,” which allows the federal agency to continue work on the private parcels in the mining district north of Silverton.

“I was forced to sign this agreement, under threat of Federal Court action,” Hennis wrote in an email. “The EPA has a limitless legal budget, so there is effectively no way a private citizen … can effectively fight the seizure of one’s private land.”

EPA officials did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Hennis’ strife with the EPA began in 2014 when the federal agency decided acid mine discharges out of the Gold King had gotten so bad it would begin a remediation project. Hennis also claimed at that time he was coerced to allow the EPA access to his land.

“(The EPA) decided it was too big a job for that year, so they piled many, many tons of earth and rock on the portal to, quote, prevent a blowout during the winter,” Hennis told The Durango Herald in a previous interview. “In doing so, they created the blowout conditions this year (2015).”

On Aug. 5, 2015, an EPA-contracted crew breached the portal of the Gold King, releasing 3 million gallons of water laden with heavy metals. The incident triggered an action Hennis has long opposed: a request for Superfund designation.

“San Juan County and Silverton also were bulldozed by the lack of effective legal checks on the EPA’s actions,” Hennis wrote of the decision to pursue the EPA’s hazardous cleanup program.

The proposed Superfund site – the Bonita Peak Mining District – includes 48 mining-related sites around the town of Silverton.

As part of the agreement, the EPA has full access to Hennis’ land, which includes the right to construct pipelines, settling ponds and a water-treatment facility, as well as “any other actions the EPA determines are necessary.”

Hennis has “reasonable access” as long as it does not interfere with EPA activities. The EPA also promised to “leave certain improvements and remedy features,” though it did not provide specifics.

The contract says the EPA will remove any unwanted structures and restore the surface of the property “to a condition that is reasonably similar” to what existed before the project began.

The fact that EPA takes an average of six years on research before remedial actions begin is worrisome for the 56-year-old Hennis.

The EPA has said smaller, less complex sites may be eligible for early action. However, the mines draining into Cement Creek – a tributary of the Animas River – account for a significant portion of metal loading.

“That area in upper Cement Creek is the biggest issue,” said Peter Butler, a coordinator of the Animas River Stakeholders Group. “It is the most difficult (in terms of treatment).”

Butler said with current technology, the options include building a larger water-treatment facility or putting in more bulkheads. He said Hennis’ preferred solution, draining the Sunnyside mine pool that Hennis says has drained into Gold King, is not financially feasible.

EPA officials said planned research in the spring and summer will provide insight as to which treatment the agency will pursue. In the meantime, Hennis said he has not filed a lawsuit against the EPA, again citing a wariness over the agency’s “limitless budget.”

“The best I could do in this situation was to limit the time and hopefully have an improvement left on the property at the end,” Hennis wrote.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Consent for access (PDF)

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