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Is EPA protecting mining history around Superfund site?

Agency says it is complying with historic preservation standards
Bev Rich, director of the San Juan Historical Society, said mining sites in the San Juan Mountains like the former site of the Sunnyside Mill north of Silverton are a part of the region’s history that tourists find fascinating.

Colorado’s top office for ensuring historic preservation is concerned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s impacts to mine sites around Silverton as the agency embarks on a massive Superfund cleanup to improve water quality in the Animas River.

Steve Turner, executive director for History Colorado, wrote a letter to the EPA on May 23 that said the department supports environmental cleanup efforts, but preservation officers are concerned the EPA is not complying with federal law to protect historical landmarks.

“We are concerned that the agency is attempting to circumvent the role of our office in consulting under the National Historic Preservation Act,” Turner wrote.

In fall 2016, the EPA listed 48 mining-related sites around Silverton as the “Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund” in the hopes of improving water quality in the upper Animas River watershed.

Almost immediately, many people in Silverton, which has a population of about 600, voiced concern that the EPA’s activities could adversely impact relics of the town’s mining past, important to tourism, as well as the community’s identity.

“We’re going to help them (EPA),” Bev Rich with the San Juan Historical Society said at the time. “But we’re also going to watch them like hawks.”

The situation poses a complex tightrope act: How do you clean up potentially toxic sites that are also important historically and culturally?

According to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, all federal agencies – including the EPA – must identify significant historical sites within a federally funded project area before any work or cleanup can begin.

If the EPA finds a feature of cultural significance, it is responsible for working with invested agencies to reduce adverse impacts to the site.

But Holly Norton, deputy state historic preservation officer, said History Colorado has received about a dozen letters from people in Silverton and San Juan County that expressed concern the EPA is not living up to its obligations.

“A dozen letters is kind of a big deal,” she said. “It’s not often we get that level of community communication to us.”

The EPA in June 2018 proposed a quick-action plan to address about 20 or so mine sites over the next three to five years. The plan was approved and finalized last month, and work is expected to begin this summer.

Norton, however, said the EPA, which is supposed to consult History Colorado to take into account possible impacts to historic sites, has not engaged with the department. Also, she said the EPA has already conducted some minor cleanup projects since the Superfund was declared.

“Some projects went ahead without initiation,” she said. “That means we don’t have information on what has occurred and what’s been lost.”

Cynthia Peterson, a spokeswoman for EPA, wrote in an email the agency has complied with the NHPA for past actions, including the construction of the Kittimac Interim Sludge Management Location, and will continue to do so for future actions.

To date, Peterson said NHPA surveys have been conducted at 12 mining areas, where future work is planned, to avoid or mitigate impacts to historic resources.

“EPA recognizes how vitally important mining history is to the community and is fully committed to complying with all applicable requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA),” Peterson said.

Scott Fetchenhier, San Juan County commissioner, said one major issue he’s seen is that EPA needs to pinpoint where pollution is coming from, rather than bulldozing a whole site and destroying historic structures. People visit the San Juan Mountains from all over, in part, to see mining’s past dotted all over the landscape.

“We want to make sure they do all they can to preserve those sites,” he said. “We are going to be looking over their shoulder the entire time.”

EPA’s Peterson said staff is developing site-wide operating procedures for NHPA compliance and intends to seek input from the State Historic Preservation Office and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and take their comments and concerns into consideration.


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