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Local officials travel to D.C. to plead for Superfund money

Trip prompted by concerns about EPA budget cuts
Left to right: Ty Churchwell of Trout Unlimited, La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake, Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie and San Juan County Commissioner Scott Fetchenhier visited Washington, D.C., last week to plea for continued funding for the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site near Silverton.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Officials from La Plata and San Juan counties and Durango were assured last week during meetings in the nation’s Capitol that funding for the Superfund site near Silverton would continue.

The group met with elected delegates and Environmental Protection Agency officials because President Donald Trump cut the budget for Superfund, a nationwide environmental cleanup program, by 25 percent.

Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said the meeting was successful and that everyone was on board for the continued financial support of the project to clean the Animas River watershed.

“We wanted to make sure the EPA continued to provide a revenue stream for this particular Superfund,” Brookie said. “It was great to talk to each one of those folks and get a resounding yes.”

The Bonita Peak Mining District near Silverton was designated a Superfund site in September 2016. The designation came in the wake of the August 2015 Gold King Mine spill that released 3 million gallons of toxic mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers. The Superfund site encompasses 48-mining related sites, including the Gold King Mine.

The Gold King Mine discharges 500 to 700 gallons of water a minute. The spill poured out almost the weekly amount of metals and minerals in one day, said Trout Unlimited’s Ty Churchwell.

EPA Director Scott Pruitt has promised funding for Superfund is a priority for the agency. Brookie said the administration has made big promises before, so the officials wanted to travel to D.C. to ensure the Superfund cleanup continued.

“There is some anxiety about losing the EPA of yesteryear,” Brookie said. “Our job with our senators and our congressman is to re-ensure the budget process for the EPA and that it continues to be funded.”

The EPA has done sampling in the area and is prioritizing where to focus for quick and long-term cleanup projects.

Churchwell said there was urgency to the budgetary planning. Not only does Bonita Peak’s funding need to be renewed past this year, but the Animas River is a vital part of the local economy, which is propelled by recreation and tourism.

“The Animas is an incredibly valuable river. It’s really what drives the economy,” Churchwell said.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said they would fight for the program’s funding.

“As the local officials made clear during their trip to Washington, D.C., our work in the region has just begun,” Bennet said in an email. “We will continue to work with the Colorado Congressional delegation to ensure the EPA provides the resources the community needs to clean up the watershed.”

La Plata County Commissioner Brad Blake also said the economic benefit of a healthy river is immeasurable.

“People love the river, and we really wanted to have a healthy river for everyone to enjoy,” Blake said.

Blake said an earlier visit to a Superfund site in Leadville helped officials see the benefits of the cleanup program.

“The one takeaway was when Leadville said, ‘we didn’t have a river that would even support fish, and now we have a great river again,’” Blake said, referring to the Arkansas River.

Water treatment is a constant cost to the government. As a result of snow and rainfall, water flows through abandoned mines and continually needs treatment as it flows into streams and rivers.

After 10 years, the EPA turns Superfund projects over to the state. Colorado has multiple restoration sites, and Scott Fetchenhier, a San Juan County, Colorado, commissioner, said the financial burden could be a problem in the future.

“There are many Superfund sites the state has to pay for. It has been hard for the state to keep that up. It’s millions and millions of dollars,” Fetchenhier said.

The EPA lists 20 ongoing cleanup sites in Colorado. While the Bonita Peak project is expected to take 15 to 20 years, the officials stressed how important a clean ecosystem is in Southwest Colorado.

The group plans to send a letter to delegates to push for federal funding in the congressional budget plan and to prioritize the project. There are about 1,300 other Superfund projects in the nation.

Josephine Peterson is a reporting intern for The Durango Herald in Washington, D.C., and a recent graduate of American University. Reach her at jpeterson@durangoherald.com and follow her on Twitter @jopeterson93

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